This is one of the most keenly debated topics in the sector at the moment, and with good reason. Best predictions point to the IoT industry (that is already worth over $600 billion) almost tripling in size between now and 2020. Field service industries are in an excellent position to capitalise on this extra demand, but the IoT also has a lot of potential to transform operational procedures.
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When discussing the IoT it is important to remember that it is not futuristic technology, rather it is a technology that is already affecting the way industries operate. A recent survey found that 70% of retail and manufacturing companies have already started a digital transformation project in their supply chain and logistics operations. With this in mind, there are three main areas where the IoT is likely to change field services in the next five to ten years; in the warehouse, in fleet management and in the service offered to customers.
Using the IoT should not seem like a radical concept in the warehouse. To a certain extent processes in warehouses have long relied on adding additional information like barcodes and labels to items to make them more easily readable by computers. The IoT is a natural continuation of this but with far more interconnected items. The term being coined for this is ‘the smart warehouse’.
Radio-frequency identification or (RFID) underpins a lot of what a smart warehouse can achieve. Touted by many as the replacement for barcodes, RFID tags track the exact location of an item at any time. Picked items won’t need scanning on or off the shelf, onto a pallet and so on, their data will be updated when the item moves. Add in further sensors around the warehouse and it is possible to get a completely accurate, digital picture of what is going in and out of a warehouse at any given time. This would reduce the amount of manual work required, increase speed and accuracy. A recent survey found seven out of ten supply chain decision makers plan to increase their use of technology to create smart warehouses by 2020, so this is certainly a desirable change.
The IoT is able to place sensors that connect engineers to their management and introduce greater accountability. Managers will be able to observe engineers on their routes and monitor how well they are performing. This may help address small issues like leaving the engine running whilst working on jobs or more pressing errors like unsafe driving. Managers could also measure how long it is taking an engineer to complete certain jobs and use this data to allocate training resources.
The goal of this is not to keep tighter control, but to use data to root out inefficiencies that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. With larger supply chains frequently spending millions of pounds a year on fuel, even small changes like clamping down on engineers leaving their engines running could lead to large cost savings.
Of all the potential advancements, the IoT’s impact on customer service is most likely to affect the dynamic of the field service industry. With the addition of sensors, devices on customer sites will be able to automatically alert on faults that need repairs, or consumables that need topping up; even before any issues have occurred.
Not only is this significant for the customer who gets a much better service, it is also likely to change the way services are measured. At present maintenance and repair SLAs are based on a set response time. A customer wants to know that if their equipment has a fault someone will be onsite quickly to fix it. However, as this kind of technology becomes more commonplace, the focus will soon be on ensuring equipment doesn’t have faults at all. A next day response time on broken equipment will go from being an excellent service to a day too late.
The advantages discussed above could all be realistically introduced within the next five to ten years. The bigger challenge for the supply chain however, is to connect the technologies together. If a smart warehouse could be connected to a field team, which is also connected to customer equipment, supply chains could be set up to run almost automatically. As we add more interconnect ‘things’ to our networks, this will certainly be possible in the future.
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