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Internet of Things applications can streamline your business

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The Internet of Things (IoT) as we know it exploded with the iPhone – a sort of universal remote in people’s pockets.

First, companies built iPhone applications to support home appliances and connected home devices. Then, smartphones sparked the “connected home” trend. Today, IoT devices are everywhere.

IoT devices aren’t limited to consumer applications. Businesses can develop IoT products for applications in manufacturing, utilities, logistics, retail, and more.

Businesses can take advantage of IoT to meet their own needs and their users’. But to get there, it’s important to center users and question assumptions at every stage. Here, we’ll highlight six examples of user-driven IoT design. But first, a brief look at the history of IoT devices.

What is the Internet of Things?

We’ve found that most people aren’t working off of the same Internet of Things definition, and that makes it challenging to have conversations about what it can actually do.

The Internet of Things, or IoT, has a pretty straightforward meaning: adding connectivity to hardware so it can send and receive information. When we define the Internet of Things this way, you can start seeing examples of IoT all over the place. Take the Nest. Changing your home’s temperature from your phone has gone from seeming like the future to the norm in the span of a few years.

Internet of Things use cases for businesses quickly start becoming plain. Progressive launched the Snapshot, a small piece of Internet of Things hardware that lives in customers’ cars collecting data. Customers get a discount on their auto insurance, and Progressive gets to monitor just about everything that happens in the cars it insures.

Amazon’s Alexa took Internet of Things innovation a step further.

On its own, the software lets users ask questions and add items to their Amazon shopping list from Internet of Things objects like the Dot or Echo. When it starts to hook up with other connected objects though, that’s when the real magic starts. Because Alexa can tap into a whole ecosystem of Internet of Things devices, it can play music through your speakers, unlock your doors or turn up the heat, depending on how connected your home is.

That’s how the Internet of Things works best: creating communication and, eventually, automation across the previously separate devices that help us run our lives.

6 Internet of Things applications to help shape your strategy

A lot of businesses can benefit from small, internet-enabled “things.” They can help with reporting, maintenance, and even provide control over machinery or other equipment that would otherwise need to be operated onsite. Even if you know you’d like to go down this path, it can be somewhat daunting to know where to start.

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A good way to get ideas on how to use the Internet of Things, is to look at examples of how other companies have leveraged internet-connected devices to improve their processes or save money. We’ve helped clients apply IoT technologies to their businesses in the past, especially during the strategy phase, and we’ve found a few straightforward scenarios that can help you get the ball rolling.

Using IoT devices to get real-time alerts

Dickson, one of our oldest clients, creates products that monitor temperatures and humidity, then display them on a screen. Those screens were traditionally placed next to the piece of equipment or area they were monitoring. If you needed to know the temperature, you’d simply walk up and look. There were very few Internet of Things manufacturing examples at the time, but we thought it would be a great opportunity to add some connectivity and see how Internet of Things capabilities could expand on the features of the sensor itself.

Our first iteration wasn’t all that sophisticated — an Android tablet mounted to a nearby room that showed the same stats reflected on the original hardware. Once we could prove the Internet of Things solution worked as needed, we were able to make it more advanced. The end result was an app customers can use from anywhere to monitor the levels in their labs, refrigerators, warehouses, wherever. The best part is they don’t even have to keep an eye on things. The app will alert them if any of their levels deviate from set norms.

Use Internet of Things applications to make your phone a remote control for anything

The next logical step after getting notified when something’s wrong is being able to fix it from afar. We’ve been working with one client that’s applied the Internet of Things to something as simple as water. Its product allows you to monitor and adjust your water usage from your phone, wherever you are. Like a Nest, but for your water tank instead of your thermostat. So if you get off the airplane only to remember that you left your water on, you can shut it off remotely and continue on your vacation. You’ll also get an alert if something springs a leak, so you won’t have to worry about coming back to a flooded house.

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Pushing data out in real time via connected Internet of Things devices

It’s not just the visibility you can get from an Internet of Things device. It’s also the information that can be sent to it.

Our work with Northwestern University offers a great example of Internet of Things. Northwestern has 60 core research facilities used to study things like genomics, chemical compositions and cancer. We developed NUcore, a core facility management software that tracks the usage and handles billing for those cores. To increase security, we’ve added Internet of Things functionality to remotely control access.

We started by adding simple power relays that would only turn on access to an electron microscope if an authorized user was logged in during their reservation. Then we turned our attention to the clean rooms researchers need for particularly sensitive experiments. Because they’re full of expensive equipment and costly to maintain, only certain people are allowed access. We’ve integrated HID hardware with NUcore to to scan IDs and check for permission and a valid form of payment before opening the doors. The device can instantly fetch data from a third-party source and make decisions about who can enter. It gives Northwestern the equivalent of a 24/7 guard posted outside of each clean room.

Relying on Internet of Things gadgets to make existing processes more convenient

Sometimes the best examples of Internet of Things just take an existing action and allow it to happen somewhere else. It’s not as if Dickson’s customers can’t walk to its monitors to check them out, but it saves time to be able to check levels from anywhere.

Liquid Controls is a particularly extreme Internet of Things example. The company creates industrial products, including the fuel metering devices used on trucks that deliver liquids like gasoline or propane. These trucks have to fill up oil tanks in Northern Canada in way-below-zero weather.

In the old system, drivers would have to get out of the cab, set a device on the back of the truck, and use it to monitor how much oil was being dispensed. Now those actions can happen from a mobile device inside the truck’s cab. That slight increase in convenience and productivity creates a much safer environment for Liquid Controls’ customers, who are able to spend less time in freezing weather.

Tapping Internet of Things apps to open existing processes up to a bigger audience

One of our literally flashiest examples of Internet of Things takes place under some train tracks. Specifically, the Wabash L tracks in Chicago’s Loop. It may be a beloved institution, but the city’s L tracks are also something of a noisy eyesore. The Wabash Lights proposed an installation of Internet of Things-enabled lights to brighten the space and turn it into a destination.

When they came to us, the Wabash Lights team didn’t really know what that would mean or whether it was possible. We hosted a two-day Inception to come up with Internet of Things concepts that could realize their vision. Together, we’re working on a neon light installation that can be controlled through a smartphone application. It’s one of the most positive uses of Internet of Things we’ve seen yet — allowing anyone who can download an app to collaboratively shape the physical space they share with other people. It’s the Internet of Things made social.

Building Internet of Things products to reduce labor and automate tasks

Of course for many businesses, the value of the Internet of Things comes from reducing labor and/or automating tasks. The innovative Internet of Things examples that cut costs make us incredibly confident about the future of IoT.

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Consider NUcore, the Northwestern core facility management software mentioned above. Before the Internet of Things technology, Northwestern would have needed staff to sit in front of microscopes and clean rooms taking notes in order to keep things secure. The Internet of Things connectivity gives Northwestern added security without adding staff. It also tracks the usage of those tools in real time and automates the billing. That saves core facility managers from wasting a ton of hours tracking and chasing payments, so they can focus on research. It also gives administrators real-time insight into how these cores are being used, so they can make better decisions about where resources should go.

Why the Internet of Things can help your business innovate and grow

We hope that these real-life examples of the Internet of Things fill you with ideas, because Internet of Things technologies are only going to become more a part of our lives and industries. If you can find Internet of Things services that fit your business now, your business can grow alongside IoT.

We’ve already helped companies across several industries use Internet of Things platforms to expand their businesses. Let us help you. If you have an idea in mind, a Google Design Sprint is a great way to quickly get to a testable prototype. And if you need more help figuring out how you might benefit from the Internet of Things, contact us. We’d love to talk you through the opportunities.

Published by TXI in IoT

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