Utilizing the Internet of Things to provide data & value to customers
Think about the technologies that are now obsolete due to smartphones: portable radios, cameras, alarm clocks, compasses and calculators, to name a few. You do not need them anymore because they (and 100 other technologies) have been replaced by that little device in your pocket.
Now, think about starting a car. In 1950, you had to push in the clutch, turn on the ignition switch, hold the accelerator pedal down halfway and press the starter button. If it was cold, you had to set the choke as well. Today, you press the remote start button on your key fob twice.
If you look at the water well industry today, you will see designs that go back decades. Compare a standard control box for a 4-in. submersible pump from 1955 with one made in 2016—each has a relay, two capacitors and an overload. Sure, the boxes are now smaller, cost less and are more reliable, but they are still essentially the same.
But a pump is a pump, right? The drawback is that most pumps are “dumb.” They cannot tell us anything until they break. In response, we add intelligence. We read inputs from sensors embedded in pumps and systems, and turn that information into an output—start a motor, change a setting or send a notification.
Think about what we could do if we knew current draw, voltage, pressure and flow. What if we knew whether the system was running or pumping? Could we then know that a pump or tank has failed or is likely to fail? Could we know if something is leaking or has shut off the water or pump? Could we understand water and power consumption? Could we know if things were installed or designed properly?
There is a tool available that will allow us to reach those goals: the Internet of Things. At its core, the Internet of Things is simple. It is about connecting devices over the Internet and letting them talk to us, applications and each other. It has three functions: gathering, moving and using data. Gathering requires sensors to measure what is going on, process the data and send it out. Moving data is done over Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave, 900 MHz and cellular technologies. Data typically are sent to the cloud with an application programming interface (API), which is critical in keeping the data consistent as they move between devices. Then comes the fun part: We get to use the data. Websites or apps receive data via APIs, then use software to translate that data into information that is useful to the customer.
Most of the success or failure of the Internet of Things happens in that last step. If the data that have been gathered and presented are not useful to the customer, who cares?
Making the Investment
The Internet of Things might sound interesting, but how much does it cost to implement? Sensors can cost $2 or $2,000. Hardware to make the data usable is cheap, but the people to program it are not. The cost to move data to the cloud is volume-dependent in terms of the amount of data and number of devices, and there may be fixed costs for startup. Websites and apps can cost up to $100,000 to develop and must be maintained. It is not cheap, but—for now—you likely can charge for it.
Rather than thinking of the costs as an expense, look at them as an investment. Think about the potential return. Think about what you could do with predictive analytics. Imagine if you could tell a customer when a pump will need replacement. Think about how it might improve your scheduling, customer service and product availability. Think about how valuable you will become to your customer if you can help with his or her budgeting. Having more information about your customers—where they are, what they have and what is likely to happen—is the benefit to you.
There are some drawbacks to the Internet of Things. For instance, it is possible to gather huge amounts of data without being certain what to do with them. A lot of work still needs to be done to understand what to do with the data that will soon be at our fingertips. There are also privacy concerns. Customers want to know who is seeing their data. Some are uncomfortable with the use and sale of their data in connected “real world” environments and want more information and engagement around privacy. It also can be difficult for a business to justify the cost of Internet of Things implementation without being able to point to an immediate corresponding benefit.
This is new ground and there are issues to work out—but they will be worked out. The trick will be to turn challenges into opportunities. Talk to customers and find out if they would like the kind of information you and the Internet of Things can provide them. Ask them what they struggle with—what surprises them? What keeps them up at night? Start with a small project. Find a product, like a variable frequency drive, that already has sensors and is easier to connect. Ultimately, solve a problem for a customer with an Internet of Things solution and everyone wins.