Internet of Awesome Things

Ep. 5: Where is That Thing?

August 28, 2019 Season 1 Episode 5
Internet of Awesome Things
Ep. 5: Where is That Thing?
Chapters
Internet of Awesome Things
Ep. 5: Where is That Thing?
Aug 28, 2019 Season 1 Episode 5
Russell Brown
Asset tracking is the ability to easily, accurately and constantly solve the problem of knowing where your stuff is. For freight and logistics companies, it could be a game-changer.
Show Notes Transcript

One of the most functional uses of IoT technology is asset tracking. This is the ability to easily, accurately and constantly solve the problem of knowing where your stuff is. For freight and logistics companies, it could be a game-changer.

Mainfreight was the first large New Zealand company to embrace asset tracking. In this episode, Mainfreight CIO Kevin Drinkwater tells how they'd invested in hundreds of expensive hazardous goods bins, but had no idea where they were in the network, or even if they were still in the network! That is, until IoT devices were fitted to the bins. He’s a bit of a cheerleader for the technology!

Russell also talks to Spark Managed Services Lead Michael Stribling to get the bigger asset tracking picture: where the value lies for other business sectors, like supply chain management, agriculture and healthcare; how asset tracking can go indoors; and why such a simple thing can be so staggeringly useful for businesses both big and small.



Russell Brown:
0:01
Kia ora koutou. I'm Russell Brown and this is "The Internet of Awesome Things", a podcast all about the Internet of Things brought to you by Spark. One of the things that takes IoT beyond the realm of tech hype is the fact that it's so often just plain functional and does jobs that no one has to spend time in meetings conceiving as a use case. And for business, one of those jobs is the very basic issue of knowing where your stuff is. Whether it's kit that hits the road or things that move around the site, asset tracking is a key use for the Internet of Things. In this episode we'll look at the experience of one of New Zealand's biggest companies and talk about what's on offer and what's to come in IoT asset tracking. Maybe we'll even find the Holy Grail. To aid me in the search I'm delighted to be joined by Kevin Drinkwater, Chief Information Officer for Mainfreight, which uses a network of IoT devices to track something we all want tracked: hazardous waste bins. Welcome, Kevin.
K. Drinkwater:
1:00
Thanks for having me, Russell.
Russell Brown:
1:01
Now if I could start with what I talked about in the intro there, about the way that IoT solutions are often deeply functional, you know, they solve a well-established problem. Was that your experience at Mainfreight?
K. Drinkwater:
1:12
Well, absolutely. We'd had a problem for a long, long time which was knowing where stuff was and explicitly, "Where are our segregation bins?" And these are very useful devices for us for segregating dangerous goods to make them safe when we transport them. And we had no idea where we were ... where they were. Well, not where all of them were; we knew were some of them were.
Russell Brown:
1:35
Right. Did you try various other ways of tracking them? Because it's quite important, clearly.
K. Drinkwater:
1:39
Well, we we started off with the tried and true manual methodology and really that wasn't working because the more the business grew, the more we had of these things and the more time pressure people had going around the yard and trying to find these things and sending an email as to what you had just, just wasn't working.
Russell Brown:
1:57
And you tried tech solutions too?
K. Drinkwater:
1:59
No, we hadn't tried tech solutions but we knew that IoT was a solution that would work for us and we'd been working for some time on it, we just hadn't had the magical crossover between the technology that we needed and cost and importantly, battery life.
Russell Brown:
2:15
What was it about the work? Was it something as simple as battery life that turned it?
K. Drinkwater:
2:20
Battery life made it worthwhile for us. These are devices that you don't want to be changing the battery on every three weeks, every three months even. We're, we're hopeful that it'll be three years to five years, and based on testing that. But that was the critical thing. It was battery life. That was the Achilles heel of all the other solutions we'd looked at over the last 10 or more years.
Russell Brown:
2:41
So this was a long search?
K. Drinkwater:
2:43
Oh, a very long search and I had more [hair] here then and a lot of scrutiny about because, because we just couldn't find a solution that would work. We actually found some very interesting solutions that could tell us all sorts of things but they actually couldn't ... the battery wouldn't last. And also the ... I think the other problem was that the coverage of the network that they were on was just not there either.
Russell Brown:
3:08
Because your system as it operates now is on the LoRa network, isn't it?
K. Drinkwater:
3:11
It is. And that really is the other Achilles heel for it because cellular technology wasn't, wasn't good enough and cellular, of course, takes more battery, so you know ... to power up. So the LoRa was, was actually excellent for us. It really made it capable. It improved the battery life, you know, it had a real big knock-on effect.
Russell Brown:
3:33
So what's happening now? How many of these bins are there are?
K. Drinkwater:
3:36
Oh, there's around 400 of them, we think. Because we actually haven't found all the bins that we know we've got out there yet. But every time we find a new one, we're putting them on. So I think we're over 300 now that we've actually got the devices on. We've bought 400 and we're waiting to find more.
Russell Brown:
3:53
It's quite interesting so there was, there was an extent of, once you'd installed it, you found out how much you didn't know, like where things you knew you owned were.
K. Drinkwater:
4:01
Exactly, exactly. We ... Actually we knew [that] we didn't know where they were, but we didn't know how quite how bad it was. And we're actually ... The numbers that we've got are actually creeping up. We thought we had less.
Russell Brown:
4:15
Right. How key was it that the solution that you did eventually settle on with Spark was quite simple compared to some of the other ones you looked at?
K. Drinkwater:
4:24
That was the absolute key. All we wanted to know was where it was and when it was there.
Russell Brown:
4:30
So these things basically phone home once a day, don't they?
K. Drinkwater:
4:33
They do.
Russell Brown:
4:33
Little thing called an Oyster on them and they say, "I'm here."
K. Drinkwater:
4:36
Absolutely. And you can set it to phone home as many times as you want but we only need to know where it at last was today basically because our decisions are based on a 24-hour, 12-hour turnaround and that's good enough for us.
Russell Brown:
4:51
Right. And when you're talking about turnaround times and that kind of thing, that, that's a business need isn't it? Was that how you approached it, rather than as a tech project?
K. Drinkwater:
4:58
It was totally a business decision. It was totally a business need. It was the business that had the pain point. And you know, there was was certainly no basis for saying, "Hey, here's a cool tech. We we should use this on something. Let's find it." We knew that we were buying between 50 and 100 of these $3,000 boxes a year.
Russell Brown:
5:18
And you were losing them.
K. Drinkwater:
5:20
Losing them and then losing because we couldn't find them in our own yards, but also because customers were actually having them delivered to them and somehow they got lost somewhere, through no fault of their own or them trying to steal or something. But we also had other situations where people used it as smokers for their fish and various other things when they got their hands on them.
Russell Brown:
5:40
Well that's Kiwi ingenuity I suppose. Did you find that changed the way the business operated and the way people behaved within the business once you had the system up and running?
K. Drinkwater:
5:51
It's completely changed the culture, now. Firstly they don't think of knowing where their seg bins are is an impossible task or something they don't want to do. It's ... The critical thing for us is because we have this freight imbalance between the North Island and the South Island, principally from Auckland. And we have to get these bins back to Auckland then and Hamilton mainly, and it has meant that they are there, that people see them and they know they have to get them back because they know the guy in Auckland knows that they've got them. So there's no hiding anymore. And it didn't take long for them to find that out. So the culture changed completely and people knew they've got to rapidly get them back. And so we can make use of that.
Russell Brown:
6:36
So the guy in Auckland knows, because he's got the dashboard, right, of where all the bins are.
K. Drinkwater:
6:41
Yes.
Russell Brown:
6:41
Who can see that?
K. Drinkwater:
6:43
Everybody that's associated with that operation. So, so they can see it and all the branches. And it's ... So they, they know they don't have to go and look that they've got 14 of them there. They can see on a dashboard that three of them have been sitting in the air for 72 hours. You know one of them just got there last night. They can see the whole parameters. So they know what they have to do. There's no hiding, there's no excuses.
Russell Brown:
7:07
Well, given that this seems to have worked really well – it's fixed your problem – are you looking at IoT solutions for other parts of the business? Because you're a big business!
K. Drinkwater:
7:16
Oh yes. There are lots of possibilities and you know, you talked about the complex before types of IoT devices and we have used some of those and trialled them in the States. For instance, devices that we put in boxes that can tell where it is, that a flight's taken off therefore it turns the (and these ones have been on the GSM network) but how they ... So it turns them off as a plane takes off, turns it back on when they land. All those sorts of things. But they were hundreds of dollars each and I suppose I should also say one of the things they can do is the light sent to them. So if somebody opens a box and you've got a geofence around that you get an alert to say the box has been opened. So there's been some tampering in the wrong place. But hundreds of dollars each. And the principle was that we would actually get them back once they got to our customers and got delivered. But that hardly ever happened. So you know it was a one-time use, we were spending more money on the devices than actually, than actually any benefit. And actually ...
Russell Brown:
8:19
That's kinda neat, it works really well until people get there.
K. Drinkwater:
8:23
Exactly, right.
Russell Brown:
8:24
Do you think business in general understands IoT well?
K. Drinkwater:
8:27
Well, the thing about IoT is the a business is all very worried about it. I think if it's one of those things that's a three-letter algorithm and it's something to do with IT but they they don't actually need to worry about or actually understand it. They should think of it like TV, you know, nobody worries about how the TV picture gets here. It's just there. And IoT is just the same. It just tells you where it is, what's it doing and everything like that. You don't need to worry about what's in the box. You just need to consider what the advantages are of using it.
Russell Brown:
8:59
You were an early adopter in New Zealand terms of this kind of solution. Do you think your competitors are looking at you and seeing how it's going?
K. Drinkwater:
9:05
I'm not sure, we don't really gauge ourselves on our competitors. But I ... You know, I suppose one thing if competitors were interested in something like this, it's about tracking equipment, we'd be very happy to share our experiences.
Russell Brown:
9:19
That's jolly decent of you, but you are ... you're not just a New Zealand company, you're a global company. Is it important to you to choose systems that can work anywhere?
K. Drinkwater:
9:28
In this particular case, no but it means that we can learn and apply those learnings to our businesses in Europe, United States, Australia and Asia. So we, we have a go-to source of saying, "Hey, if you want something like this, we've got it.".
Russell Brown:
9:45
What are the key things you've learned?
K. Drinkwater:
9:46
Well, perseverance to try and find something and you've always got to have hope that you know that something is going to turn up at the end of the day. But the key thing that we've learnt is if we can get the right device for the right cost with the least maintenance, we'll always win the business over to solve the problem.
Russell Brown:
10:09
Right. And on the other hand, in making this podcast what I'm learning is that every discussion about IoT ends in talking about the value of the data it generates. Are you looking at ways to harness that?
K. Drinkwater:
10:22
We are in that we are looking at the turnaround times of these devices and trying to work out how many of these boxes we really need now. Because we know where they are and track them, we can actually reduce our spending on purchasing more. So, so it does add value but it's a very, I suppose, closed-loop network that we're using for this but it has shown to the business that we can do this with this type of equipment, what the possibilities are with other things like tracking individual pieces of freight.
Russell Brown:
10:55
Well, Kevin I'm fascinated to see where you go next with us, and I'm glad this worked for you. Cheers. Thank you.
K. Drinkwater:
11:00
Thanks Russell.
Russell Brown:
11:01
I'm joined now by a man who helped sell Mainfreight that solution, Spark's Managed Services Lead Michael Stribling. Welcome, Michael.
M. Stribling:
11:07
Thank you.
Russell Brown:
11:08
Well, I must say you've got a happy customer there. But I wonder why did Spark focus on asset tracking as the first area to start offering IoT solutions.
M. Stribling:
11:17
To me it comes down to two things. The first is that it's a big problem. So if you think about all the different companies and organisations that have assets and things of value that are out and about, there's a massive number of things that actually could be tracked. So for me it's a big market, it's a big opportunity. And I guess as well, it's a relatively simple solution. And so it's a simple device that you can clip onto a, onto an item and really be able to get an outcome pretty quickly.
Russell Brown:
11:46
And that kind of meets that definition of a basic business problem, doesn't it, you need to know where your stuff is.
M. Stribling:
11:51
Yeah, absolutely. And that is a, that's a common, a really common problem. You'd go and talk to a range of different organisations, whether that's a manufacturer, somebody in transport or logistics, or somebody in agriculture – there's a whole lot of things of value or things that that people want to be able to track and just know where they are. But also a whole lot of problems around supply chain, so how do I manage cost and efficiency in the way that I'm managing getting things from where I am to where my customers want them. And so, lots of opportunity.
Russell Brown:
12:21
So what's the, what's the product here? What are the core components of your asset tracking offer?
M. Stribling:
12:27
Look, it's actually relatively simple. You know, IoT can sound complex but in reality to me it's pretty simple. So there's three components. The first is the networks. So you've got to have a way to be able to connect to the device. The second is a physical device, something that's actually capturing location information, transmitting that back through the network. And then the third is a platform, which to me really means a way to visualise the information that we're tracking or capturing on the, on the sensor and then being able to do something with it. And that's actually with the value lies is being able to do something with that information. So in the asset tracking example, to be able to tell customers where their items are at what point in time to be able to, to stop loss, to stop theft or those kind of benefits.
Russell Brown:
13:12
Because I've seen the devices. They are pretty simple. They're not glamorous devices, are they?
M. Stribling:
13:16
No, not at all. They are, they're kind of pretty hard plastic-encased sensors really and they've got to be ruggedised. Because if you're putting a sensor on the side of a truck or .. or a segregation bin or on the side of a rail-wagon, you know, they're exposed to the elements, they get banged around, they're exposed to forklifts, they're ... you know, there's whole lots of things that can happen to them and so they are very functional, pretty basic look and feel but really they're there to do a job which is to be able to identify where the asset is and communicate that back. So they don't need to be to be snazzy, they just need to kind of work.
Russell Brown:
13:52
I'm interested in the fact that you partnered to deliver the solution: both devices and that the dashboard, even which is done by a company called Blackhawk. Was that a deliberate decision? Do you think partnering is something that works well in the space?
M. Stribling:
14:07
Absolutely. You know, we're good at part of, part of IoT really, so we as a communications business are great at building the networks and being able to manage data across networks. We're very good at being able to help customers understand the technology and how that technology and data can be used in their business but for us designing a device is not our core business. We're not hardware engineers, we're not there to manufacture those types of devices. And actually there are specialists and businesses that are focussed globally in in quite specific areas that we need to work with. So Blackhawk is a great example where they are working not only in New Zealand but globally looking at asset tracking and being able to build solutions around that. So it kind of made sense for us to partner.
Russell Brown:
14:54
Where were you at when you first took that solution to Mainfreight? Were the things that you learned or maybe you had to add once you've gotten up close to some real-world business needs?
M. Stribling:
14:54
Look, I guess for us IoT has been a journey that we as a business have been on. I think it's taken us two or three years really to to understand the market and to work through – both internally but also with our customers – figuring out how to make solutions really work in the real world. And it's been great to partner with Mainfreight because they've been open to being, I guess, on the leading edge of using the technology. So absolutely, there were things that we learned as we went along. We had a lot of the elements of the solution that we, that we had in place. But you know one of the examples of something that we've delivered for Mainfreight is, they wanted to be able to see goods coming into, into the warehouse. Now the inside of a building can be, can be more challenging from our, from a wireless perspective and so we rolled effectively little repeater devices that actually extend the coverage into the building environment. So understanding some of those requirements, we certainly have evolved, you know, the elements of our offer and our product as we've learned.
Russell Brown:
16:05
Kevin told me he wasn't too bothered about what his competitors were doing, but I'm guessing that you've taken a similar solution to other logistics companies.
M. Stribling:
16:15
Yeah, look, it's something that logistics/transport/freight companies are absolutely focussed on and say, you know, we're talking to a range of companies in New Zealand that are ... that see the benefits, not for ... actually a range of different use cases, even in ... Even for Mainfreight, there's probably 10 or 15 different use cases for asset tracking if you think about the different types of assets, trucks, containers, forklifts, assets around, around their, their depots. And equally, you know, a lot of their computers and a lot of companies around New Zealand are thinking about this. So certainly we're looking at where are the opportunities to bring these types of technologies to scale.
Russell Brown:
16:50
I guess logistics is an obvious one because it's about moving things around. Are there sectors where you think, "Oh, yes, IoT asset tracking would be useful" that might surprise people?
M. Stribling:
17:02
Yeah, look, you know, an example might be agriculture. So being able to track fruit or it could be wine vats or any of those types of high-value, those types of high-value items and through a supply chain. And, and agriculture is a similar to logistics in that, you know, it's actually the core goods that sit on a truck or sit in a train, that companies ... you know, that are valuable. So being able to to track things and that kind of environment. Or it might be healthcare, so high-value things like beds or, or blood supplies going through a hospital, again, really important that DHBs understand where those items are any one point in time in their environment.
Russell Brown:
17:42
Oh, see, that's interesting because it's largely indoors. So do similar principles apply for indoor asset tracking?
M. Stribling:
17:50
I guess that the ... that those three components that I talked about – the network, the device and the platform – are all similar or the same. What's more complex in, in an indoor environment is you have walls, you have concrete ... buildings tend to be built of concrete. There's lots of things that actually impede the signal within an indoor environment and so it is more challenging indoor to manage the network and the communication. And we've learnt that as we've, as we've tested the products out.
Russell Brown:
18:21
So what technology are you using for indoor? Is it different?
M. Stribling:
18:24
So, no. So, so in the example of Mainfreight we're using our IoT network, our LoRa network that we, that we talked about. What we've done though is put little, what we call "coverage in a box", so effectively little repeater almost like a broadband modem into, into each of the depots so that we get coverage in that environment. So we've got technology that ... like that that works and there's a whole range of other technologies that you can use to make tracking work indoors, so you know, wideband, RFID, there's lots of technology, WiFi, lots of technology that you can use. And for us I guess part of our experience is, we use all of those technologies as, as part of our business, so we've ... we're understanding how to kind of stitch them together to make the solution work.
Russell Brown:
19:07
Is there a solution for both indoor and outdoor at the same time? Because I've heard someone describe that to me as the Holy Grail for asset tracking.
M. Stribling:
19:16
It is the Holy Grail I guess. There are certainly solutions that work both indoor and outdoor and actually the Mainfreight solution is one that works outdoor and indoor. But I guess the quality of the solution so if you want to know at any one point in time no matter where you are in a building, where a particular asset or item is, that's more complex because as I talked about there's challenges around the communication, the way the network works, and so you've got to be able to figure out the physical environment, and how do you manage for that. So certainly it's possible, the solutions that are out there work in some use cases but we haven't got to those solutions that work in every use case yet.
Russell Brown:
19:53
It strikes me there are also some interesting possibilities as this technology becomes more widely accepted, that the cost of such. So say if I've got a particularly valuable thing, consignment that I'm sending, I could put a tracker in my own parcel so I knew where it was independent of the people moving it. That's, that's possible, isn't it?
M. Stribling:
20:14
Yeah, it's completely possible. And it becomes an interesting challenge for the likes of Mainfreight and for freight and logistics companies in that they need to be adopters of this technology because if they're not then, then they might fall behind their customers and so I guess that's an added advantage and driver of, of being early adopters of the technology.
Russell Brown:
20:33
How do you see this market growing, just finally?
M. Stribling:
20:34
IoT generally or asset tracking?
Russell Brown:
20:37
Specifically asset tracking.
M. Stribling:
20:39
I think there is a huge opportunity in asset tracking. As I said, we've only scratched the surface on both the use cases where asset tracking works but also the types of industries where we could see it applied. So I think about, as I talked about, you know, freight and logistics, manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare. There's huge opportunities in each of those markets. I think asset tracking will be a core part of the IoT story moving forward and that's I guess why we've chosen to invest in asset tracking as a lead for us.
Russell Brown:
21:12
We'll look forward to seeing how you go on it. Cheers Michael, thank you.
M. Stribling:
21:14
Thank you.
Russell Brown:
21:16
And that's all for this episode of "The Internet of Awesome Things". If you liked this episode, please feel free to review or rate us on your chosen podcast platform. And if you want to know more about any of the topics we cover, visit spark.co.nz/iot or email iot@spark.co.nz. And if you like this, you may also like my other podcast. It's about AI (or artificial intelligence) and it's called "Actually Interesting". You can find it in the Future section of the Spinoff website or just search your chosen pod platform. Thanks to our guests and to Spark, Cooper Studios and Gareth Thomas for our sweet theme music. I'm Russell Brown and I'm looking forward to catching up again soon because you and I, we have 20 billion things to talk about.
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