The value of the Internet of Things (IoT)

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This burgeoning network offers benefits, some of them only now becoming evident, to companies and consumers

By Takaaki Suga, Head of the IoT Business Division, Fujitsu

The Internet of Things or IoT – digitizing information about people, things, and the environment and transmitting it over networks – provides many business benefits, from cutting costs to generating new revenue streams. Our own experience with the IoT,  as a company that both leverages it in our operations and incorporates it into our products, has highlighted its impact on manufacturing operations, increased productivity, and employee motivation. But we have also seen first-hand how the IoT can improve workers’ safety and, more generally, the quality of people’s lives.

Indeed, the IoT, in ways that only now are emerging, will offer not only such quantifiable benefits as reduced time and cost but also a wide array of qualitative improvements. The collection of real-time data enabled by the IoT, combined with useful analysis, is poised to change the very nature of the way we do business – and the way we live our lives.  

The Internet of Things improves operations

The IoT makes it possible to increase manufacturing efficiency and significantly reduce production costs while increasing workers’ motivation.

In one of Fujitsu’s plants, we found that the IoT increases the efficiency of manufacturing a product by enabling predictive maintenance for production equipment. Sensors indicate when maintenance is required before the machine fails and causes a problem in production. Over time, the ongoing analysis of the IoT data allows us to continuously improve the accuracy of machine-failure prediction. In addition, the IoT helps in highlighting obstacles to efficiency and pointing to improvements that can be made on-the-fly. 

A side benefit of using the IoT to make real-time improvements to a production line is increasing the motivation of workers on the factory floor. Putting them in control empowers them and makes them feel more valuable as they get involved in understanding the data and acting on it.

As different types of data come into play during operations, they all have to be understood not just on their own but also in the ways they correlate and affect each other. It is necessary to understand the raw data from sensors within the context of the movement of different elements of the production line. That has to take into account multiple streams of data involving both machines and human operators.  Once the data are put together, they need to be analyzed to identify causal relationships.

The IoT makes all that possible, linking up all the streams of data and showing their relationship to each other through data visualization. For example, when multiple models are produced on the same production line, the settings on the line have to be adjusted multiple times during the day. The IoT links different streams of data—from workers, from the equipment, from the manufacturing management system—to visually display what settings have been changed and in what specific context, providing a comprehensive picture of the entire process and the bottlenecks that slow it down. 

Solving the problem of bottlenecks is crucial in large-volume production with very strict schedules. It poses a particular challenge when coupled with quality control that requires removing components that indicate an abnormality, fixing them, and getting them back into the production process.

At the Fujitsu Shimane PC factory, defective components have to be removed from the main floor and taken to the repair area. The challenge is that within the repair area there are products at different stages, from initial assembly to final testing.  Without knowing exactly when the repaired component would be completed, it is difficult to accurately assess delivery time. Sometimes delivery of an order can be delayed or a special delivery truck must be used just to ship the part that wasn’t ready at the time the rest of the order went out.

Knowing that this was making us less efficient, we wanted to better understand the progress of products in the repair area. Pinpointing the position of a product in the repair area would reveal where it is in the process. By adding a sensor to each component and a barcode reader, we were able to see where repaired products were in real time. This told us not only how many components were awaiting repair but at what point in the process each one was, so that we could predict how much time would be needed to complete the repair of each one of them.

As a result of using the IoT in this manner, we realized two very positive benefits. One was a 30% reduction in delivery costs. The other was a gain in awareness of the IoT on the factory floor, encouraging workers to make proposals for additional improvements using the real-time monitoring enabled by the IoT. That holds the promise for even better results in the future.

The Internet of Things improves people’s lives

The IoT can make people’s lives better and safer. For example, approximately 75,000 trucks travel the roads of Japan and they could provide very valuable data. At one truck fleet operator where we implemented an IoT solution, we discovered that the data collected on the road could significantly improve fuel economy. Another IoT-based solution tests the impact of changing road signs on drivers’ behavior. This has led to new insights on how to improve the safety and driving experience for all drivers.

Another example of how the IoT improves safety is its use in construction sites, with sensors that measure a worker’s vital signs, speed, and acceleration of movement. When one of the sensors detects any abnormality, it sends an alert. That can save lives, as people often fail to notice danger signs. A clear advantage of using the IoT in this case is that the continuous collection of data establishes a baseline, which in turn allows the system to identify abnormal behavior and help prevent heat strokes. In addition, it allows the construction-site operator to prevent workers from entering dangerous areas and stop their work if the amount of activity rises above a certain level. The reduction in construction-site accidents helps the operator win additional construction projects. 

Another area in which the IoT can tremendously improve quality of life is with the elderly, specifically to help them move around safely. For example, Fujitsu has added IoT components to RT. WORK’s Assist Cart, to provide a complete solution for elderly people who cannot walk unaided.  The Assist Cart has various embedded sensors that track the walker’s movements, allowing the cart to respond quickly to what the person needs for a safer walk.

For example, when the person approaches a downward slope, the Assist Cart will automatically slow down or brake to help the person maintain control. Its sensors are not limited to environmental factors; they can assess specific health conditions, as well. For example, if the person has trouble moving one leg, the Assist Cart can adjust the distance for each step to accommodate the unevenness of the individual’s walk. In the case of someone undergoing rehabilitation therapy, that kind of adjustment ensures faster recovery. In fact, the Assist Cart’s responsiveness, based on real-time data, makes all the difference between just getting general support from a walking aid and getting customized assist—exactly what the person needs when he or she needs it.

This use of the IoT to personalize and improve an experience for individuals is what we can anticipate seeing more of in future. Personalization will help in very different situations, from allowing more freedom of movement for the elderly to providing the information that a shopper needs at a certain point in time.

The key for a good shopping experience is one in which the customer is made aware of the available options but is not too overwhelmed or distracted. When the IoT is applied to a retail environment, it can follow the movements of customers in the store via the signals from their mobile devices, and send them relevant targeted information at the right time.

For example, if a woman is browsing through the women’s department, it doesn’t make sense to try to divert her attention to men’s clothes. But if she gets a notification about a sale on men’s shirts while she’s having coffee, then it’s giving her information that she may consider useful if she’s thinking of which department to go to next while she’s at the store.  The IoT gives the retailer data that helps it effectively promote its merchandise while also giving the customer information that could be of benefit to her shopping needs. That’s a win-win solution.

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As the examples in this article have illustrated, there is much value that the IoT can bring to businesses.  Not only can it facilitate business innovations such as improved processes, but it can also be the catalyst for expanding into new business areas and exploring novel activities with different partners. Most important, the IoT has already been shown to offer a range of benefits that can improve the life of millions. 

The Takeaways 
The Internet of Things (IoT) has improved operations in Fujitsu plants. At one facility, the IoT increased manufacturing efficiency by using sensors that enable predictive maintenance for production equipment—thus avoiding bottlenecks.
The IoT has upgraded the functioning of trucks on Japanese highways by monitoring and improving fuel economy while keeping tabs on the behavior of the drivers themselves.
Likewise, the IoT can help improve safety in various populations. For example, the vital signs of workers on a construction site can be monitored with IoT, and IoT can help the elderly to move around more safely: the Assist Cart uses embedded sensors that track the walker’s movements and enable it to respond quickly for a safer walk.