Using IoT to Improve Your Small Business

In 1999, innovator Kevin Ashton coined the phrase “the internet of things”(IoT) to describe what he predicted would be the widespread practice of connecting physical objects to the internet. Twenty-two years later, there are approximately 30 billion connected devices — a number that is now estimated to grow to 80 billion by 2025. The adoption of IoT has increased in the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For small- and medium-size businesses, this is especially true.

Technologies that drive business productivity benefited the most in this moment of crisis even as technology spending fell across the board. As many businesses shifted to a distributed workforce model, the scramble to firm up digital strategies led to heavy investment in work-from-home infrastructures that included providing laptops, network security, collaboration tools, mobile devices, and remote IT support to employees. They also turned to IoT devices to streamline and automate processes, reconfigure supply chain strategies, and boost remote asset access that allows employees to communicate with machines and remotely perform essential tasks.

As we all get to grips with the permanent change in how we work, the opportunity to implement IoT devices to help optimize business operations has not been better.

Making IoT Work For You

Today, IoT devices are driving innovation in almost every industry. From manufacturing plants using sensors to monitor and automate their supply chains to hospitals using IoT-enabled medical devices to monitor patients remotely and in real time, business continues to build on IoT’s incredible ability to connect innumerable objects with sensors to the internet and, in return, receive invaluable and actionable data and analytics.

While use cases of IoT often focus on large, well-known enterprises, small to medium-size businesses are also finding value in IoT applications, especially as IoT’s continued rapid growth signals that reluctance to adopt and adapt to its increasing use in business environments might leave some companies technologically behind.

Here are several ways that IoT can benefit your business.

Increase Workplace Productivity

One of the leading factors driving businesses adopting IoT is productivity. Establishing efficiency throughout all departments, including human resources and office management, can improve your organization’s bottom line and, along with workplace safety, reduce disruptions that improve productivity. Integrated IoT systems can, for example, manage lighting and HVAC systems to reduce energy consumption and adjust to changing shifts in the day to keep employees alert. 

Remote access to mobile and office devices, such as computers and printers, are another benefit of the IoT-enabled office, as are location trackers that allow employees to synchronize devices and communicate with each other. In a shop floor setting, IoT-enabled trackers are especially useful to monitor employees that can quickly serve customers or be instantly in touch with colleagues to easily fix problems that might arise. Tracker technology is also a good way to track work and meeting attendance, eliminating time consuming time sheets and access cards.  

Also read: Using Data Analytics to Shape Your Business Narrative

Streamline Operations

Whether you are a business with one product or a warehouse full of equipment, using IoT sensors and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags to automate repetitive tasks and innovate processes can streamline operations, organizing inventory and logistics to eventually save time and reduce production costs. Chocolate manufacturer Hershey’s famously applied IoT in this way a few years ago when the company optimized factory lines and streamlined licorice production by using  Microsoft Azure Machine Learning and intelligent sensors. Hershey’s IoT system uploads data to the cloud to build predictive algorithms that ensure extruders run at optimal efficiency, resulting in Hershey’s saving $500,000 in production costs. 

IoT applications in manufacturing are plentiful, but those integration methodologies can be applied across industries to:

  • More effectively manage inventory and supply chains by using sensors and a variety of alerts (i.e., email, text, alarms, etc.) to inform managers when stock is low, thereby optimizing distribution and saving costs.
  • Monitor equipment with sensors that can predict when hardware and software will malfunction before the problem becomes critical.
  • Track employee location and area occupancy levels to generate data that can help to optimize workflows, improve efficiency, and improve utilization of company assets and resources. 

Improve Workplace Safety

To improve physical security at brick-and-mortar work places, IoT smart lock systems allow selective and keyless access to facilities as well as control and monitoring of entry and exit points to boost security. These measures can be expanded with connected cameras to visual monitor offices and facilities. 

IoT security solutions can also include intelligent lighting systems with sensors to detect movement and deter break-ins, while the system can also be engaged to automatically function during an emergency, such as a power outage, to prevent injury and improve safety. 

Also read: Best File Sharing and Storage Services for Collaboration

Considerations Before Taking the IoT Leap

Before taking the leap, however, businesses looking to invest in IoT might be worried about the initial upfront costs of buying and integrating IoT devices. Establishing a thoughtful plan that clearly centers your budget and return on investment (ROI) are the first steps toward being IoT-enabled. Business owners should:

  • Identify the best use case for IoT based on immediate need. For example, are there inefficiencies in your supply chain? Are your office utility bills consistently high? 
  • Take a building blocks approach. By starting with only IoT devices that will be immediately beneficial as well as provide a relatively quick ROI, you can use those returns to invest in converting other areas. 
    • This deliberate buildout also gives your employees time to adapt to the new devices and workflows. 
    • Gives you time to address any problems that might arise from devices that fail or are incompatible with existing technologies
  • Match your growing IoT infrastructure with the scalability of your business to avoid overspending on devices that you might not immediately need. To accomplish this, think about hiring an IT expert who can build out your IoT infrastructure and address any short- and long-term technical and compatibility issues.
  • Safeguard your network. IoT devices, with their simple functionality lack the aggressive built-in security measures used in computers and other legacy devices, making them and your network vulnerable to hacking and cyberattacks. 

Stepping into an IoT Future

With the ability to remove processes that place a strain on productivity, efficiency, and costs, IoT ecosystems allow for customization and control of workflows and processes by automating tasks using sensors, web interfaces, and connected devices. This seemingly simple infrastructure is partially why IoT has been steadily gaining steam despite many  people finding it difficult to explain what IoT actually is. This obscurity is at an end as IoT devices continue to redefine how we and our businesses communicate, collaborate, and operate. It is the beginning of a grander vision for how interconnectivity can enhance human living. 

Also read: Data Protection Compliance: Frameworks for Small Businesses

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