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What is IoT and where are the opportunities for SMEs in 2019?

6 minute read

Charlotte Jenkins
city at night

The Internet of Things – or IoT – is the term given to the interconnectedness of devices via the internet. Along with AI and machine learning, IoT is a big trend to look out for in 2019.

And it’s set to be more than just a trend. According to Intel, by the year 2020, IoT is expected to grow to 200 billion connected objects around the world.

Consumers have long been aware of how you can control your central heating via a smartphone, or track an iPhone’s movements by using an app on a tablet. IoT is moving beyond this. It’s set to revolutionise business processes and change the way in which consumers and brands interact.

Yet, according to a survey by Analysis Mason, 51% of SMEs over eight countries including the UK were either unsure or unaware of IoT. 23% even said they had no interest in bringing it into their business.

This isn’t surprising, given that it’s still early days for IoT. But with it on the horizon, SMEs can begin adopting elements of IoT to save time and resources, to streamline processes and gain a competitive edge. Here are just eight ways that IoT could help your small business run more effectively: 

Office improvements

IoT’s biggest offering for business at present is how it can reduce costs and streamline office solutions.

Not only will IoT make it easier for companies to adopt a culture of flexible working, but it’s expected that there will be improvements in smart technologies that will help to cut business management costs.

Smart lights and temperature controls are options for SMEs looking to reduce day-to-day wastage, and smart sensors can monitor room usage to help you adjust heating and lighting requirements as well as schedule meetings more efficiently.

Try this: Start small and check out some of the ways your company can cut costs using IoT:

  • Smart thermostats and lighting e.g. Nest
  • Smart room occupancy sensors e.g. Xethru
  • Remote working solutions e.g. Microsoft Azure

Retail improvements

Retail businesses such as Target are using smart tagging to monitor their stock. RFID tags are a way of tracking your inventory, automatically updating it each time an item is sold. The benefit is twofold, both saving you time in the manual recording of your stock, and also improving the accuracy of your stock control.

There are also ways of using IoT to track your orders once they’ve left your warehouse. Shipping trackers can help you to monitor the journey from warehouse to customer and keep your customer informed of the process.

However, because there are very few off-the-shelf solutions for businesses  – and the rewards are not yet clear – the market can be tricky for SMEs to navigate. Especially when it comes to the more complex IoT offerings such as predictive maintenance, inventory tracking and voice activated orders.

Try this: Try out some initial solutions to help save time and costs for your retail business:

  • Mobile care readers to save on transaction fees e.g. Square
  • RFID tags for retail/merchandising e.g. HID Global
  • Shipping trackers e.g. Simform

Office security

Security, both physical and digital, is an ongoing concern for business managers. IoT is starting to offer solutions that can help save time, but also cut costs in the longer term.

Data security solutions such as Protegrity can keep all your data safe in the cloud, but will also give you the tools to analyse and interpret your data. Depending on the nature of your SME, security cameras may be one of your expenses. IoT’s Smart cameras rely on top-notch internet connectivity and can be expensive, but if CCTV saves you from being a victim of robbery then you may find it’s worth the spend.

In the same way, smart locks can help to heighten your security and lessen the risks associated with providing your staff with sets of keys. 

Try this: Look at initial options to tighten your SME’s security:

Collaboration and productivity

Businesses of all kinds benefit from collaboration, whether that be within the company, or with external partners. And it goes without saying that anything that helps improve productivity is worth trying.

IoT solutions that help collaborative efforts range from connecting devices to the Cloud to communications solutions using APIs. These advances –  known as “middleware” – will help teams to work more closely together in a virtual way, despite being able to work remotely.

And as an added bonus, middleware solutions collect and analyse data. This data can be used to trigger responses which can have a benefit in a number of scenarios. Take, for example, a factory setting. An IoT sensor can identify a fault on the factory floor before it even breaks down. The sensor then alerts the correct person who can then respond to the issue before the production line is affected.

Try this: Start identifying your processes and identify key areas where production could be increased, or collaboration improved, using smart technology.

Buddy Ohm is a tool that can help to bring together all your IoT data from various devices and hardware so that you can glean insights from across your whole company.

While Losant, a middleware tool, promises an intelligence engine, data analytics, a workflow engine and end-user application experience.

Consumer behaviour

An earlier article from the UK Domain discussed how Big Data can be incorporated into your marketing strategy. In a similar way, SMEs can combine IoT with big data to improve insights into their customers’ behaviours.

Accessing consumer behaviour via their smart devices remains an ethical minefield, but it’s likely that it will become a part of the mainstay of consumer research in the not-too-distant future.

Smart devices carry a wealth of information about a customer and, with the help of AI, companies can use this information to provide a better service to their customers. Product recommendations, targeting advertising and content that’s delivered specifically for each customer all help to put the consumer at front and centre of a company’s efforts. 

And more than that, the more behavioural insight companies can glean from their customers, the better placed they are to develop products in the future.

Try this: Look into IoT solutions for customer insight, such as Arrayent.

A changing buyer journey

Marketers talk a lot about buyer journey. What’s clear is that as big data and AI become more advanced, the buyer journey is changing shape.

IoT is altering the way in which consumers interact with brands and buy products. It’s making the buyer journey shorter as more targeted content speeds up buying decisions. 

In the same way, consumers are expecting a faster and tailored experience, where they’re presented with the right content at the right time. Before long, consumers will make the majority of their searches using voice technology and will expect to receive their purchases the same day.

The challenge – or opportunity – for SMEs is to acknowledge these changing behaviours and to adopt the smart technology to keep up. They also need to ensure that the kind of content they produce is both personalised and relevant to each stage of the buyer journey.

Try this:

Customer support and predictive service

Engaging with customers should be central to any business, particularly those selling products online. And businesses are always looking for new ways of improving engagement and offering immediate, helpful support.

IoT can help by alerting businesses when a product needs repairing or replacing. We already see this in home appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers, but this will begin to filter down to smaller products as the technology becomes cheaper and more accessible.

This trend, known as “predictive service” will mean customers will be supported appropriately and immediately without needing to look up a phone number and waiting on hold for a customer support assistant.

Try this:

Revisit your existing customer support processes/strategy and identify opportunities for incorporating smart technologies to improve efficiencies.

Manufacturing

Manufacturing businesses – or retailers that rely on manufacturing processes – will be pleased to hear that IoT is beginning to offer a number of opportunities.

Smart factories are already being built, and are centred around automation.

From automatic picking and packing courtesy of Amazon’s Kiva robots, or remote monitoring of manufacturing assets thanks to Flutura, factories with smart technology are saving time, money and increasing productivity. In fact, the Kiva robots have already reduced operating expenses by around 20% according to Deutsche Bank.

There’s also room for Augmented Reality in manufacturing which is already helping companies to support operations. It’s already expected that 5.4 million Augmented Reality Smart Glasses (ARSG) will be sold by 2020.

Try this:

If your business uses manufacturing processes, look at ways in which IoT can make you time and cost savings. Map out all stages of your manufacturing and identify the opportunities for IoT input and assess the return on investment.

In summary

Internet of Things is more than just a passing trend. It’s what’s set to change the way in which products are made, how companies operate, and how customers interact with brands.

But it’s an area of business that’s hard to navigate, particularly because it’s in its infancy. There are few integrated solutions targeted at smaller companies and so piecing together more modest IoT strategies can mean a bit of manual research.

But taken gradually and SMEs can reap the benefits of IoT. Savings can be made quickly by reducing office wastage and improving productivity, and security can be heightened by migrating data to the Cloud and installing smart locks to office buildings.

The larger, more ambitious IoT projects such as recommendation software or smart factories make sense for larger budgets. But for any SME embarking on large-scale solutions, the return on investment has to be taken into account first.

Charlotte Jenkins is an Oxford-based content marketer. She has several years’ experience in content writing, editing and digital marketing, helping clients communicate their businesses online.

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