Go ahead and blink, but the Internet of Things is everywhere around us. And, increasingly, IoT is on us. To get insight into the big picture of IoT, PYMNTS recently interviewed Sanket Amberkar, Senior Director of Innovation and New Ventures at Flextronics, a technology development company that is a big player in the IoT space.
When talking IoT with someone from Flex, the first thing you should probably know is the company prefers to call it the “Intelligence of Things,” Amberkar said. Internet of Things “only means connectivity,” he explained. “That’s what the Internet does, the Internet connects stuff together. But you’re also putting a lot more intelligence in the end devices themselves” he said. “And that means you’re really building smart and connected devices, not just connected devices … there’s security capabilities, there’s software capabilities, there’s sensors on these devices that were never there before, so it’s more than just about the Internet.”
Nomenclature aside, Flex is a big player in IoT – producing and helping to produce solutions involving tons of connected, intelligent devices that enable IoT in a variety of settings. In a recent interview with PYMNTS, Amberkar discussed where the company sees the biggest opportunities in IoT.
When talking IoT, themes that emerge include efficiency and cost reduction, which are the types of keywords that are often associated with cuts. Part of what’s so compelling about IoT is that service quality and results generally improve. Take as an example health care in the U.S., where hospitalization is enormously costly and the number of chronically ill patients from diseases such as diabetes is exploding. Wearable monitoring is completely changing the health care landscape for both patients and providers, Amberkar said. And this is also why Flex sees health care as the single biggest area for explosive growth in IoT, he said.
Take cardiac care. Instead of being monitored as in-patients at an exorbitant cost, Amberkar said, patients are now increasingly being discharged from hospitals wearing sensors. The patient is then free to go about daily activities, with accurate real-time monitoring and treatment management, at a lowered cost.
“And that information is being sent through your phone back to your hospital network or your primary physician,” he said.
Flex, incidentally, has partnered with IBM to produce a vest device that measures a patient’s heart rate and other vitals. The information is transmitted in real-time from the patient’s phone into an IBM-hosted cloud. Then IBM’s Watson himself crunches the analytics, all the while checking boxes on compliance and patient confidentiality. On the other end, a patient’s primary care physician receives updates and can notify a patient if there is reason for concern.
When Flex originally designed and manufactured Chromecast for Google a few years ago, they were given four weeks to come up with the prototype, Amberkar said. Google’s specs: It had to connect into the HDMI port of a TV, have Wi-Fi, be aesthetically pleasing, and could not cost a consumer more than $35. The company pulled it off — and Chromecast became the top media-streaming device in the world.
While Chromecast has continued to evolve, a lot of IoT consumer development these days is more subtle. Amberkar sees the consumer space as being an IoT area where there is a lot of growth, particularly with wearables and smart wearables that provide alarms, alerts, and other types of notifications. Fitness trackers have been around for a few years and they’re now evolving into different types of devices, like wristbands, rings and necklaces, he said. Also, smart sensors are starting to be embedded into devices like sports equipment such as tennis rackets and golf clubs – “so you can actually monitor a person’s swing,” he said. “And you can provide analytics and actually provide recommendations on how to improve that or change that, as needed.”
When asked about surprising consumer IoT developments, Amberkar pointed to the fashion industry. For example, some shoe manufacturers, he said, are experimenting with electronic ink that consumers can change in real-time. Your shoes might have one pattern on them during the day and then you can download a new look for the evening, he said. Similarly, he said, garment manufacturers are starting to play with embedding LED lighting.
“They’re basically using lighting as a way to indicate mood,” he said.
“It’s interesting to see how all these are coming into play,” he said, adding, “And they’re coming into play because the technology is available, but also the price point – it can be done without becoming too expensive.”
Energy is an area where Flex sees opportunity for IoT growth in the U.S., but perhaps not as much as in the last decade, Amberkar said. The recent stimulation was driven by aging infrastructure and expensive operating costs, he said. “For the last 10 years there’s been an upgrading of the energy infrastructure. Everything from transmission, distribution, generation – the whole smart grid space,” he said. A large portion of this effort was achieved through the almost $9.5 billion provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grid modernization investment, he said.
The major IoT energy upgrades that many U.S. consumers may already be experiencing the implementation of is smart metering. With smart meters, Amberkar explained, data is now being sent on a daily basis to the utility company, rather than the once-a-month meter reading of the olden days. “At the same time, because this is all connected in a bi-directional way, meaning information is going from your house to the utility and, conversely, they can send you signals and information when they know there’s large demand on the grid,” he said. Add smart sensors atop transformer poles that relay problems to utility companies without the customer having to make a phone call, and you’ve got a better customer experience, as well as cost savings.
With the ARRA faucet now turned off, Amberkar fears that the developments in energy IoT may not continue to grow as rapidly, with utilities needing to shoulder the investment on their own.
Battery and power is incidentally one of the core technologies Flex considers to be one of the building blocks for developing anything in the IoT space. And despite the end of economic stimulus for energy, Amberkar said, solar power is currently rebounding.
“The price point as well as the efficiencies have improved to the point where it’s actually becoming a more reliable source of electricity,” he said. Amberkar pointed to Walmart as one big commercial player that is investing heavily in rooftop solar. Flextronics itself participated in solar powering Levi’s Stadium, the recent site of Super Bowl 50 (and dubbed the “smartest stadium in NFL” by the Associated Press), in Santa Clara, California.
Automotive & Transportation
Amberkar cites automotive as an interesting space for IoT, primarily driven by the connected car – “whether it be cars that interact with the occupants, whether it be cars that communicate between themselves to avoid crashes or collisions, [or] whether it be cars that communicate to the surrounding infrastructure.” There are many different ways the connected car can and will evolve, Amberkar said. Smart traffic signals will work off of actual traffic flow and the cars themselves will respond accordingly. At the same time, the connected car will also eventually be able to monitor for pedestrians and cyclists based on different devices “talking” to one another, as well as inform new products like usage-based insurance where cars will actually “know” how much and where they are driven.
And why is there such a push for automakers like Ford to be in the mix for developing the connected car? It’s a selling point, for one, Amberkar said. “What they’re looking at is a potential to reduce vehicle damage costs by almost 25 percent. And that’s primarily coming from collisions or accidents,” he said. “So it’s a big thing for, of course, the insurance industry, but also even for the car manufacturers themselves.”
With safety and savings benefits for car manufacturers, insurance companies, and consumers, it’s no wonder the automotive IoT innovation highway is moving fast.
When it comes to IoT in agriculture, it’s all about yield, Amberkar said. “Especially if you look at parts of Africa, parts of Asia, Southeast Asia and other places – there’s just not enough yield to support the population growth,” he said.
By integrating smart sensors into their fields – sensors that report soil nutrient and water levels – farmers can farm smarter, use their resources better, and produce greater yields at a lower price point, Amberkar said. With more precise application of fertilizer and irrigation, he said, farmers can expect to improve their crop yields by 10 to 20 percent.
“There are companies that we work with that are embedding sensors in the farm themselves that would communicate with the farmer when they’re out in their tractor or harvester,” he said.
As it turns out, on truly smart farms, a farmer is no longer necessarily sitting in the cockpit of his equipment (although he can be). These days, farm machinery is guided by GPS and farmers are monitoring a series of screens, either within the equipment itself or from inside his office. Sensors collect data so farmers can farm smarter, but much of the actual manual labor is shifting to an automated model.
Worldwide, Amberkar said, there were zero smart sensors on farms in 2000. He added that 600 million sensors are expected to be installed by 2020 and 2 billion sensors by 2035.
Whether IoT is the Internet of Things or the Intelligence of Things, there are exciting developments happening rapidly in the category that are being widely adopted, worldwide. What’s new today will be the norm tomorrow. It may be worth mulling this over for a few seconds, while you’re enjoying your Latte Macchiato at Starbucks. The Powermat that may well be charging your mobile device at your table? Flex brought that technology to Starbucks. IoT is everywhere around us.