IoT for small to medium sized businesses

The Internet of Things (IoT) became a popular buzzword in 2015. By 2016, predictions of a trillion-dollar industry were common. While the future is difficult to predict, every now and then, something comes along that is as close to a sure thing as you can get. The Internet of Things is one of them. We won’t be able to tell how accurate the predictions are for a while, but there is a consensus across most industries that the IoT is going to change the world.

Knowing this is well and good, but it’s not particularly helpful to anyone running a business. You need to have a basic understanding of what the IoT actually is, how exactly it’s going to affect businesses, what you could get out of it and how it could be a threat to your business.

So, what exactly is the Internet of Things?

Without a background in IT, it can be difficult to conceptualise the IoT. The simplest way of looking at it, is that it’s the underlying network that connects previously non-connected devices, to the internet or to each other. In other words, it’s connecting everyday objects like your fridge, car, security door or dog collar to the internet. These connected devices are called “Smart Devices”.

That may seem like a silly idea. Why would you want to connect your dog’s collar to the internet?

The answer is quite simple. If your dog gets lost, you could use the internet to find the collar, and the dog. The point is that most objects we create have a function. By performing their function, they have the ability to generate information. If we can monitor and use the information, we can more efficiently use the objects to fulfil their functions. Whether it’s a dog collar or a whole factory full of machines, the principle is the same.

And how exactly does this affect a business?

The dog collar analogy should show that an object (the collar) with a function (keeping track of a dog) can carry out its function more effectively when it’s connected to the internet. If it were not, you would need to wait for a good Samaritan to find you dog and contact you. If it is, you could connect to Google Maps and find the dog yourself.

If you apply that principle to functions in a business, the effects can be amazing. In a nutshell, there are two primary benefits, reduced costs and increased productivity.

The best way to get an idea of how to get these benefits is by looking at real world examples.

  • Energy use is a major expense for most companies. Heating or cooling a building can cost thousands of dollars each year. By installing smart heating systems, you could monitor and control every variable that affects them. You could program them to only operate while there are people in the building. You could have them automatically switch off an hour before an office closes, the possibilities are varied but the result is the same. Less energy used on heating leads to less money spent.
  • Stock control processes in retail stores gives companies instant, useable information. By connecting the bar code reader at a till to the internet, you could run a program that automatically requests new stock from the supplier when levels are low, rather than waiting for a stock take. This leads directly to a decrease in lost sales, which is an increase in revenue.
  • Logistics management has become much more accurate. In any industry that needs goods to be transported from one place to another, losing stock, fuel and time are major expenses. By installing smart tracking devices on vehicles, driving patterns can be analysed, fuel usage can be monitored for theft and the doors of vehicles can be tracked remotely, stopping any stock from “falling off the back of the truck”.
  • Security services have become more accessible. Previously, you may have had an alarm that would alert the authorities to a break in at your store. Now, you can connect a camera to the internet and get a live video feed sent to your cell phone. If there is an intruder, you could call the police directly, decreasing their response time.

There are hundreds of applications and smart devices that have been developed, with thousands more in development right now. In the past, it would have been appropriate to assume that cutting edge technology is expensive and reserved for big business, until the price drops. Fortunately, the technology used by the Internet of Things is actually very simple. The devices used are usually cheap to manufacture and easy to program.

The unsophisticated nature of the devices, coupled with the ubiquitous reach of the internet, means that people with very little experience can build their own devices and applications. Small companies are creating innovations that compete directly with billion dollar enterprises. You could buy a developer kit for less than a hundred dollars and learn enough to create a fully functional smart device within a few months.

The point is, the speed of development is like nothing that’s ever been done before, the benefits are undeniable and available to all, not just big business. Barring and extinction level event, the Internet of Things is here to stay.