Smart Building

Connect the Dots: RFID Plus IoT Ignites Retail Makeover

Create: 04/20/2016 - 13:00

How things have changed: that little RFID tag that sets off an alarm if it’s not removed by a sales associate has evolved to become the starting point of an intricate Internet of Things data analytics ecosystem that is changing the entire retail business model.

So much so, that according to McKinsey & Company, the economic impact could be as much as $410 billion to $1.2 trillion per year by 2025.1

At their most basic level, passive RFID tags comprise a memory and controller IC, a coil and an antenna at one end, and an RFID reader, or interrogator at the other end (Figure 1.)

Figure 1. A basic RFID system is simple to design and implement, but as integration increases and power consumption decreases, they can perform increasingly complex and useful functions, including communicating ambient parameters and movement. (Image courtesy of Impinj.)

 

When the reader sends out a coded interrogation signal, the electromagnetic (EM) waves are picked up by the coil, which converts the signal to electricity sufficient to power the IC and enable it to transmit the stored information over the antenna and back to the reader. 

At first, RFID was useful simply to help prevent theft, and it seemed that was to be the extent of their use. Later, asset tracking became a critical application as players in the supply chain learned it was easier to track a non-line-of-sight RF signal instead of barcodes. A key enabler of this evolution was the advancing integration of electronic components and their falling costs. 

This allowed the deployment of multiple RFID readers in stores without adding significantly to overhead, which allowed asset – as well as staff -- movement to be accurately tracked within a specified range or enclosed environment.

All this is good, but it’s when RFID and asset tracking are combined with IoT concepts, that things get really interesting. Adding a temperature or humidity sensor to the RFID tag allows the environment to be monitored so perishable goods can be better preserved. Integrating a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) sensor into an RFID tag allows movement to be detected more accurately and quickly. If a garment or expensive store item is being sampled or dropped, customer service can quickly respond to help customers find what they need – or address whatever damage may have occurred. 

The IoT angle to all this is that store and franchise owners can gather numerous data points on assets and inventory and analyze this data in real time to respond to inventory and immediate customer needs, as well as over the long term to optimize store layout and product placement. 

According to McKinsey, optimized inventory can lower inventory carrying costs by up to 10%, while optimized inventory can increase productivity by 5%. But what about inventory “shrinkage,” that euphemism for theft and “misplacement” of items? This amounts to a $42 billion problem for retailers in the U.S. alone, according to Chain Storage Age. With the deterrent effect of customers and staff knowing the asset is being tracked, combined with rapid awareness of suspicious asset movement, McKinsey believes IoT could reduce losses by one half to one percent of the cost of goods sold. This translates to anywhere from $23 to $92 billion saved per year in 2025. 

The good thing is that much of the equipment and infrastructure to enable store owners to start implementing RFID-based asset tracking and IoT is already available and is being put in place (Figure 2.) 

Figure 2. The Intel Retail Sensor Platform is starting with RFID but adding Wi-Fi and Bluetooth communications as well as video capability, all of which can be securely aggregated via a local gateway and the data analyzed in the cloud.

For example, Intel has its Retail Sensor Platform for retailers and system integrators. The Platform is an “out-of-the-box” solution that is easy to install and manages RFID and other sensors through a gateway, while supporting analytics capabilities from the edge to the cloud. Big data analytics are supported with the Trusted Analytics Platform (TAP).

Note that I mentioned “other sensors” above: Intel promises to support other communications interfaces and protocols beyond RFID, including video, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth low energy. All that data can then aggregated and analyzed.

The software is industry standard and open, and users, developers, retailers and system integrators can write applications to the external API and analytics engine to get access remotely to the gateway. 

Implications for bricks and mortar

While the analytics will go a long way toward helping retailers improve both their top- and bottom-line performance, it may also be a contributing factor to the up-ending the retail model with stores turning into “hyper-local” viewing and distribution facilities. These may further lower staffing costs as they’ll have minimal requirement for sales associates, as much of the purchasing may have already occurred online. The facility may only be needed for pickup.

How this evolves is yet to be determined: it may swing completely one way toward completely automated retailing facilities, or it may find a middle ground with a mix of retail brick-and-mortar, hyper-local distribution houses with robotic attendees, and online shopping with shipping to the home.

We’ll have to do the analytics to find out.

References:

1: Increasing Profitability for Brick and Mortar Retailers

https://www-ssl.intel.com/content/www/us/en/retail/solutions/documents/retail-sensor-platform-paper.html

 

Chat: Why Sell Chromebooks?

Create: 04/19/2016 - 13:00

Sometimes, businesses just need a quick and efficient way to connect employees, allow them to work on the road and collaborate in real time, no matter where they are. Oh yes, and they need them to take advantage of the seemingly unlimited potential of cloud storage. Chromebooks — often barebones PCs that run Google’s Chrome OS and do most of their work connected to the internet — fit the bill.

Got customers looking for a simple, cost effective solution? Thinking about offering Chromebooks but aren't sure if they are right for you? Come to our live chat on Thursday, April 28, at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET.

It's a market with high growth potential: ABI Research predicts Chromebook sales will grow 20 percent this year. That's even more impressive when you realize that's on top of last year’s Chromebook sales growth of 25 percent. 

Still selling PCs? That market fell by nearly 10 percent in the first quarter of this year. Did you know that Chromebooks outsell Macbook roughly 5 to 1? Chromebooks are a logical extension for VARs used to carrying PCs, and the are flexible enough to be useful in education, legal and retail environments, among others. 

Joining me will be Peter Krass, editor of Intel's Business Compute Forum, where innovative solution providers collaborate and connect.

During this live and interactive online chat, Peter will provide an overview of the Chromebook market, explain where the biggest growth opportunities lie, and take your solution-provider questions and comments.

We’ll also be giving away one Amazon.com gift card valued at $100.

This live and interactive chat is free to attend and open to all solution providers. So join us in one week, April 28 at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET.

Register here: https://intel.6connex.com/event/intelchatforum/register

 

Connect the Dots: It Takes a Community to Raise an IoT Product

Create: 04/17/2016 - 13:00

MIT Media Lab researcher Kipp Bradford used his opening keynote slot at ESC Boston to highlight the innovation that has derived from the availability easy-to-use tools and open-source hardware and software, but he left out the importance of online communities. Without these online forums and discussion groups, including our own IoTSolutionProvider.com, the real-time knowledge sharing required to fix problems on the fly and advance the state of the art could never have occurred. 

It was an odd thing to overlook, given how Bradford is himself an advocate of sharing as much as possible, playing a key part in the Maker Movement. In fact, he was one of the early contributors to the design of Intel’s own Edison and Galileo IoT platforms. These were designed exactly for this purpose: to quickly and easily connect and share as much information and data as possible, with communities built around them to help propagate the knowledge required to help newbies get up and running, quickly. 

Kipp Bradford (left), research scientist at MIT Media Lab, with Max Maxfield, content director, ESC Boston. 

 

As Bradford described it, the premise of Galileo and Edison were that they be, “These little SD cards that could create magic, total magic.” And he was right. Just visit the maker forums to see the magic that is occurring in real time as developers and designers work together feverishly to get their ideas of the ground. 

It’s not a coincidence that Linux, the dominant open-source operating system (OS), first appeared in 1991, just as the Internet was going mainstream and file and information sharing was taking off. It’s that type of collaboration, based around the principal of free software that should be shared and enhanced by the collective, that gave rise to what is now Android, which is based on the Linux kernel, and of course, Yocto, an embedded Linux distribution. Thanks to Android and servers and supercomputers, Linux is now dominant and pervasive, and all thanks to individuals united in purpose and connected online. 

This “maker” approach to software and hardware development and deployment contrasts sharply with legacy strategies, which involved years of development and debugging before an OS, or any software for that matter, could be deployed. Now patches occur on the fly and in many cases as a direct result of community suggestions and improvements. 

Moving up a level, IoT users have the same benefits available to them. Whether it be retail, manufacturing, industrial or smart building, the business benefits can be openly discussed and requirements can be communicated in real time. Solution providers can respond in kind, using their own communities to share the knowledge needed to act quickly and find answers to questions as they develop their solutions.

As far as Bradford is concerned, the designers of those solutions should be thinking like Makers. They should: 

  • Validate quickly
  • Build modularly
  • Standardize
  • Share solutions

Then move on to the next problem or idea. That is what has been happening over the past 11 years since the Maker Movement started, and went from a nice “do it yourself” concept to a full-scale “do it together” paradigm shift that has now permeated professional solution design processes, from kits and platforms to software. 

Bradford pointed to new product types that have emerged from the Maker Movement itself, including low-cost 3D printers and drones, whole new product classes that have impacted industries at a fundamental level. 

How this translates to the IoT in its many applications is excitingly unknowable. To a large degree, it’s a case of doing what Bradford suggested in his keynote; make the technology easy to use with really intuitive tools so the ideas can flow. 

With the journey from an idea (or a customer’s identified need) and the ability to produce a solution becoming weeks – instead of months – exponential growth of IoT applications and deployments will help fulfill its promise of connected systems and fully analyzed, aggregated data toward better business decisions.

Smart Hotel Rooms Save Energy, Lower Expenses

Create: 03/27/2016 - 13:00

Energy costs for hotel chains can eat up significant amounts of revenue; controlling those costs is often job #1 for the COO. And helping the COO get the job done is a good way for integrators looking for a solid opportunity to implement IoT solutions.

According to National Grid, U.S. hotels that are larger than 8,000 square feet spend an average of $1.05 per square foot on electricity and $0.25 on natural gas. Typically, lighting, space heating and water heating comprise nearly 60 percent of total use. So being able to reduce those expenditures offers the best ROI for hotel/smart building customers: A full-service hotel, generally has energy costs ranging between 4 and 6 percent of sales, with historic and luxury sites incurring costs of 10 percent or even more.

Caesar’s LINQ Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas is using Ayla Networks with WeChat software to offer resort guests a connected room experience. Guests log into WeChat, scan a room-specific QR code, connect to their suites and can remotely control room characteristics such as lighting, climate, blinds. 

And in Europe, Citizen-M Hotels (pictured, right) offer automated check-in and smart door unlock via the guests’ smartphones. Environmental control is provided at the guests’ fingertips via an in-room tablet. And if guests wanting to have their televisions turned on and awaiting their arrival can experience that as well. The IReckon Software Solutions are enabled by Intel Xeon servers. ​

The IoT solutions are more than clever offerings hotels can use to attract new customers, however. They offer ways in which the hoteliers can save money. By automatically turning off the lights and air conditioning when guests leave their rooms, significant money is saved. The ROI on smart hotel rooms can be easily tracked and evaluated. 

For solution providers really looking to cutting edge technology, check out the “henn na hotel” in Nagasaki, Japan, for innovative ideas. After a robot checks in a guest at the front desk, a porter robot escorts him or her to a room. Instead of keys, guests can opt for face recognition technology to allow them room access. And once settled in, a concierge robot can assist with amenities. The goal is to offer customers satisfying experiences, while lowering costs and increasing productivity.

Time will certainly tell if staffing hotels with robots will ultimately provide the home-away-from-home experiences guests want. I would suspect that the robots may prove more suited to serving more demanding guests, thereby reducing the numbers of negative reviews and potentially increasing bookings.

Connect the Dots: Feeding 9 Billion People With Byte-Sized Analysis

Create: 03/23/2016 - 13:00

The very thought of having to feed 9 billion people by 2050 is seizure inducing, but if you tackle it with byte-sized data analysis it becomes doable, and the food might actually taste better to boot.

The 9.1 billion global population number was presented by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization during a high-level expert forum in October of 2009 in Rome (Figure 1). The focus of the forum was on how to feed that number of people in the face of the diverting of cropland toward bioenergy applications, climate change, and the shift in population from rural areas to cities.  

Figure 1: The world’s population is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations. Securing the food supply is already proving to a critical application of IoT technology. 

Add in the increasing demand for inefficient animal-derived protein in emerging economies and fresh water capacity, and the problem of securing the world’s food supply seems insurmountable.

Yet the answer may sprout from research being performed on how to make Boston’s tomatoes taste better. Growers in the area partnered with engineers from local company Analog Devices Inc. to figure out how why sauce made from locally grown tomatoes didn’t taste as good as sauce made from tomatoes from California and Florida, or places that might have “dubious ethical and environmental practices.” 

After analyzing the lycopene, salt, acidity, water and sugar content of the local tomatoes, among other things, the team figured out what distinguishes a good-tasting tomato from one that doesn’t taste so good, to the degree that they could predict which tomatoes would win a local competition. But the prize is now bigger than winning a taste test: it’s now enabling farmers to predict the outcome of their work, and that takes data, lots of it. 

From heat, humidity, soil content, watering, color, disease control and harvesting, it all has to be monitored to enable the team to reconcile productivity and taste (Figure 2). This requires sensors and the connection of those sensors to the cloud so data can be gathered, analyzed, and distributed for all the farmers to see. 

Figure 2

Figure 2, right: Adding temperature, humidity, and light sensors around a tomato during its growth cycle, and transmitting the information to the cloud for analysis can help optimize for quality over time. 

While it’s easy to take the electronics for granted, the task requires accurate sensors and electronics that can withstand the extreme outdoor environment of the North East over many years. The chassis and enclosure must also allow venting, while keeping the electronics protected. 

The IoTomatoes research is but one local, “organically grown” project that is harvesting the benefits of data to enhance food production. The trick is to take Internet of Things (IoT)-based data analysis and make it global, on an industrial basis. 

In a case study provided by Richard Keenan & Co, the company showed how its IoT-based InTouch nutritional support system could improve dairy and beef yield by up to 25 percent without resorting to extra feed (Figure 3).

InTouch is a machine-to-machine system that automates the collection of and transmission of feeding data to the cloud for analysis by in-house nutritionists. The key is to make it real-time, scalable, and easily adaptable by farmers. 

Figure 3: Keenan and Co. has developed an IoT-based system with Intel for optimizing cattle feed that has been shown to increase milk yield by 25% without added cost.

To that end, the team used an Intel IoT Gateway based on the Atom processor and InTouch is now installed on 3,000 farms. Its database holds information on 23 million ingredients along with feed-efficiency information on 1.1 million cows.

From that position, there are two ways to scale: one is to move up the food chain, close to the end customer by helping food outlets and supermarkets get consistent output from farmers. By ensuring milk or beef meets a certain quality level and consistency, costs go down and inefficiencies in the supply chain are reduced. This makes quality food more accessible to many more customers that might not have been able to afford it. 

Moving in another direction, the company wants to extend its reach to the developing world, having already shown it can enhance milk yields by as much as 25% with additional feed. The import of this for countries such as China and India is massive, but it has to be easy to access the data. 

Therefore, the company is partnering with Intel to extend the reach of the technology, while improving security, performance and manageability. For example, it’s working with the Intel IoT Ignition Lab in Leixlip, Ireland (just outside Dublin) on an Open API Architecture to facilitate the development of more use cases and empower an ecosystem of developers. Within three years, the company expects to have 20,000 farms that are InTouch enabled in Northern Europe alone.

Figure 4. An Intel IoT Gateway, based on an Atom processor, is placed on every Keenan & Co. feed truck to ensure optimum delivery of feed per head of cattle.

 

For more information, check out these resources:

Why Partners Are Critical For Selling IoT Success

Create: 03/07/2016 - 12:00

Exactly how to sell Internet of Things solutions is a huge challenge facing the channel. We all have read the news media detailing how the IoT is going to be part of nearly every facet of daily life by the year 2020, but the reality is, what are those solutions going to look like — and how are solution providers going to fit in?

I recently talked with a software CEO about the importance of the channel when introducing new products. The key, he said, is not to ask people what they want. Many so-called experts will flippantly say that’s because people don’t really know what they want. That’s just arrogant. Of course, people know what they want, they just don’t realize what is possible. As a result, their wish lists are often not very inspired. For example, did people know they wanted a mobile phone before 1990? Maybe, but they certainly didn’t think it was feasible until then.

What’s really critical, then, is to watch customers and understand what they are doing in their work and personal lives, and how those things can be simplified or made more enjoyable. The eyes and ears for many vendors are their channel partners. Who better to see what customers are using to do their jobs faster, better and more efficiently? Solution providers can identify the “job to be done” and make trusted suggestions. 

Partners must find a way to be part of the discussion before vendors launch products. They can offer invaluable insight to their vendors regarding competitors’ products. For example, the channel will know exactly why a competitor’s product is resonating with customers. Internet of Things solutions can be complex and intimidating to some customers, who may become overwhelmed and pass on a solution that otherwise could transform the business. For example, a retailer may opt for simple display signage rather than displays integrated into an IoT system that can track customer movement within the store, analyze traffic patterns and recommend floor plans to maximize sales. Or a building manager who could really benefit from integrating separate building systems into one platform for greater control of building, security, energy and life safety systems may not know the benefits of doing more than simply asset tagging.

[Learn how to create an LCD display app using Intel technology.]

With Internet of Things solutions, it’s important for the channel to understand exactly what is being offered and how it can be used to support their customers’ goals. Solution providers must articulate to their vendors the importance of their being part of product development to ensure the final offering is relevant to users.

It’s important to remember that a product launch doesn’t start the day a device debuts. As solution providers, your insights can lead to the “ah-ha” moment that is the difference between introducing a product met with indifference and one that is seen as a breakthrough.

 

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