How the IoT Supports the Supply Chain

A report from IDC earlier this year revealed that spending on the Internet of Things (IoT) is expected to reach $1.29 trillion by 2020, with the vast majority of this investment in industrial settings. IDC goes on to predict that there will be 82 billion connected devices by 2025—everything from farming equipment to cars to household appliances, all of them embedded with technology that can access the Internet to intercommunicate with each other and with users for better user experience.

As is unfortunately common with many new technologies, the Internet of Things (IoT) is struggling to match its hype, with many projects failing to achieve their initial goals. This has led to a general sense of ambivalence among people. A 2016 report from the IET found that few of us have any real idea of just how the IoT could benefit our lives. The authors believe that this is largely because of the poor work IoT projects have done both in involving the public and in communicating the benefits to them.

When respondents were shown examples of how the IoT might help them in their lives, they were considerably more positive about the technology and its potential. So that’s what I’d like to do in this post—share examples so readers have a better understanding of how IoT helps in our daily lives. And since there is nothing as crucial to our wellbeing as being well fed, let’s look at how the IoT is helping the process of getting food from field to table.

Smart farming

Farms are increasingly tapping into the IoT to give them access to the kind of real-time data required to make smarter decisions about how they go about getting food on our plates. For instance, researchers from Penn State have developed a leaf sensor that monitors plants for water stress, which is hugely important in arid regions. It’s a process that would ordinarily be done manually, but the IoT-based approach is capable of providing readings every five minutes.

Slightly further along is the Israeli start-up Viridix. Their network of IoT sensors are designed to collect data directly from the soil. The company then shares this data on their platform in the hope that app developers will be able to build interesting services that use the data. Like the Penn State team, Viridix is also monitoring ground moisture levels, and has teamed up with irrigation company i-Dripper so that every plant gets precisely the feed it requires.

Reducing food waste

Waste-reducing innovations are emerging throughout the supply chain. For instance, a team from the Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in Switzerland has developed sensors to monitor the state of fruit as it travels from farm to store. The sensor is designed to record the experience of the fruit in the pallet as closely as possible, so the sensor is the same size and composition as a piece of fruit. The sensor provides constant feedback on the temperature in the container, because even minute changes are capable of significantly changing the speed at which picked crops ripen. This influences food wastage both en route and in stores as it creating variance in how long the produce stays fresh.

Californian start-up Zest Labs is bringing a similar technology to market. Their solution provides real-time data on the pallet to help people make smarter logistics decisions. For instance, if the contents are ripening quicker than expected, that produce can be re-routed to a nearer store to retain a good shelf life. When I spoke to the Zest Labs team earlier this year, they revealed that initial projects with retailers have allowed them to save around half of the 18% of produce that would ordinarily go to waste.

Streamlined processes

For benefits to be realized, the supply chain has to be designed to encourage both highly efficient communication, so that data reaches the right people at the right time, and collaboration, to ensure that all participants work well together.

A recent Texas A&M study suggests that strong communication and collaboration don’t happen enough. The authors reveal that collaboration seldom occurs within the supply chain, which means that everyone along the chain misses out on a host of efficiency savings. The study found that many companies at one end of the supply chain communicate poorly with those at the other end. For instance, if you’re a manufacturer or retailer that relies upon a particular raw material, it makes sense to have good communication with the suppliers of that raw material, but that seldom happens; instead, communication goes through middle men. The current state of affairs is one of opportunity: from a business perspective, companies that implement more efficient communication processes along the supply chain will be better poised to respond flexibly to their market’s fluctuating needs.

Supporting communication

While the supply chain could definitely learn a few things from other areas of business that have incorporated unified communication and collaboration tools into their processes, the Internet of Things is helping us to communicate more effectively and safely in other ways. For instance, British start-up Eartex has developed smart headphones that can block out all the unsafe and dangerous noises you find in many industrial workplaces, while letting through your co-workers’ voices. The headphones promise to support more effective communication while protecting workers’ health. The technology works in much the same way as a hearing aid, and uses digital signal processing to amplify human speech and dampen harmful noises to a safer level. What’s more, the headphones send data to managers, so they can monitor noise levels in the workplace.

If we cast our minds back to the early days of the Internet, a fundamental premise was its ability to help us communicate faster and better. The Internet of Things takes this ability to a whole new level. It allows any device to be enabled for the kind of real-time communication we have grown to love via our Internet usage.

Consumers have increasingly lofty expectations, whether it’s in the speed of delivery, the personalization of service, or a detailed knowledge of the provenance of the product they’re consuming. As such, companies are having to speed up their supply chains and ensure they operate more efficiently than ever before. The Internet of Things promises to support this next generation of service, but to do so it will require robust communications service to ensure that the data reaches the right people at the right time.

For instance, if a sensor inside a food pallet records excessive temperatures, a manager operating remotely might wish to speak to the transport team to rectify matters, or use a video linkup to monitor the pallet or the crop personally for signs of deterioration.

The Internet of Things promises to transform the supply chain by making data transparent and readily available, while also enabling better communication and collaboration among all players. This kind of B2B application may not be as sexy as other use cases such as connected vehicles, but the early evidence suggests that it’s nonetheless at the vanguard of IoT innovation.

Adi Gaskell

Adi Gaskell is an experienced innovator who has over 15 years experience across startups, government and industry. He comes with an academic background in artificial intelligence and bioinformatics, and has worked with organisations such as the NHS, The Ministry of Defence, Salesforce, Deloitte, Oracle and GSK. He also writes for Forbes and the BBC and contributed to a recent book on change in healthcare.
By | 2018-04-05T09:45:54+00:00 April 9th, 2018|Tags: , , , |