It's the IoT Journey... and the Destination

Strapping sensors to our wrists and embedding them in factories have more parallels than you might think.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor

"Think of what Fitbit did for the idea of health and awareness in the consumer space," Bennett told me. "Before Fitbit, if I wanted to understand my fitness, I'd maybe go to a doctor; I might hire a trainer. With Fitbit, the ability to get some basic health information was suddenly a $60 click away. You put it on your wrist and got basic information [the number of steps taken each day, for example, or sleep patterns] really easily. There was no configuration—I got a dashboard with how many steps I'd taken, and I'd done very little to get that information. And that visibility gets you started on a journey that makes you want to know more."

Likewise, Bennett said, GE sometimes starts a factory on the path to the much ballyhooed brilliant status by installing a small set of sensors, tracking variables such as vibration or temperature, and using the Predix software to obtain quick access to some very basic but actionable information.

Jennifer Bennett
In most cases, that information is really just a teaser; it is not enough to make significant improvements across a facility, but it can pique the operations team's interest. Gaining visibility into one sliver of a larger manufacturing operation, Bennett explains—which the company did not have before, or could not easily access—makes an impact.

I countered that consumers are fickle and bore easily, and that there are countless Fitbits and other fitness trackers sitting in dresser drawers across the United States right now, because their owners grew disinterested in trying to gleam clues to a healthier life by counting steps and charting sleep patterns. So taking the Fitbit analogy to the factory floor, what is to keep these facilities interested in this slice of visibility?

A bigger investment, Bennett explained: "We're not trying to go in and optimize [these factories] immediately. We're trying to get access to some critical information" that the plants can use to tweak a machine or system and see an immediate improvement. But then, they have to do more and invest more.

Those next steps, which allow a factory to move from one-off improvements to systematic changes and eventually to predictive maintenance, takes money and commitment, just like moving from tracking footsteps to improving cardiovascular health takes time and commitment. In either case, Bennett believes, the value is not just in the end results, but in the process of learning and optimizing needed to achieve those results.

So what's more important? Is it the journey of deploying technology and collecting data to constantly improve a system? Or is the final, optimized result what matters?

The answer, it seems, is that both are the most important—as long as you don't ditch the technology in a drawer once you've grown bored with it.

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of Internet of Things Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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