Category Archives: mobile

My eighth U.S. patent just issued

I just received notification that my eighth U.S. patent as just issued.  It is 9,704,310 “Multi-mode vehicle computing device supporting in-cab and stand alone operation”.

This patent was the result of the “Internet of Things” work I did at Peoplenet, a company that designs and develops on-board computing equipment for the telematics market.  We were the first company to offer a tablet PC that could be used in the vehicle to  monitor vehicle operating conditions and report that data to the cloud.  The Tablet could also be removed from it’s vehicle mount and used for vehicle inspections, recording freight loading/unloading, and other duties outside the vehicle.

The ROI for the Internet of Things for OEMs

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As more and more Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) investigate the Internet of Things (IoT) for their products, we frequently are asked about how a company can determine the return on their potential IoT investment.

While much of the IoT “industry” struggles with defining concrete returns from IoT investment, we have led several successful IoT projects with OEMs and have determined how to define and conduct programs that not only meet new revenue goals / cost reduction goals, but frequently exceed them.  We have found that ROI can be categorized in three specific areas that can be analyzed for very specific cost / benefit analysis.

First — what is the Internet of Things?

While there are many definitions of the Internet of Things, in this study we will focus on its meaning as it relates to OEMs.  The Internet of Things describes connecting devices to the Internet to allow them to communicate with other devices and/or other IT systems.  Generally, the inclusion of IoT technology in a product involves adding electronics and software to give it the ability to collect data about itself and provide the means to wirelessly communicate this data to the “cloud” (database servers on the Internet).  Ultimately the goal is to use this data to make the product more appealing to the end-user and to provide detailed information to the OEM on how the product is used in the field and how it is performing.

Examples of IoT use in products are as varied as the products themselves.  Imagine printers that not only warn you that you will soon be out of ink, but automatically place orders for new ink cartridges that arrive on your doorstep when needed.  Or your car that not only automatically diagnoses itself, but also alerts the repair shop of the problem before you even bring the car in, allowing the shop to effectively manage the repair.  Or imagine home healthcare monitoring that not only communicates vital daily monitoring information securely to your healthcare provider, but that also alerts a loved one if your daily activity pattern deviates from established norms.

In all of these cases (and many, many others) – there is no need to “imagine” them – they already exist and are rapidly finding their way into our daily lives.

The introduction of IoT capability to a product line can deliver ROI in multiple ways to the OEM:

  • by adding value to the product from a customer’s perspective
  • by providing meaningful information about the product in the field
  • through data aggregation and associated analysis

By considering each of the strategies separately, it’s possible to answer the ROI question with a degree of precision and certainty.

ROI Strategy # 1:  Making the product more appealing for the end-user

We have worked with several OEMs that wanted to adapt their existing products for IoT use.  Why?  Typically they want to give their product lines additional capability to provide a competitive advantage or sometimes they just want to give their products new “modern” capabilities.  Consider the following:

  • Adding a smartphone Interface to a product

Providing a connection between a product and a smartphone increases the user’s “attachment” to the product by giving the user:

  • The ability to configure the product remotely
  • The ability to monitor the product’s operation remotely
  • The ability to receive alerts / notifications when something good or bad occurs during the use of the product
  • Connecting a device to other “smart” devices

More and more, products are becoming “smarter” and are gaining the ability to communicate with each other to provide additional convenience, value, and efficiency when compared to non-connected products.  Home automation is a prime example of this, but this is also true in manufacturing, in business settings, industry, retail, and many other environments.  By including the capability to be part of this “community” with your product, its value is enhanced.

  • New channel / market penetration

In addition, IoT capability allows for the design and development of new products that can create brand new channels and markets for OEMs.  The ability to be in constant contact with the product in the field creates new opportunity to interact with an end-user, delivering new value and creating revenue opportunities that did not previously exist.

Determining the upside in product revenue is usually the first consideration in figuring out a cost/benefit analysis.   The analysis should include the additional revenue that can be generated by products that are easier to use, that have additional capability, and that are better connected than competing devices.

ROI Strategy #2:  Improving product understanding at the OEM level

In addition to the end-user benefits provided by the IoT, the OEM can benefit directly from the inclusion of this technology in their products.

  • QA / QC during the manufacturing process before shipment
  • We have worked with our clients to provide data collection directly from the product itself as the product is in its final testing, configuration, and check out phases at the end of the manufacturing process. Having the ability to capture QA/QC data at this stage provides for more consistent product quality at a lower overall cost.
  • Data acquisition after product deployment

Once the product is purchased and deployed, OEMs can obtain near real time information about the product and the user

  • How often do they use your product? And for how long?  What is the most frequently used feature in your product?   Is the product ever misused?  If so, how?
    • Product quality benchmarks — time between failure, time to failure, and other common QA measurements can easily be derived from the data provided by products that are supplying data to an IoT cloud as they are being used
    • Marketing — establishing a direct point of contact to your customers.  Target specific messaging based on product usage, etc.  It is also possible to target market follow-on sales for consumables (i.e. ink for printers, etc.)
  • Problem diagnosis / resolution
    • Diagnosing customer issues becomes easier as product data is available for review by the OEM that can shed light on the customer’s problem.   The OEM can also remotely monitor the product in real time to determine operational issues
  • Product Upgrades
  • With IoT technology as part of the product, product upgrades can be delivered via software downloads “over the air”, frequently without the need to involve the end-user

This strategy gives the opportunity to both generate new revenue for the OEM as well as provide cost savings opportunities.  In addition, the OEM now has data that will allow for the creation of better products with higher quality.  It also can demonstrably improve customer/technical support, resulting in a higher level of customer satisfaction at a lower cost.

ROI Strategy #3:  The value of aggregated data

The data acquired over thousands of devices over several months (or years) can have intrinsic value of its own.  Without divulging specific data attributed to individual users (thereby eliminating data privacy concerns), the aggregation of this data can show trends in product quality, feature value, and market adoption.

  • What is the most common point of failure in the product?
  • What is the most/least commonly used feature in the product?
  • Where are we seeing the greatest market penetration?

This data can be used to guide new product development, as a basis for improvement in manufacturing processes, to achieve better marketing programs, and ultimately better products and lower costs.

We have also seen OEMs that have been able to sell this aggregated data to third parties that combine the OEM’s data with other databases to derive additional value.  Insurance companies, government agencies, and industry consortiums are examples of these kinds of third parties.

The OEM’s vendors can also be potential consumers of this data as well – as suppliers to the OEM, they are also interested in how the parts that they supply perform in the product as well.

This strategy also creates opportunity for new revenue streams as well as cost reduction opportunities that can be used to determine payback on the OEM’s ROI investment.

Summary

Frequently, the complete picture for increased revenue and/or cost savings that are attributed to IoT investment may be difficult to envision when beginning an IoT project.

While the initial case for inclusion of IoT technology into your product frequently can be justified on a single strategy (end-user value, OEM value, or the value of data aggregation), additional return on the same IoT investment can usually be obtained by considering the larger picture as illustrated above, giving the OEM a much larger return on the same investment.

 

 

 

 

The Internet of Things is not a smartphone app

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Recently, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in product introductions in the Internet of Things (IoT) space.   There seems to be a lot of manufacturers that want you to believe that wirelessly controlling a device by a smartphone app is “the Internet of Things”. Well of course it depends on your definition of the IoT, but simple control of a device via Bluetooth from a smartphone app doesn’t really qualify as an IoT solution to me.

In my opinion, to qualify as an IoT “product”, the product needs to:

  • Be a device that is collecting data and optionally controlling a remote device
  • Have the ability to communicate the data collected to the cloud
  • Have the ability to perform data analytics on the aggregation of the data collected to derive new value

To illustrate the difference between simple local control and a true IoT application, consider the example of a device designed to turn a light bulb on or off from your smartphone. Aside from it being pretty cumbersome to do (start the app on your phone, select the right screen, scroll to find your particular light bulb, then tap to turn it on — I think I’ll just go flip the switch on the wall), simple controllers do not make use of other devices that might work in concert with the light bulb controller — say a motion detector. A more sophisticated light bulb controller that worked in conjunction with a motion detector by passing messages over the local area network could automatically trigger the light bulb controller to turn the light on when someone entered the room. No clunky smartphone interaction is required. By having the ability to have separate devices work together, the process is simplified and much more useful.

Next — consider the integration of a cloud-based server that can communicate with the light bulb controller. By sending the device’s status to a server, I can track when the device is on or off from the cloud. Now imagine that I do this for every light bulb (or any other appliance) in my home.   I now have data available that shows the state of all of my devices in real time and data that shows how each device is utilized over any time interval that I choose. I also gain the ability to control my device from the cloud — I no longer need to be within Bluetooth proximity to control my lights — I can do it from virtually anywhere that I have an Internet connection. This gives me additional capability to create cloud-based software to set up a schedule when I want specific lights to go on or off in my home automatically. Again – no smartphone app required.

Lastly, after accumulating light bulb data over time, I can now look at it as an aggregation and derive important and valuable information from it. For example, I can track my overall energy usage over a day, month, or year. I can tell if a bulb is burned out (i.e. if it is not consuming electrical current) and needs replacement.   I can combine my lighting control data with data from other systems to provide a comprehensive picture of my home or office energy usage / savings.

If I am the light bulb controller’s manufacturer, I can use the data accumulated in the cloud to determine how my customer is using my product (how often, how many times, at what times, etc.). I can also derive quality information about all of my devices in the field — time between failures, most common failure, etc. The data allows me to understand my market and use this knowledge to create better products and more compelling solutions to stay ahead of the competition.

In our small example of the light bulb controller, you can see the value of not only controlling your devices locally, but the additional value of combining the function of the controller with other devices, the value of interacting with your device via the cloud and using data analytics on that data to derive new value. Thinking beyond simple light bulb controllers, imagine applying this same mind set to IoT solutions for factory floors, agricultural applications, transportation, oil/gas rigs, medical, home automation, and any other industry that involves process control.

Now that is the Internet of Things.

Real world wireless communication for the Internet of Things

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When implementing an “Internet of Things” (IoT) solution, an important consideration is the wireless technology(ies) that will be employed to get data from your devices (sensors, gateways, etc.) to the cloud. As with most technologies, there is a confusing array of options — each with its strengths and weaknesses depending on the specific application.

Frequently the discussion around wireless technologies centers around specs, throughput, standards, etc., but what is really needed is a practical guide to implementation for specific applications.   Based on our experience in the field deployments we have made, we would like to share some of our thoughts regarding the current state of wireless technology for IoT.

Before the Tech Talk

Before getting into the bits and bytes of any particular communication standard, consider the following factors and decide on the characteristics of your device and its deployment:

  • Will my device be stationary or mobile?
  • Is there a power source that can be utilized for the device or will my device rely on its own power?
  • What is the range necessary to transmit / receive data to and from the device?
  • How often will my device need to communicate to the cloud?
  • What is the volume of data that will be sent?

These factors will be important as you decide on a communication technology for your system. As we will discuss, each form of wireless communication has specific attributes that may either make it a preferred choice or that may disqualify it from your selection process.

Some common wireless communication technologies to consider

We’ve captured a few of the most popular wireless communication technologies used in IoT deployments below along with some useful information to help during the selection process:

  • BLE — which stands for Bluetooth Low Energy. Also known as Bluetooth 4.0, BLE is useful for short haul communication (usually less than 100m) between devices. It has a moderately high data throughput rate and is deployed frequently in battery operated applications due to its low power requirements. It is really a “point to point” communication scheme between devices without networking capability.

Some other key points regarding BLE:

  • Every modern smartphone has BLE compatible radios and software stacks, making communication between your device and a smartphone relatively easy to implement.
  • Bluetooth technology is evolving quickly and specifications change accordingly, making backwards compatibility a potential issue for your device.
  • BLE can be implemented in an embedded design for < $5 in quantity
  • Not really well suited for direct communication to the cloud as it does not support HTTP for REST interfaces. It typically requires a gateway that can transfer data on the BLE side to a HTTP communication path (typically Ethernet or WiFi).       We have used smartphones as gateways for this purpose.
  • Zigbee —  is a radio technology used to create personal area networks and is very useful in certain IoT deployments.   Zigbee is also a short haul communication scheme, but has the additional benefit of being able to operate in a “mesh” network in which all Zigbee nodes can pass messages between other nodes, effectively increasing the distance that can be covered. This is useful in multi-point deployments where you may have multiple sensors distributed in a concentrated area (i.e. manufacturing floors, home automation, etc.).

Some other considerations for Zigbee:

  • Typically Zigbee is very power friendly, with low stand-by current draw and relatively low power consumption during transmission.       This makes it suitable for battery powered devices.
  • Zigbee has found a following over the past few years, particularly with home automation OEMs.
  • Data throughout is modest (up to 250k bits/sec)
  • Secured via 128-bit encryption keys.
  • WiFi — started as a wireless extension of Ethernet for computer networking. It was widely adapted in the consumer and industrial spaces and has become the standard for networking PCs, tablets, notebooks, and associated peripherals. It has extremely high data throughput — however this comes at the expense of its power requirements. Range typically is up to 100m, however this can be extended with specific antenna types.

Some other key points regarding WiFi:

  • Ubiquitous
  • Universal smartphone compatibility
  • Affordable — can be implemented in an embedded design for < $5 and frequently the connection to the Internet can be obtained for free
  • Well suited to communicate through the Internet to a cloud server — universally supports TCP/IP and HTTP to provide REST interfaces to cloud services
  • Well protected and controlled from a security standpoint
  • Relatively high power usage
  • Sometimes difficult to connect IoT devices to corporate IT infrastructure because of corporate policies on security.
  • Cellular — utilizing a network established initially for voice communication, cellular offers a wide bandwidth data capability that does not depend on local access points or routers. Its range therefore is virtually limitless (as long as you are in an area covered by cellular coverage).   However, you will pay for each byte transmitted / received with this technology and of all of the technologies discussed, it has the highest requirement for power consumption during transmission.

Some additional points regarding cellular:

  • Cellular benefits from security models already established for regular voice communication
  • This is the only technology discussed that charges per byte of data transmitted or received. While these rates have come down recently (and will continue to do so), it may be a factor in your deployment
  • Network coverage can be an issue is specific deployments — especially indoors on factory floors, etc.
  • Power consumption is high, especially during data transmission.       However, if your device has a power source readily available, this may not be an issue
  • Device cost is the highest in terms of the devices discussed here — typically $20 in volume. This price will come down as higher volumes of these devices are manufactured for IoT applications.
  • Other
    • A ton of other “standards” in the Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) arena are beginning to surface — including SigFox, Dash 7 Alliance Protocol, LoRaWAN, nWave, Weightless-P and Weightless-N, IEEE 802.11ah, and LTE Cat-M. These standards are emerging as a direct result of needs in machine-to-machine communication.
    • Some of these new standards have started to gain traction, particularly in specific industry segments.
    • Estimates show that today the cost of a typical module ranges from about $5 to $20, depending on the specific technology. However, the cost per module will eventually fall below one to two dollars in volume quantities.

So in summary, selecting a wireless communication technology for your IoT deployment requires careful consideration of a number of factors.   It is critical to understand where your device deployment will happen, what your data requirements are, and how the devices will operate after deployment.   Power is always a consideration, as is the overall cost of the device itself and the costs associated with on-going support.

We’ve seen IoT wireless communication projects suffer due to the mismatch of actual needs versus the technology chosen — spending the appropriate amount of time and energy on this decision will avoid expensive redesign / rework after the fact.

The “Internet of Things” for your Product

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More and more often, the topic of the “Internet of Things” (IoT) pops up in the news, in popular culture, or in business settings.   In a nutshell, IoT technology provides the means to acquire data from devices used by all of us in our daily lives, connect these devices to the Internet, communicate the data to a cloud server, and enable the use of data analytics to determine what is going on in the field. Frequently, people assume that the IoT pertains to big companies that are involved in large scale monitoring and control of big industries such as oil and gas, manufacturing, energy production, etc.

However, as IoT technology becomes cheaper and more pervasive, an argument can be made for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) of other industrial and consumer products to consider inclusion of IoT technology in the things that they sell.

As an example, we are currently engaged with companies that are developing products that will have IoT interactivity in areas as diverse as:

  • Wearables
  • Consumer irrigation systems
  • Grills
  • Cameras
  • Home automation
  • Drones

Obviously, this is just a small sampling of the types of products that could benefit from the IoT, but it illustrates how diverse the markets are that can benefit by IoT inclusion. But the question is — why should your company consider adding this technology to your product line?

From a business standpoint, ask yourself the following:

  • Would my organization benefit from knowing how, when, where, and who was using each and every device that we produce?
  • Could my product benefit from the ability to be monitored or controlled from a smartphone?
  • Could my organization benefit by knowing our most frequent point of failure in our product while it is operating in the field?
  • Could my product benefit from having the ability to be remotely diagnosed, with the additional ability to solve issues remotely?
  • Could my product be extended into new markets / channels by having IoT connectivity?

In addition, consider for a moment the additional value to your customers that an IoT-enabled version of your product would bring:

  • Instantly, your device becomes state-of-the -art — a tremendous marketing advantage over your competition. Even for products that have been in the market for a while, the addition of IoT technology can give you a sudden and concrete advantage over your non-IoT competitors
  • The addition of new functionality — the ability to know where the device is, to remotely control the product, to add new features to the product, and to provide integration with other products/services
  • Interaction with other products the consumer may already own — this is especially true in home automation situations or with connection to a smartphone

Lastly, IoT technology creates tremendous value for you as an OEM:

  • Demographic information about your user — how often do they use your product? And for how long? What is the most frequently used feature in your product? These are just some examples of what you can learn from an IoT-enabled product
  • Manufacturing / quality benchmarks — time between failure, time to failure, and other common QA measurements can easily be derived from the data provided by products that are supplying data to an IoT cloud
  • Marketing — establishing a direct point of contact to your customers.       Target specific messaging based on product usage, etc.

The IoT can add tremendous value to your existing product line by giving it new purpose, new capability, and new value to your organization. Even starting with a modest goal (one of two of the ideas presented above) may provide the spark needed to energize your existing product lines. And for new products — IoT consideration should be near the top of your market requirements list.

 

The Fragmented Internet of Things

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The allure of the “Internet of Things” (IoT) to today’s business leaders is compelling. Having the information to run an organization more efficiently with the realtime data that the IoT provides can result in lower operating expenses, increased profitability, and higher levels of quality. OEMs that adapt the IoT in their product strategies can offer better functionality for their end users while also building an ability to acquire deep knowledge about how their products are used in the marketplace. So it’s no wonder that companies are rushing forward to find help in implementing their IoT initiatives.

However, the help these organizations employ to achieve their IoT goals often is long on promise and short on delivery. Many companies claim to be experts on the IoT, but they frequently only provide portions of the overall solution path. For example, sensor manufacturers may have the hardware element necessary to acquire important data, but frequently do not have the ability to move this data to the cloud and make it useful. Similarly, cloud providers are happy to provide interfaces for devices, but often do not provide end-to-end support for the variety of sensors, gateways, and other hardware devices sending that data.   Wireless carriers are good at moving data around, but they often do not have relationships with the hardware manufacturers producing the data or the cloud providers hosting the data. And mobile app developers can create applications to allow data to be displayed and/or manipulated, but frequently have no idea how the data is acquired and what to do if the flow of data stops.

Most of the time, the customer is led to believe that they are getting a complete solution with a single vendor, only to find out that their vendor only supplies a piece of the IoT puzzle, with the other pieces being left open for definition and implementation. The result is a confusing journey with other vendor’s products and services, trying to create a complete, end-to-end solution, often resulting in a partially working system and frequently ending in the failure of the project.

Clearly, the customer needs a complete, holistic solution. And here is how it should be done:

  • Step 1 : Define the business problem / opportunity

Implementing an IoT solution should be no different than any other new business initiative. First start with a definition of the problem to be solved or the opportunity that can be created by using the IoT. Then determine the costs, risks, ROI, and other factors that should guide the project.   Technology should not be the focus of this study — the organization should see a clear benefit at a business level at this stage.

  • Step 2: Define the total IoT solution that solves the problem / creates opportunity

Next, a discussion should take place between the organization and an IoT firm that has a proven track record in providing end-to-end IoT solutions. This firm should strive to understand the business need and then help create a solution that will meet the project requirements.   When considering the technology required for the project, the firm should have complete and proven solutions for:

  • Data acquisition — sensors, monitors, gateways, wireless communication
  • Device control — configuration and real-time control of remote devices
  • The Cloud — data protocols, storage, customer Internet portals, data analytics
  • Mobile apps — data display, device setup/configuration, alerts/alarms
  • Step 3: Implement the solution and provide on-going support

Lastly, the IoT firm employed should provide an easy to understand proposal for implementation of the entire IoT solution being considered. The proposal should cover “build” versus “buy” of the various hardware devices, services, and software needed for the system solution. It should also include not only the initial installation and operation of the system, but also a plan for on-going support for maintenance and scalability as the organization grows.

By considering the IoT project as an entity and not as a piece of hardware or software that is sold by a particular vendor, a customer can dramatically increase the likelihood that their IoT project will not only be able to succeed in the project’s stated goals, but that it will be done without the confusion and uncertainty that occurs with many current IoT projects that are trapped in the Fragmented Internet of Things.

IrriGreen — Smart Irrigation

We are thrilled to be working with IrriGreen, a Minnesota-based company that has invented a precision irrigation system for consumer use.  Their Genius sprinkler head technology applies water exactly where you need it, eliminating up to 50% of wasted water usage as compared to conventional lawn watering systems.

We’re proud to be providing the mobile application used to configure and monitor the Genius irrigation system.