By Kevin Martin, Internet of Things (IoT) enthusiast and thought-leader with an extensive background in energy efficiency, advanced controls, IoT, and consulting services.
The promise of the Internet of Things (IoT)
When it comes to the promise of the Internet of Things, there is a laundry list of benefits, features, and life-altering impacts that marketing pros have stocked the media circuit with. So rather than run through each of them, I’m going to take a step back and bulk these endless benefits of IoT into three general buckets. These are Digitization, Easy & Cheap, and the Manifestation of Big Data.
When most pundits and supporters of the Internet of Things speak to the many benefits of this technology revolution, the first benefit they tout is digitization. The convergence of the digital and physical worlds. Cool. That sounds neat, but what does it really mean?
At first glance, many of you may be thinking about cyborg computer-chipped humans running around the planet. While that may be the dream of many sci-fi fans, the real benefit/promise of the IoT is that it fosters the digitalization of physical spaces through cheap sensor technology. As a result, end-users can now gather digital data points from physical spaces that were not possible historically or were simply cost-prohibitive.
That brings me to the second promise of IoT: Easy & Cheap.
Easy & Cheap
I’m sure you’ve already heard this about a million and one times over the last few years, but I’ll repeat it. The manufactured cost of digital sensors has dropped precipitously over the last five years, going from .66 cents in 2010 to .29 cents in 2020, according to Statista. With a 56% reduction in sensor prices, adding a data-gathering sensor to something (anything, really) is, in fact, relatively cheap.
The next part of this IoT promise is that sensors are easy to deploy. Simply plug the sensor in, and it starts recording data from wherever/whatever it is connected to. The combination of cheap and easy allows the proliferation of sensors into everyday life feasible.
That brings me to the last pointed promise of the IoT: The Manifestation of Big Data.
The Manifestation of Big Data
Yes. Here’s another term that has become as ubiquitous as the Cloud. Big Data, from whoever can remember when has been touted as the next big thing in analysis and business intelligence. The problem (at least in the commercial space) has been getting all these “big data” points to constitute a set of Big Data to be used for said business intelligence analysis.
The cost of cheap and easy sensors now makes the manifestation of Big Data possible in commercial applications. I’m sure plenty of readers will argue that Big Data has been around for a long time, and I’m a little late to the party. I agree that Big Data sets have been around for a while; these data sets are just far more present in the consumer market: Hello Google, Facebook, Twitter, and all other data-consumption engines.
To me, the promise of IoT in the manifestation of Big Data resides more in the commercial space. A vehicle from which facilities can gather large data sets (i.e., Big Data) about physical spaces. So, with all of these fantastic promises, why has IoT adoption moved at a snail’s pace in the world of facilities, buildings, and commercial applications?
Adoption Pitfalls: Why Commercial IoT Moves at a Snail’s Pace
There are three main reasons that I believe contribute to the snail’s pace of IoT adoption within the commercial space. These include market noise, use case identification, and deployment ease. Coupled together, these three main pitfalls create a stalling effect in the speed with which commercial IoT applications are adopted. Let’s see why.
You simply cannot tell me that you have not seen a commercial, saw an ad, and read a headline or blog about IoT at some point in your day today. You simply can’t. Turn on CNBC or Bloomberg, and you will see at least 5-10 commercials touting IBM Watson, C3.ai, Siemens Building Technologies, and about two hundred other technology solutions. There is market noise in every corner of our lives, hands down.
It is this market noise that perpetuates a stalling force in how end-users approach IoT. They know they need to “get into” the IoT game (they’ve been told 20 times today already by adverts) but making sense of all they see and hear isn’t easy. No one likes to read a book in a jampacked bar on a Saturday at 1 AM; just not possible.
Too much market noise has a reverse effect on the ability of users to adopt IoT solutions effectively. And if even if they were clear on how to deploy IoT solutions, the question then comes, what IoT solutions?
Use Case Identification
So, let’s say folks have a clear path on how to adopt IoT. The inevitable next question is, what IoT do they deploy? Identifying practical use cases for commercial IoT, while it sounds easy, has proven to be a challenge for many organizations. With so many options thrown at end-user organizations, just as we discussed regarding market noise, identifying particular use cases that demonstrate a clear value proposition is more straightforward said than done.
Why is it so challenging to identify solid use cases for a commercial organization (outside of many options)? I propose the main reason for organizations like commercial office spaces, warehouses, and manufacturing facilities comes down to their fire-fighting mentality. While the thought of connected infrastructures, data analytics, and improved business intelligence sounds excellent, most organizations are busy to the gill fighting everyday fires. This leaves little time for plant, office, and operations teams to research how their organization could realistically benefit from IoT.
Let’s say that an organization does have some time to do some research and identify a few areas their building could benefit from digitization. For argument’s sake, let’s say a plant manager identifies these three areas for IoT improvements:-
- Lighting System: Improve energy efficiency through controls scheduling and occupancy
- Space Utilization: Understanding how tenants/building occupants use spaces: conference rooms, offices, desks, common areas, etc.
- Water Metrics: Gathering data on washdown stations for water temp, pressure, and usage.
In fact, these are real-world use cases of IoT solutions in the supply chain industry, commercial offices, food processing plants, and warehouses. And while these are real-world case studies, they bring me to the third pitfall contributing to the slower adoption of IoT in commercial spaces.
Easy Deployment, Lack Thereof
As we explored in the promises of IoT section, the Internet of Things is supposed to be easy to deploy out of the gate. And while plenty of IoT manufacturers will tell you that straight to your face. So what happens most of the time when an end-user/contractor/or facility manager goes to install an IoT solution and only then realizes there’s a whole slew of additional things needed to make the solutions work.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at one use case that we listed above and uncover just what it takes to make this IoT-based solution work.
IoT Lighting Systems
Advanced LED lighting systems and controls solutions have been around for a while now, really picking up steam from 2015 onward. The value proposition of these advanced networked lighting control (NLC) systems, as outlined by the Lighting Controls Association include granular control of lighting luminaires to gather unique data points and program luminaires to behave in a certain way.
- “…lighting control systems all have to do more or less the same basic things. For example, they have to take information from sources such as occupancy sensors, photosensors, and switches, a process that information, then instructs luminaires how to behave. They typically have to provide a timing method in order to facilitate a scheduling function.
- A perfect case in point is “zoning.” For example, on a large open-office floor, luminaires in primary and secondary daylight zones must be automatically controlled by photosensors. Additionally, it’s common to use occupancy sensors to achieve the “automatic shutoff” requirement in most codes. It’s becoming commonplace to use a dense pattern of occupancy sensors, but you may only want to use the least amount of photosensors since all luminaires facing a particular exposure can use the information from only one photosensor to dim to appropriate levels. In that case, the “zones” for occupancy sensors may overlap the zones for the photosensors or vice versa.”
The above overview discusses a great feature and value proposition that NLCs present, but as you quickly start to see, there are more requirements than meet the eye. It’s not simply a case of replacing an old lighting fixture with a new one that happens to have controls. In addition to the new lighting fixtures, end-users also need:
- Network access (inbound/outbound)
- Gateway controller (to access the system)
- Controls software
- Sensor programming
- Lighting programming
- Zone design
The bottom line, it’s not as straightforward as one would think. And this is what many consider an entry-point solution for IoT; consider a more advanced application of IoT, and you can see how things can get pretty messy pretty quickly. So the benefit is there but getting to the point of realizing this benefit tends to be a bit more work than some end-users anticipate.
So, does this mean commercial organizations should steer away from IoT solutions? No, it doesn’t. Here’s why.
Why Adopting IoT is Still a Good Business Idea
The promise of the Internet of Things will be a reality sooner than we think; look at the consumer market and how IoT solutions have infiltrated our daily lives. It is pretty rare for anyone reading this not to interact with a consumer-based IoT solution at least once every day. So, IoT is here, and it is rapidly expanding into commercial, industrial, and manufacturing organizations with ever-increasing speed. Adopting IoT solutions into your business is, for sure, still a good idea, and no time is better than the present.
How do you overcome some of the adoption challenges we’ve reviewed in this article? Let’s take a look at three examples.
3 Ways to Overcome Deployment Challenges
We reviewed three market factors that have hampered the adoption of IoT into commercial spaces: Market Noise, Use Case Identification, and Lack of Deployment Ease. Let’s take a look at three ways commercial end-users can overcome these challenges.
- 1. Conduct Needs Assessment: First, ask yourself and key stakeholders within your organization what you’re trying to achieve/need to improve building operations.
- a. Are you trying to save on energy costs?
b. Need to understand how spaces are used?
c. Need to comply with new regulations/ordinances?
Answering these (and other) questions will help set the stage and wade your way through the market noise.
- 2. Consult Independent Advisor (non-manufacturer): The standard practice when vetting new solutions focused on reaching out to a bunch of manufacturers of XYZ technology, reading up on their white papers, seeing some demos, and jumping on a few “intro” calls (which really just mean a sales calls from the manufacturer standpoint). If possible, avoid this temptation.
As we outlined earlier, market noise is a massive contributing factor in paralyzing end-users. Reaching out to a bunch of manufacturers simply exacerbates this challenge. Instead, seek out an independent, agnostic technology advisor to explore/fine-tune your needs assessment. As more and more technology solution providers and manufacturers hit the market, a growing number of integration partners are also popping up to help end-users navigate marketing buzz to deploy the right solution for what end-users are looking to achieve.
- 3. Deploy IoT Solutions in Phases: Right now, there is no silver bullet for applying IoT into your property management operations. That’s just a fact. Plenty of manufacturers will tell you their system “take care of everything,” but the truth is more along the lines of solving 1-2 use cases.
Approaching the Internet of Things from a phased approach will save you time, resources, and frustration when finding the holy grail of IoT solutions (which doesn’t exist today). In addition, building a roadmap that leads to the ideal digital transformation you’d like to achieve eventually will help you plan, prioritize, and invest over time.
Benefiting from IoT solutions can be a reality starting as early as tomorrow, if approached the right way, with the right expectations. IoT is here, is only expanding more rapidly with each passing day, and will be part of commercial facilities soon rather than later. So don’t be afraid to jump onto the digital transformation train. Just make sure to purchase the correct ticket.
Author Bio: Kevin Martin is an Internet of Things (IoT) enthusiast and thought-leader with an extensive background in energy efficiency, advanced controls, IoT, and consulting services. Mr. Martin has held several executive-level positions within IT marketing, consulting, and energy efficiency organizations and has been a founder of several start-ups in the IoT space. Mr. Martin’s work continues as the Founder and Managing Member of Marca Ventures, LLC, which has equity positions in several companies working in the technology space.