The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of life, including the economy. As industries work to adapt to a “new normal” of shifting consumer and B2B demand, new ways of working, and profound financial impacts, many businesses are seeking ways to stay afloat with fewer resources.
That search may lead businesses to adopt some of the technologies that define Industry 4.0—in particular, industrial Internet of Things (IoT) systems combined with the cloud and analytics. That’s because IoT technology can improve efficiency, quality, and safety for businesses having to cope quickly with major changes. Here are four examples from different industries.
Transportation for certain products is in high demand
Demand for trucking services rose sharply across the U.S. in March, as the demand for medical equipment and groceries rose in tandem with serious COVID-19 infections and the issuance of local stay-at-home orders. As state and federal regulators eased some rules, many drivers worked longer hours to help health care systems and retailers meet demand.
Hard work to get products into the hands of those who need them is most effective when the products arrive in peak condition. However, in some regions, as much as 40% of food waste occurs in transit, caused by temperature problems and shocks that damage products. Half of all pharmaceuticals now require controlled temperatures in transit, but 20% are damaged by breaks in the cold chain en route to market—a figure that’s bound to cause frustration when pharmaceutical manufacturers are able to bring COVID-19 therapies and vaccines to market.
To increase the amount of product that arrives in good condition, freight carriers, distributors, and retailers need to know the real-time conditions inside vehicles. IoT systems for trucks can do this now, by providing real-time temperature, vibration, and location data. These systems include wireless temperature and vibration sensors, a transportation bridge to receive the sensor data and send it to the cloud, and GPS to track location and measure travel time. With this data, managers can identify and address issues with cold-chain integrity, pinpoint the level of shocks that cause product damage, and find ways to better protect items in transit.
Many restaurants adopt new business models to survive
The restaurant industry has been heavily damaged by the COVID-19 epidemic, with 70% of U.S. eateries laying off staff during the first three weeks in March and 44% temporarily closing. More than half of restaurants have switched to takeout and delivery only, operating with smaller staffs and sometimes paring down their menus. To make up for the loss of dine-in revenue, some restaurants are offering groceries alongside prepared food, and others are working to feed health care workers at hospitals and senior centers.
Preventing food waste and maintaining safe storage conditions are also challenges that restaurants need to meet with fewer employees per shift. However, manual temperature checks for coolers and freezers are a challenge to do on schedule even when a restaurant is fully staffed. An IoT network with remote temperature sensors can report those readings to managers so they can quickly deal with problems like open cooler doors or malfunctioning equipment. This frees employees to focus on other tasks, reduce the possibility of foodborne illness, and prevent costly food waste.
Data center reliability matters more than ever
As more office employees are asked to work from home, data centers are crucial to the survival of businesses that rely on the internet and cloud services to operate. To offer two examples of the rapid scale-up in use, Google Meet usage is 25 times what it was before the pandemic forced many workers to stay home.
For data centers, detecting temperature and moisture problems early is key to preventing major problems. The Uptime Institute noted in its recent COVID-19: Minimizing critical facility risk report that supply chain disruptions may make replacement equipment and supplies hard to find or slow to arrive.
To preserve equipment and maintain uptime as demand grows, data center technicians and managers need to be aware of the temperature, humidity, and dew point near critical equipment in their centers at all times. The most accurate picture comes from real-time data fed from environmental condition sensors placed on or near key equipment, instead of relying on ambient air temperature and humidity for an entire room.
With highly localized data, plus alerts when conditions are out of bounds, managers can address potential problems as they arise instead of after they cause damage. Remote sensors also free data center employees to focus on other tasks instead of spending time taking and logging manual readings—a boon to centers that are short-staffed.
Industrial manufacturing ramps up production of essentials
Pre-pandemic, US-based manufacturers were setting records for output, despite a chronic shortage of labor. Now, however, they’re dealing with new challenges, such as:
- supply-chain disruptions
- staffing reductions due to illness, exposure, and social distancing requirements
- changes in demand for their products
- quick pivots to produce essential items like ventilators, medical masks, and face shields
The best-known example of a rapid pivot may be GM’s collaboration with Ventec to retool one of its automotive plants so volunteer autoworkers can produce desperately needed critical-care ventilators. Apple, meanwhile, is ramping up the production of face shields that doctors need to protect themselves when treating COVID-19 patients.
For manufacturers working to produce essential supplies and equipment with a reduced labor force, IoT technology can help support their goals. For example, wireless temperature and vibration sensors can be deployed in a matter of minutes or hours to give plant managers a real-time view of how each piece of equipment in a facility is functioning. By establishing the proper operating ranges for equipment and setting up alerts when the equipment operates outside those ranges, managers can catch potential problems before they lead to unplanned downtime or product quality issues.
Over days and weeks, the data collected by wireless sensors on the IoT network can allow managers to compare productivity among shifts. That can help identify areas for improvement to boost output. For example, if one shift consistently underperforms, it may be that those workers need more training to work at speed. In a pandemic where every day and every hour counts, productivity gains that health and PPE manufacturers can implement safely and quickly can make a significant difference.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a huge, painful challenge to the way we live and work. By assisting businesses as they adapt to new circumstances, the IoT can help them survive, succeed, and provide some stability to their customers, their employees, and the economy at a critical time.