According to the Boston Consulting Group, companies worldwide will invest 250 billion euros (!) in the Internet of Things next year. A transformative power is changing IoT: there’s a move from ‘connecting processes’ to ‘connecting things’. Here lies the real added value for companies, says Kristoff Van Rattinghe, founder of the IoT scale-up Sensolus. “With data about usage, capacity, maintenance, … companies can evolve towards predictive analysis for their processes. Knowing what tomorrow’s problem will be is the holy grail for a supply chain manager.”
Connect your doorbell to your smartphone, so even when you’re not at home you receive a notification when someone rings the doorbell. Switch on your heating on the way home from work with a smart thermostat. These are some of the consumer applications we associate with the Internet of Things. According to a survey from the Boston Consulting Group, IoT has transcended this ‘gadget phase’. In an industrial setting, it’s no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have. The growth potential of IoT exists in connecting business processes. Both production and logistics are industries in which IoT is flourishing.
Scale-up Sensolus from Ghent is a pioneer in this evolution. They use the Internet of Things to optimize company processes at both large (Airbus, AB InBev, SUEZ) and small companies. “We integrate sensor technology with existing processes where data is currently absent or lacking”, states Van Rattinghe, one of the four founders. “We do not only deliver chips, but we also provide actionable insights. We make visible what’s invisible: usage, capacity, maintenance, shocks, idle assets … Companies can use this data to link different business processes and optimize them to the full extent.”
Van Rattinghe uses Airbus as an example to illustrate the power of IoT. “Airbus produces three fully finished airplanes every day. The manufacturing of an airplane involves a huge number of suppliers and subcontractors, spread across the whole world. All the required parts for a plane are transported by water or air in special containers. Without closely following up these containers, it is quite challenging to optimize logistics flows. Airbus knew when the parts were on the way, but for the rest, they were left in the dark. Are the parts still well on the way? Are they stuck at the customs office? So many insecurities.” Identifying tomorrow’s problem today is the holy grail for a supply chain manager.
“We connect all those assets – containers, trailers, unfinished products, etc. – that were previously not connected. By also connecting these non-powered assets, Airbus gains insights on crucial parts of the supply chain that were previously invisible. On the one hand, they can optimize existing processes. On the other hand, they can anticipate difficulties and adjust processes on time. Concretely, this involves taking into account long lead delivery times, creating buffer stocks, adjusting contracts to automatically penalize slow suppliers, etc. In this way, companies like Airbus can predict where problems and bottlenecks will arise. And this is what they want.’’
Hardware is harsh
Sensors are crucial enablers to collect data from the field. When Sensolus started five years ago, one thing was absolutely clear to the founders: they would not interfere with the production of the sensors themselves. Hardware is harsh. Hyper complex, a commodity, low margins, long lead times, not easy to update remotely … In short, a nightmare for a start-up.
However, because they did not find the right quality in terms of sensors in the market, they bit the bullet and started to create the sensors themselves. “Hardware is still harsh but we had no other choice than developing the sensors ourselves”, laughs Van Rattinghe. “If a company installs and connects ten thousand assets, that’s a huge operational risk. That company wants minimal change. It wants guarantees from us: that the battery will last multiple years, that there’s no maintenance needed for multiple years, that sensors can be installed and connected within a minute … Our sensors need to be extremely reliable and energy-friendly.”
“Third parties often over engineer chips and sensors. Compare it to a computer: it knows how to do a thousand things, but often you use at most ten functionalities intensively. For sensors in particular, this is disastrous. To save energy and battery power, they have to sleep as much as possible and only wake up at the right moments to transmit data. If you can ensure the battery lasts five years instead of three years, that means huge savings. Compare it with satellites. Once you shoot them into the air, they must be able to stay there for a long time. They must use as little energy as possible and be ultra-reliable in an extreme environment.”
One mission control, 300,000 sensors
Just like satellites have a control center on earth, Sensolus also has a mission control to manage all the sensors in the field. By the end of 2019, that control center will monitor and control 300,000 sensors.
“The advantage of IoT technology is that it’s extremely scalable”, explains Van Rattinghe. “Whether a company has 100 sensors or 10,000 sensors, that doesn’t make such a difference. Of course, you must install each sensor. But this is going faster every day. We are already working on magnetic buttons instead of push buttons. In the near future, a sensor will be a kind of sticker you can simply stick to the asset.”
“Especially the connection itself is the scalable part. Once those 10,000 sensors are connected to the Internet, they exchange data and provide insights just as quickly as the network of hundred sensors.
After the Internet of Things 1.0 – ‘connecting things’ – and the Internet of Things 2.0 – ‘Digitizing and connecting the process’ – we are heading towards the Internet of Things 3.0, according to Van Rattinghe. “Companies can predict and solve inventory problems based on deviations in patterns in their physical flow. They can meticulously plan maintenance and even detect fraud. If you bring that data together, it will very soon be realistic to predict the macro-economic activity of an industry. Based on the rotation of products, you will then not only be able to predict for a company but for an entire industry whether the activity will increase or decrease. Then the supply chain suddenly becomes valuable stock market information.”