Mark Jackson gives a rundown of the amazing things IoT can help businesses to achieve, and where it will go in the future.

IoT is here!

Well, actually it’s been here for ages under the name of “Microsoft Embedded” – but we won’t dwell.

The beauty of IoT now is that the infrastructure supporting the transmission of data from ‘Things’ is now widely available and relatively practical. It’s packaged in a way that’s allowing many more UK businesses to benefit, particularly within the mid-market.

Microsoft’s Azure platform now includes an entire suite of IoT applications and services that can be consumed on a pay as you go basis and are secured by Microsoft’s own Azure Sphere service. No more laughing Alexa devices, or internet-enabled children’s toys spying on your every move!

The latest event at Microsoft UK HQ provided further insight, not only into the services they have supporting this, but the healthy partner presence exhibiting some interesting value-adds to the whole IoT proposition. More on that later.

I’ll start first with Colm Torris, Principle Solutions Specialist for IoT at Microsoft, and the two use cases he shared that really prove the value of this tech…

1. Kobe Beef farmers – Fujitsu

These guys worked out that when female cattle are ready to breed, they walk further distances than usual. They measured this by attaching a cow ‘stepper’ device to the animals’ legs which measured their steps. By knowing when the right time was, they were able to increase fertility by 35%. Not bad when you consider that Kobe beef sells for a whopping £250 a kilo.

Following that, they went a stage further. They knew that the first stage of the fertile phase (within 20 minutes) produced female offspring and the last produced males. So in very short order, using a physical device linked to Azure IoT services, they had increased efficiency in breeding and selection without any complex studies or heavy monitoring of the herd.

2. National Rail Network

There are many use cases with IoT devices here, but the one that resonated the most concerned the practice of maintenance on level crossings. In particular, with the motors that are used to move the automatic gates. Given the dangers involved, these motors were historically either serviced or totally replaced once a month to ensure a quality of service that would eliminate accidents.

Enter IoT.

Devices were retro-fitted to the motors to monitor heat, oil pressure, ambient temperature and cycles per unit. Again, this data went into a secure cloud infrastructure for analysis, alerting and active monitoring. The outcome is almost too obvious, but costs dramatically fell almost immediately whilst the SLA actually increased in efficiency. This was because the repair crews were alerted to those systems that had a problem and fix them in a matter of hours rather than potentially more than a day.

What is IoT used for?

There are other checks and balances here that IoT helped with. For example, tests could be performed by querying the motors bi-directionally to ensure the service was working properly. All of this provided cost savings running into the millions – and more importantly maintained safety.

There are of course common themes here. The main one is that (ignoring the technology for a second) what IoT allows for is ‘near real-time’ data analysis and workflow to provide results. In both use cases, we are dealing with a time period of just minutes. In the latter case those minutes might mean avoiding a serious accident. Connectivity to the cloud has to be very secure and very stable, which is something Azure promises to be.

But what if, in the example above, the rail crossing is in an area of poor connectivity (unlikely) but more likely, high latency? Again, Azure’s IoT Edge container-based service can be employed in the device itself or an edge client device to act on a critical system issue such as a failed motor on a train barrier and shut everything down. In these circumstances, even a few seconds can make a difference.

A real-world example of IoT

But it doesn’t stop there. One of the most practical uses of IoT was also one of the coolest on display. By using a system called Thingworx, Howden (a global engineering business) had developed an augmented reality system to provide near real time data analysis for industrial pumps (see picture).

The dashboard displays all of the running metrics available from the machine itself – stored, analysed and visualised using Azure IoT. This was then overlaid on a screen (as shown) but more importantly using a Microsoft HoloLens to produce life-sized holographic replicas of the unit. These holograms allowed the user to physically interact with the unit in 3D, explode and contract the various moving parts. It allows the user to see the relevant data displays against those parts such as switches, gears and motors.

From a field service and maintenance point of view, this technology is not ground-breaking insomuch as it’s been done before. What makes it special is that it’s now becoming commercially attractive enough to allow forward-thinking businesses to look at using it in the field. Imagine a housing association with a service schedule to maintain hundreds of household boilers. Each boiler has a simple QR code.

This QR code allows the field service engineer to use Microsoft Dynamics 365 Connected Field Service system with a HoloLens or their handheld device or PC. Once connected, the engineer can see all of the required serviceable items for this particular boiler plus instructions on how to fix the problem. Sensor readings are also displayed. The pictures below show stock examples purely to illustrate the technology.

Why should you consider using IoT?

Once the work is done the Dynamics 365 Field Service app can record the work, update the account and the engineer can move on to the next job. There is no doubt, as with the Howden’s case, that having this information available on site saves time, provides first time resolution, and allows engineers to skill up very quickly on the machines they service. All of this provides a very compelling argument to look at IoT and what it can do, particularly when connected to a powerful field service system such as Microsoft Dynamics 365.

So, is this all just the latest inaccessible tech from the Wizard of Oz? Not at all. The pictures above were taken using my iPhone and a free app. I admit they’re examples but all that’s needed to make this work with any machine is a rendering from the OEM CAD drawing, some Thingworx, Azure and Dynamics 365 Field Service software. If you wanted to treat yourself, you could buy a HoloLens for around $3,000 – but going forwards, that price will only go one way.

What’s next?

And what about the supplier? Just how serious are Microsoft about all this? Well – very serious.

They’ve committed to invest $5 billion into IoT in the next 5 years. They’ve already invested $2bn. They have 18,000 employees worldwide working specifically on Azure and around 1000 of these in IoT.

Why are they doing it? They have to. The global market for IoT will reach $1.3 trillion by 2020. That’s 21 billion connected devices at a rate of one million per hour by then. As it stands most businesses’ digital strategy is on the periphery of their core activities. In 3 years it will be fully integrated.

“IoT is a business revolution that’s enabled by technology.” They aren’t my words but I like them because I believe them, and I believe this will transform how we do business.

Mark Jackson – Business Development Manager

Mark Jackson is a Business Development Manager with over 10 years of experience in helping companies to choose the best Field Service Management solution for them. Mark first began at Perfect Image in 2011, where he works with companies to fulfil their business requirements. He understands the pain points of organisations with mobile workforces, and how they can strategically adopt or optimise Field Service Management systems to streamline processes to meet the ever-increasing demands of customers.

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