Eastern Iowa companies are jumping on the Internet of Things, but will it pay off?
By Dave DeWitte
IOWA CITY—Peter Murray has heard the buzz about the Internet of Things, and the vice president of marketing and sales for Iowa Wall Sawing is ready to hop on.
The Independence-based company plans to equip its concrete-sawing crews with laptop computers equipped with IBM’s MaaS enterprise mobility platform and U.S. Cellular wireless broadband service. It will improve management and tracking of employee time, let clients know when they’ll be arriving and allow the company to invoice accounts from the field right after the work is performed.
“It’s part of the future,” Mr. Murray said. “You have to embrace it or you’ll be left behind.”
The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the biggest tech trends in years. It describes the use of wireless connectivity and cloud services with devices such as sensors and cameras to add intelligence and remote management to all kinds of technological and ordinary objects in the home and business. Projections for the IoT market vary widely, but are stunning by almost any standard.
The business consulting firm Bain & Company projects a market of at least $470 billion by the year 2020. IHS Technology predicts the market will grow from 14.5 billion connected devices in 2015 to 30.7 billion devices in 2025, and GE predicts IoT investments will top $60 trillion globally over the next 15 years.
Among the companies attracted to the opportunity is wireless provider U.S. Cellular, which invited employees and business partners to learn more about IoT solutions on Sept. 21 in Iowa City.
“This reminds me of the of the beginning of my career [in the wireless industry],” said 25-year sales veteran Don Cochran, U.S. Cellular’s director of sales for the business channel in Iowa and Nebraska. “You can’t just sit back and let this take off. It’s a phenomenal growth opportunity for all of us.”
Because technology is changing so quickly, U.S. Cellular has opted to partner with technology suppliers rather than roll out its own products and apps. It can offer wireless connections from its partners to clients and even collect payment from them on a unified billing statement if they prefer.
To drive business, the company has to persuade customers there is a compelling business argument to use IoT products and services.
“Clearly, people are the secret sauce to making these solutions work,” Mr. Cochran told attendees. “What you really try to do is start with little bites. … What we find with most customers is they’re not going to go out and deploy 15 Internet of Things applications at once. They like to try a thing out – test it.”
A typical “little bite” might be the installation of trail camera – a digital camera equipped with motion sensor technology – called a Spartan GoCam, which can be used to monitor a parking lot after regular business hours.
The images are usually recorded on a removable memory chip, but newer versions like the Spartan have wireless connectivity that automatically uploads images to the cloud, where massive numbers of images can be stored and viewed from virtually any device.
Small businesses are expected to adopt IoT technologies more slowly than large ones, according to Gene Marks of Marks Group PC, a technology and consulting firm based in Philadelphia who spoke at the event.
“Large companies will always be earlier adopters because they have the resources to make investments, try things out, and fail, and fail again until they get it right,” Mr. Marks told the CBJ. “Smaller companies will be slower to come along, until it impacts their profit and loss.”
The federal electronic logging device mandate, which requires most trucking companies to electronically track and report drivers’ hours, is expected to become one of the first big drivers of IoT adoption, Mr. Cochran said. But new solutions can do everything from allowing water treatment plant operators to monitor and control operations from a mobile tablet to converting paperwork into digital files.
Mr. Marks shares the opinion that truck fleet operators will become some of the earliest adopters due to federal hours of service logging rules. Those rules “impact everybody, large and small,” he said.
In other industries, Mr. Marks expects regulation and trade associations to drive adoption. Trade associations often become involved in setting goals and standards, and promoting solutions to achieve them.
“It’s a best-practice kind of thing,” he noted.
From home to office
Most Americans familiar with the Internet of Things became interested through the concept of the “smart home.” Equipped houses use wireless connectivity and the internet to enable features such as smart window shades, lightbulbs, thermostats and door locks. All of those features and more can be controlled remotely from a smartphone or computer.
Increasingly, such smart devices can also be controlled via voice commmand using technologies such as Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home devices.
While consumers love the convenience and security IoT can bring, for most businesses, the main attraction is adding value that will provide a rapid return on investment.
Mr. Marks points to Thyssenkrupp, an elevator manufacturer using the IoT technology provide early detection of impending parts failures and pre-emptive maintenance, and Rolls Royce, the jet engine manufacturer using it to diagnose mechanical issues before they cause engine failures.
Corridor IoT service providers at U.S. Cellular’s Sept. 21 event included DigiFarm VBN of Monticello, a company that provides GPS connections to steer tractors and combines autonomously and control operations for precision agriculture. DigiFarm President David Dusanek sees the technology being adopted more widely as farmers look for ways to increase yields and avoid losses from things like mold growing in grain and suffocated livestock.
Outside the world of business, Mr. Marks sees a lot of room for early adoption of IoT technologies in public safety, such as instantly recording officers’ log entries from squad cars and storing video data from officer’s’ body cams.
Getting employees interested in using IoT technology when they’re used to doing things another way will be one of the challenges for adoption.
Speakers at the U.S. Cellular event advised employers to involve employees in creating an implementation plan, to explain the rationale for the new tech they’ll be using and to reward employees for using it.
“People tend to support what they helped create,” said John Hilliard of Team on the Run, a mobile apps supplier.
Mr. Marks said his company has found that 20 percent of employees “pick it up right away,” and tend to be mainly younger employees. Another 20 percent “can’t turn on their TV without help,” and require a lot of hand-holding until they feel comfortable, he said. He recommended focusing most of the effort on educating and supporting the slow-adopters and enlisting the support of the younger early adopters to assist.
Peter Murray, of Iowa Wall Sawing, is expecting some “hiccups” when the company adopts its new IBM MaaS system for time management and invoicing. He also knows some employees might not embrace the system at first. He has an incentive in mind.
“The extra money we hope to get out of it, we want to share with our employees,” he said, “because they’re out there doing the work.”