Alok Bardiya is Head – Internet of Things (Business Unit) at Tata Communications.
It is well known how COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation for companies. While the shift was expected, not many would have guessed that it would happen so quickly, and the adoption would cut across industries. Meanwhile, the Internet of Things (IoT) has had its own share of tailwinds.
Organisations are not simply looking to sail through this period with an aim of returning to whatever their version of normal was; the changes they have implemented are now shaping a new future. As enterprises are getting their manpower back to the workplace, smarter digital workplace technologies, such as connected worker solutions including contact tracing, contactless operations, remote monitoring and more, have come to the forefront. Decisions about IoT adoption that were earlier on the back burner and viewed more as small, isolated projects are now being prioritised and pulled forward. But the question is, can it be scaled faster and made easier to implement?
Two of the top tech trends of the last decade—cloud and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)—grew on the back of the flexibility and scalability that they brought. It empowered the tech teams and the users in a big way by allowing them to spin a virtual machine on the fly or add users to a SaaS application remotely and immediately. These two reached a recent high by enabling real-time collaboration between the dispersed co-workers and extending entertainment to masses stuck at home.
In a parallel world, IoT has the same or perhaps even more potential. It is applicable to any sector or any process. Today, enterprises are expanding their IoT focus and going beyond just the assembly line. They are looking at a much broader canvas—from remote operations to worker safety and management to delivering broader more efficiencies in what one can call as man-machine-material interfaces.
The first pillar: Think in terms of an “IoT fabric”
A full IoT solution is a combination of multiple components—sensors, devices, communications, cloud and software. So, can IoT be 'Cloudified'? Some aspects of SaaS like agility can still be brought in, but for that, an enterprise will need to think of “shrink wrapping” some of these components into a “unified core”.
IoT fabric can run across the enterprise, turning the rest into flexible add ons, like lego blocks, to build new use cases. This IoT fabric should have the ability to take any device and ability to self-create new dashboards, reports and analytics on the fly. Depending on the use case, enterprises can change a module to turn a device from measuring temperature to pressure to weight or any other parameter—the choice is theirs and determined by what they want to drive.
They can empower different functions or teams within the enterprise to use this fabric to create their own IoT use cases. For instance, if campus facilities want to monitor trash bins or whether doors are open or closed, or simply check attendance in the cafeteria, appropriate sensors can help track and visualise this data as a dashboard in the platform. Specific rules can also be defined, trends analysed and alerts triggered, thus ensuring better efficiencies.
A large manufacturing company is using this ‘fabric’ approach to add multiple use cases as they go along. Starting with lights management, they have now added monitoring gases and even dust sensing in their factory environment. The company is using the same fabric for worker safety and efficiency use cases as well. Even as the manufacturing company implemented worker solutions, they realised that it can be extended to materials management and efficiency in vendor deliveries. As a result, the enterprise is targeting gains of up to 10% in productivity and turnaround times.
And it’s not just enterprises: With initiatives like Smart Cities and Digital India, the penetration of IoT technologies is broader and the same IoT fabric is improving infrastructure, public utilities and services. An IoT enabled streetlight can also be enabled to measure air quality or temperature or rainfall.
The second pillar of flexibility: Ecosystem and Opex-based business model
Cloud and SaaS enabled a partner ecosystem, with partners playing a big role. Partners are playing a significant role in the IoT setup by providing standardised blocks that organisations can deploy on a plug-and-play model to their IoT fabric. While cloud and SaaS's success has also been driven by opex-based and freemium pricing models, IoT will also require similar thinking. Vendors and customers can share upfront costs, drive down capex investments and link payments to specific outcomes gained.
As we go forward, enterprises will continue to rely on IoT to recover and thrive in the post-COVID-19 scenario. IoT’s cloud moment is going to be about empowering users to create their own solutions. It will be about taking the complexity out and allowing for a flexible amalgamation of a common fabric, vendor partners and new business models.
The author is the head of Tata Communications – Internet of Things (Business Unit)