How the Internet of Things shakes up jobs, improves efficiency

internet of things laptop

After the town of Cary, N.C., installed a water meter system that automatically radios water usage to the public works department, it eliminated 10 meter-reading positions. The water resources group operates today with a smaller staff, thanks to the Internet of Things.

Workers used to check some 60,000 water meters once a month. Now the new meters record water usage each hour and transmit that usage data by radio four times per day.

Knowing hourly water usage lets the department rapidly identify abnormal conditions. Instead of having to field questions from testy customers surprised by high bills, the water department now proactively contacts customers to alert them to the possibility of a running toilet or garden hose. It's a revolutionary change.

"What we're doing is preventing anyone from ever getting a high bill," says Karen Mills, the town's finance director. The water meters have been "absolutely transformational," she says. The project cost about $18 million but is expected to save $28 million over the 17-year life of the meters, in part because of reductions in staff.

Cary's water-metering system has all the elements of an Internet of Things (IoT) project. It uses wireless networks, sensors to collect data and cloud computing to process this data, and it analyzes data using SAS business analytics tools.

The system also accomplishes what economists say all types of systems can achieve with the IoT: Make systems more efficient and productive, reduce waste and, consequently, help the environment.

There is ongoing debate about whether the IoT, robotics and artificial intelligence eliminate more jobs than they create. This verdict is still out, but there is clear evidence that IoT projects need people with specific types of skills.

Brian Boothe, an engineering manager at Pentair's Aquatic Eco-Systems unit, has an office on North Carolina State University's campus as part of a company lab. This lab offers an opportunity to work directly with undergraduate and graduate students on research.

Boothe says he relishes the work with students.

"We want to build their portfolios so they actually have a better chance of being hired when they leave the university," he says. "That's really important to me."

Pentair, a $7.5 billion global firm, conducts wide-ranging research at multiple universities. But much of its work at NC State is IoT-related.

Connecting devices and equipping them with sensors creates an opportunity to work with customers collaboratively, says Boothe.

The efficiency gains are clear, he says. With sensors, data and analysis, a pumping system, for example, can be optimized around a customer's specific use.

This optimization may result from discovering that a pump can operate at a reduced power level with no impact on results for a specific customer. These kinds of efforts also mean turning to cloud-based systems, in Pentair's case Arrayent's IoT platform, to process data coming from projects.

A shift in hiring

Pentair relies heavily on mechanical engineers in developing its products, but a shift to connected devices has meant hiring people with computer science, networking and electrical engineering backgrounds, says Boothe. The NC State Lab has helped with that effort.

The lab work also creates a pool of students who may later be offered jobs, says Boothe. Research projects are typically designed to take three to six months, which amounts to "a three- to six-month period to do an interview," he says.

Despite improved efficiency from early IoT projects, there is skepticism in the IT industry about how quickly IoT will bring meaningful changes.

Dangerous security issues, illustrated recently by hacked vehicles, standards battles and even concerns about whether new sources of data can actually generate new revenue, may have some observers underestimating deployment obstacles, according to a new survey.

CompTIA, an industry group, found that 53% of the executives surveyed at nearly 400 IT companies see more hype than substance in the future of IoT.

"People tend to get excited by a trend early on," says Seth Robinson, senior director of technology analysis at CompTIA. He compares the enthusiasm to Gartner's adoption model for new technologies -- an initial burst of excitement is followed by the "trough of disillusionment" once deployment issues are fully realized.

"There is some potential, but there is a lot of work to get the pieces in place," says Robinson, on the current state of the IoT.

Despite this skepticism, there are businesses that can see clear efficiency gains. Not surprisingly, many are energy-related, where there is a direct correlation of usage to cost.

Planning on efficiency gains

One company that sees great potential is KMC Controls, which makes building automation systems.

"This is an industry that isn't known for being on the leading edge of any technology," says Richard Newberry, a strategic adviser to the chairman of KMC Controls.

Newberry says IoT technologies have the potential to reduce energy costs, particularly for smaller buildings of 50,000 square feet or less that don't currently have automation systems.

"There is no affordable solution for those small buildings" at the moment, says Newberry, who predicts that energy savings of 15% to 30% are possible.

KMC is working with Dell on a "hardened," or secure, PC that will include multiple interface types on automation systems including HVAC and lighting, and other building systems such as elevators. That system is due for release early next year. The collected data will then be analyzed in a cloud-based platform and made available via a mobile application. This PC- and app-based approach will be significantly less costly than the integrated management systems found on larger buildings, says Newberry.

For its part, Phenix Energy Group is working on plans to develop a 220-mile pipeline in Central America to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Panama Canal can handle only small oil tankers. Phenix pipelines will rely heavily on IoT technologies to improve efficiency.

Bruce Perrin, COO and acting CIO of the firm, says in addition to building a pipeline, the plan is to install a fiber-connected radio tower system that will connect to 802.11 access points. These access points will be transported in vehicles and even backpacks, creating portable Wi-Fi networks.

The Daqri Smart Helmet, an industrial wearable device that's essentially a larger version of Google Glass, is the type of technology that can utilize this network. It could work like this: A technician is called out to fix or replace a programmable logic controller that manages an array of sensors used to monitor the pipeline. The helmet can display an exact image of what the tech is looking at and review the methodology for replacing the part.

The company will test these projects in the field next year, says Perrin.

He says the goal is to automate IT services as much as possible and reduce the need for staffers. Phenix is also looking for vendors with a particular attitude and commitment, says Perrin.

Technology firms may be quick to say they have a solution, but what Perrin says he wants to hear is the answer to this question: "How are you going to assure us that this is going to work exactly the way you are describing it?"

Some vendors will hedge in their response and cite the uncertainties resulting from all the interactions of various dependencies that may make up any one IoT system, he says. But the vendors that will grab his attention are those that will work with him to produce a system that will work "in the actual environment."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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