During the past decade we’ve witnessed the emergence and growth of applications for the Internet of Things (IoT). This is reflected on the proliferation of internet-connected devices, which amount to tens of billions as of 2021. The rise of IoT applications is also propelled by rapid technology acceleration. Technologies such as cloud and edge computing facilitate the scalable collection of large volumes of data about physical processes. Furthermore, big data analytics and artificial intelligence foster the extraction of insights about field processes, which enables enterprises to optimize business workflows and to make more educated decisions.
In recent years, several enterprises have deployed innovative IoT applications in sectors such as smart buildings, smart cities, health care, trade and industry. Most of these applications lead to reductions in costs, increased operational efficiency and improved managerial decision making. Nevertheless, many industrial enterprises are still reluctant to deploy IoT systems in their business processes.
IoT Evolution During COVID-19
During the past year COVID-19 has made the merits of IoT technologies more evident than ever before. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of business agility in coping with large-scale crises that cause changes in business patterns and customers’ behaviors. Physical interactions (e.g., physical meetings) were reduced to a minimum and replaced by new, virtualized processes. Moreover, enterprises put the health and safety of their employees at the very top of their agendas. In this context, IoT has played a key role in improving enterprise agility and ensuring business continuity in various industry sectors such as smart buildings and facilities management. Prominent examples of IoT applications in this direction include:
Occupancy monitoring in facilities management: Leveraging sensors and IoT analytics, enterprises have managed to monitor the occupancy of rooms and offices in buildings and other facilities. The detected occupancy patterns have been used to optimize the operation of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems toward optimizing energy costs, environmental performance and the tenants’ comfort. This would have been hardly possible without IoT, as COVID-19 disrupted the usual occupancy patterns of working spaces.
Remote monitoring of assets: IoT devices have enabled enterprises to monitor and manage their assets remotely. This has obviated the need for physical on-site inspections. Moreover, it has boosted the implementation of intelligent asset management strategies (e.g., predictive maintenance) that optimize field service schedules and reduce assets’ downtime.
Employees’ health care monitoring: Enterprises have used COVID-19 symptom trackers and wearable devices to track the health care status of their employees, including their COVID-19 risks. In this way, companies managed to factor the employees’ wellness and safety into their business continuity planning.
Workplace safety and wellness: Enterprises have leveraged IoT to analyze occupancy patterns toward evidence-based workplace optimization. For instance, they’ve scrutinized personnel density to assess and optimize the available workspace for team safety, wellness and happiness. Moreover, they’ve derived insights into the impact of various occupancy patterns on their operational costs.
Smart cleaning: COVID-19 has unveiled IoT’s massive potential for intelligent cleaning of workplaces. IoT devices have been used to track hygiene processes in public spaces and private facilities. This has facilitated the implementation of smart cleaning practices (e.g., cleaning alerts) and boosted compliance with hygiene regulations.
Legionella monitoring: Another fallout from COVID-19 has been the prediction of a legionella outbreak, following the large-scale abandonment of public spaces during lockdown. This has left pipework disused and open to becoming a possible breeding ground for pathogens. Pipe monitoring for water flow and temperature range can now be carried out remotely, reducing the need for on-site activity and potentially reducing waste and cost.
IoT in the New Normal
The above-listed applications have boosted operational efficiency, increased quality and reduced costs for IoT end-user organizations such as facility managers and industrial enterprises. Although they were developed during the pandemic, their business value is independent of COVID-19. For instance, HVAC optimization is set to optimize customer satisfaction and energy costs regardless of the pandemic crises. Therefore, the presented applications are here to stay after the end of the pandemic, in the new normal. In essence, COVID-19 has accelerated IoT’s proclaimed evolution. Applications that have been long anticipated are now deployed at an accelerated pace.
The impact of COVID-19 on IoT in the new normal will be twofold. COVID-19 has provoked a broader adoption of IoT technologies in enterprise contexts while it also has boosted the innovation capacity of IoT vendors and integrators. As a prominent example, IoT device vendors reduced the size of their sensors to address the needs of modern remote monitoring applications. Now, tiny sensors (e.g., sensors the size of a stamp) are commercially available and used to monitor pretty much anything.
In the short- and medium-term, the evolution of IoT will be shaped by the availability of very large amounts of data, which will be pulled from various applications quickly and easily. These data will enable a whole range of functionalities, from everyday maintenance cycles to the management of severe alerts. Using these data for business process optimizations and improved decisions, enterprises will be able to rapidly increase the return on their IoT infrastructure investments. In disruptive technologies, we’re already seeing this as part of our knowledge base of real-life IoT deployments, which includes detailed information about their ROI (return on investment). We also perceive IoT’s potential for streamlining procedures, increasing the efficiency of the workforce, economizing on resources and escalating sustainability. This potential will soon make IoT an integral element of most industrial sites and workplaces.
Five years ago, many enterprises perceived IoT as a business luxury, while others were debating its ROI. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for deploying IoT applications with clear business relevance and proven ROI. The latter provide a sound basis for scaling up IoT deployments and expanding them in new, yet still unknown, directions. IoT is no longer an overhyped technology, but rather a vehicle for enterprise productivity. This is the main reason why enterprises must explore how IoT can help them improve their business results.