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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

Bench Talk


Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

Building a Business Case for the IoT Steven Keeping


The IoT will ensure elevators are serviced only when impending failure is detected.

Those of us of a certain age survived in the period before the Internet, yet, such has been the transformative power of the technology, even we have difficulty working out how. But today’s Internet is just the beginning; extending it to billions of tiny, inexpensive sensors that continuously generate useful data will exponentially multiply the network’s power and its influence over daily life.


Network equipment maker Cisco Systems offers a description suggesting the evolving Internet of Things (IoT) is the convergence of Internet Protocol (IP) networks––devices in the home and office like PCs, set-top boxes and smart meters––with mobile networks––billions of data packets from devices like smartphones and M2M modems––to form a network of a trillion “end points”, using a common infrastructure. Interesting. But how will that make us more productive, healthier and happier?  


The idea is that if everyday objects gain network connectivity they will be able to send and receive data and thereby become “smart”. For example, your smartphone will vibrate and notify you of rain when your wirelessly-connected raincoat detects you moving towards the door (by cleverly tracking the whereabouts of that very mobile) because it knows inclement weather is on the way and you’ll be needing something waterproof when you go out.


But before the smart raincoat makes it onto the shelves there are some significant technical challenges to overcome and some significant infrastructure to be built. All of which costs significant money. The seeds of the Internet were originally financed as a U.S. Department of Defense project, then as an academic and scientific tool, only later being made freely available as a platform for commercial companies to make money. The IoT won’t develop in the same way; instead it’ll require heavy lifting from the business community to get off the ground. 


The good news is that there are many compelling business cases for this investment, and not just for companies that will rely on the platform for their very existence. (In the way that today’s Internet is fundamental to the success of firms such as Amazon, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb.) Counter intuitively, it might be the traditional commercial concerns that have the most to gain from the IoT and therefore will have the biggest incentive to lay out resources for the infrastructure.


For example, consider a business as staid as an elevator company. Such companies have naturally leveraged the Internet to enable their businesses to operate smarter, launched websites and possibly even embraced social media. But the impact of the Internet on their core business has arguably not been disruptive. Today, elevator companies make their money by designing and building the machines, commissioning and providing maintenance contracts. In contrast, the IoT will allow these companies to completely revise their business models and boost the bottom line by becoming “vertical transportation” service providers.


Elevators are complex devices with lots of moving parts. Big electric motors, gearboxes, pulleys, counterweights, electrical systems and moving doors (which according to Japanese maker Fuji Elevators cause 90 per cent of ‘out of service’ incidents) can all go wrong, especially if the elevator is in constant heavy use.


Elevator manufacturers err on the side of caution, implementing maintenance contracts that operate to a rigorous schedule designed to ensure wearing parts are replaced well before anything goes wrong. It’s a sensible policy, because it ensures customers get the high reliability they demand and prevents penalty clauses being triggered for elevator unavailability, or worse, a change to an alternative elevator vendor come the end of the contract because of annoyance at ongoing disruption.


But this strategy is expensive for the elevator company to implement––requiring many costly maintenance people and the replacement of expensive parts that typically have many months of useful service life left––and only part of that expense can reasonably be passed on in the maintenance contract. Second, preventative maintenance is flawed; it’s based on historical wear and tear data that fails to take into account variable factors such as unusually high elevator usage which accelerates failure.


Tomorrow, the elevator company can move to its vertical transportation service model; moving people between the floors of a building, looking after everything to do with that service without the customer ever getting involved, in return for a monthly fee. To adopt its new business model, the elevator company must ensure its service is at the “six-sigma” level -  guaranteeing elevators are running 99.99966 per cent of the time. That’s a big ask, but by leveraging the IoT, it’ll be possible.


For example, those troublesome doors could become ‘things’ wirelessly connected to the network, adorned with sensors monitoring parameters like usage, vibration, motor temperature and speed of opening and closure. With thousands of elevator doors sending their data to a Cloud server which would then correlate that information against actual failures, it wouldn’t take too long to build an algorithm that rapidly and precisely predicts impending failures - allowing them to be addressed before they cause an extended out-of-service incident.


Armed with such technology, the vertical transportation service provider will not only be able to ensure six sigma reliability but also will be able to replace expensive preventative maintenance schedules with programs that overhaul the elevator only when strictly necessary. The result will be impressive service levels and more rapid response when something does go wrong for the customer and­­––once the initial investment has been recouped––an enhanced bottom line for the elevator company.


A smart raincoat, fridge or thermostat will be nice, but the real business case for the IoT is in how it will transform the fabric of our daily lives by facilitating six sigma reliability-elevators, -public transport, -health care, -traffic control systems, -electricity distribution, -telecoms, -pizza delivery, and more. 

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Steven Keeping gained a BEng (Hons.) degree at Brighton University, U.K., before working in the electronics divisions of Eurotherm and BOC for seven years. He then joined Electronic Production magazine and subsequently spent 13 years in senior editorial and publishing roles on electronics manufacturing, test, and design titles including What’s New in Electronics and Australian Electronics Engineering for Trinity Mirror, CMP and RBI in the U.K. and Australia. In 2006, Steven became a freelance journalist specializing in electronics. He is based in Sydney.

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