Harvard Business Review, McKinsey, and Gartner all agree: The Internet of Things (IoT) will transform business. Companies will connect the things they use and sell, creating rich, real-time data streams for their internal teams and partners. We’ll see fully digitized business models, continuous process optimization, and a slew of new products that were unimaginable only a short time ago.
Sounds impressive, but also challenging, right? To a small and medium-sized business (SMB) leader, the implicit message is that IoT is for enterprise: It’s complex, vast in scale, and too costly to be relevant to organizations that operate within real-world budget and skill constraints.
Here’s the reality: IoT can benefit every organization. Every company has a wealth of untapped data that can be used to make the business run smarter, faster, and better. Yes, IoT is a Big Strategic Idea that can reinvent your company’s direction. However, IoT can also be as simple as connecting devices with sensors and analyzing data to streamline complex or broken processes. To reap the significant gains of the technology, you’ll need to create a thoughtful, structured plan. Here are your first four waypoints on the roadmap to IoT adoption.
- Define your goals
The possibilities are limitless, so let’s start by establishing your end goals. The top five areas SMBs are currently exploring with IoT are using automation to increase productivity, enhancing processes, increasing revenues through new products and services, improving operational monitoring, and strengthening risk management.
Austrian startup Testify is tackling automation with an IoT solution based on Microsoft Azure. Company CEO Thomas Gratz set out to help the 80 to 90 percent of manufacturing companies who still use paper-based quality control processes to automate them. It’s adding up to huge efficiencies for customer Bombardier, Inc. The manufacturer has transformed pre-shipping inspections for its light-rail tram vehicles by using Testify’s SaaS app to detect problems, track issues, and add commentary, saving 42 hours in working time per test cycle.
- Understand your data requirements
You’ll need a plan for managing the firehose of data that comes along with IoT. Evaluate whether you have the data you need or whether you need to gather it. Limit collection and analytics to the data that adds value. While IoT enables you to connect and analyze everything, doing so will result in “signal noise,” drowning meaningful information in a sea of data.
IoT solutions require secure, bidirectional communication between devices (which can number from hundreds to millions) and a solution backend. IoT devices collect data and send it to a cloud gateway, which makes it available for integration with other business and IT data, processing, and analytics. Data processing can also happen at the device level if there are network constraints, a need for near-real-time response, or regulatory requirements to meet. Azure IoT Hub helps you connect, monitor, and control billions of IoT assets; Azure IoT Edge analyzes device data at the edge; and Azure Machine Learning empowers teams to build, deploy, and share predictive analytics solutions.
SkyAlert is a small company with a very narrow, but extremely important, mission: It is one of only four companies in the world to provide an early warning system for earthquakes. The company’s IoT solution, based on Microsoft Azure, initially used data from the Mexican government’s sensor network and a mobile app to provide people throughout the country with earthquake alerts up to two minutes before they happen, enabling them to move to safer locations. The solution was rapidly adopted by three million residents and 40 organizations.
- Start small and plan for scale
While it’s smart to stair-step your way to success, always have an eye on how your experiments might scale to new functions or different parts of your business. IoT technology keeps getting better and better: Low-power wireless networking, low-cost sensors, connected devices with great capabilities, and online marketplaces make it easy and cost-effective for you to design solutions.
Work with partners to create a proof of concept you can pilot and scale. Partners like Microsoft can help by providing tools, best practices, and consulting.Azure IoT Central is a management platform that simplifies IoT deployments by SaaS-ifying processes. You can use Azure IoT Central to connect devices at scale, build without prior cloud experience, and finish initial solutions in hours. Meanwhile, your SMB gets the power of enterprise-grade Azure services and security.
- Be prepared for unexpected discoveries
IoT adoption has a way of revealing that processes can no longer meet the demands of the modern business environment.
Several years after SkyAlert deployed its earthquake warning system, company leaders realized that the technologies they were using were obsolete: They were satellite-based, only enabled one-way communication, and weren’t 100 percent reliable. The company opted to build its own sensor network, REDSSA, connecting sensors with high-performance fiber-optic cabling and using Microsoft Azure to deliver millions of notifications in less than two seconds before all impending earthquakes. Microsoft Azure enables SkyAlert to scale REDSSA to all 50 million residents of Mexico, and will support the company’s goal of delivering services in neighboring countries.
“Our solution sounds more complex than it is,” says Alvaro Velasco, SkyAlert Director of Marketing and Apps Development. “Azure’s flexibility, especially IoT Hub, really makes it quite simple to receive the information generated by REDSSA, process it, and transmit alerts to millions of users. And with Microsoft managing the solution, we get the security we need to protect our user and network data from theft.”
To sum up: IoT is a journey of self-discovery about your business that can add incredible value over time. IoT can help SMBs develop and scale solutions that go toe-to-toe with enterprise offerings – and help global customers improve their processes. As we have seen with myriad technology trends – cloud services, the “as-a-Service” revolution, and artificial intelligence among them – the spoils go to those companies that adopt, master, and evolve their businesses around new capabilities. Your SMB can be an IoT leader, and we’ll help you on the journey.