More and more everyday devices are being connected to the internet ©audioundwerbung/123RF
More and more everyday devices are being connected to the internet ©audioundwerbung/123RF

Tech briefing: Internet of Things

Out of milk? Before you restock, check with the fridge… it may have ordered some already. Welcome to the smart new world of the IoT – where it pays to keep cyber security up to date

Many of us have dreamed of a life where our appliances do our bidding automatically – a morning alarm clock sounds and the coffee pot starts brewing the moment your feet touch the floor. Such technology may once have seemed a bit sci-fi, but today it is either already in existence or on the brink of coming into being. And with global supply chains becoming increasingly complex, the Internet of Things (IoT) could make the tricky business of connecting people, processes, data and products a lot easier.

How it works

At its core, the idea behind the Internet of Things is simple: it is not just computers that can be connected to the internet but everyday devices, which can ‘talk’ to us, to other apps and to each other. This can mean anything from a fridge that orders milk online when it senses supplies are low, to warehouses that can detect areas in need of maintenance and automatically order replacement parts. It brings together two evolving technologies: wireless connectivity and smart sensors.

Combined with more recent advances in low-power microcontrollers, everyday devices are being connected to the internet easily and inexpensively. These connected, embedded systems are small computers that use sensors to collect data. This information is sent to a network or main hub, which collects and analyses the data, storing it and making decisions based on the results of the analysis.

Such a high level of real-time information has only been made possible by the always-online nature of our personal devices and business networks.

Current uses

There are many examples of IoT in use today – and many of them can be found in the supply chain. While high price points are putting consumers off taking smart ‘connected home’ devices mainstream, there are plenty of businesses already reaping the benefits of IoT.

As reported in September’s SM, wearable technology is one of the most visible examples, with devices like DHL Supply Chain’s ‘Vision Picking’ smart glasses, which provide warehouse employees with order instructions.

Transport and logistics company Maersk Line has partnered with Ericsson to install real-time monitoring to transmit vital stats, such as temperature, location and power supply on their 300,000 refrigerated containers carrying perishable goods. The information is sent to the cloud and analysed in a central office.

Swedish car manufacturer Volvo uses cloud-based services and IoT to order components from different countries and ship vehicles to suppliers across the world.

And agriculture app the CleanGrow Project uses a carbon nanotube placed in the ground that monitors vital information such as humidity, air temperature and soil quality using soil sensors, allowing farmers to alter crop maturity rates. Another agri-business, UK-based Agrii uses real-time weather, soil and product data to forecast accurately and help its farmer clients maximise their yields.

Unsurprisingly, as with so much else, online retail giant Amazon is ahead of the game here. It uses wi-fi-connected robots to assess which products are to be prioritised for Amazon Prime orders, while workers focus on packaging and restocking shelves.

Meanwhile, for consumers, Amazon’s branded Dash buttons are wi-fi-connected, linked to Prime membership and can be attached to doors or walls and pressed to re-order products, such as toilet roll or laundry detergent, creating an additional revenue stream for the firm.

More and more businesses are set to integrate IoT technology, with Gartner estimating that more than half of major new business systems will incorporate an element of IoT by 2020. McKinsey Global Institute research estimates the potential economic impact of the IoT by 2025 could be anywhere between $3.9tn-$11.1tn.

From tracking products to inventory management, the supply chain transformation is already well under way.

Where next?

• Business Insider estimates there will be over 24bn IoT connected devices by 2020 – that’s four devices for every person.

• With more connectivity comes increased vulnerability to cyber attacks. Industry bodies and governments have proposed regulations requiring new IoT technologies to have in-built cyber security.

• Most manufacturers are integrating IoT into their factories; 76% say they have an on-going smart factory initiative or are formulating one.

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