The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity, which enables these objects to collect and exchange data. The ability for these objects to be sensed and controlled remotely across existing network infrastructure allows for more direct integration between the physical world and digital world, resulting in improved efficiency, accuracy and economic benefit.

Cisco Systems estimates that approximately 12.1 billion Internet connected devices were in use in April 2014; this figure is expected to grow to above 50 billion by 2020. Overall, the Internet Business Solutions Group at Cisco Systems estimated that more than 1.5 trillion “things” exist in the physical world and 99 percent of physical objects will eventually become part of a network.

The term “connected devices” refers to devices that exchange data through the standard Internet and gain some benefit by connection over a network. Two basic types of connected objects exist: physical-first and digital-first. As stated in a briefing paper from ABI Research in May of 2014, physical-first consist of objects and processes that do not typically generate or communicate digital data unless augmented or manipulated, whereas things belonging to the digital-first domain are capable of generating data and communication it on for further use, inherently and by design.

For instance, a hardcopy of a book or a vinyl record are examples of a physical-first object. However, an e-book and an MP3 audio file are digital-first. They are essentially native to the digital world because they are comprised of binary code rather than physical substance. Similarly, a brick-and-mortar store is physical-first and an online store is digital first.

While many physical-first objects can be tagged using digital tools and technologies, such as RFID, they typically do not provide the same level of data and a similar level of insight. For example, a marketer can track the way a reader uses and reads an e-book by studying every click and tap. A tagged hardbound book may reveal its location, but it will provide little more data because paper and ink aren’t digital. However, a bookstore clerk or librarian trying to locate the book for a customer would find the RFID info valuable. A key component that makes it possible to bring the physical “things” into the digital realm is through technology like RFID.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is the wireless use of electromagnetic fields to transfer data. RFID tags contain electronically stored information for the purposes of automatically identifying and tracking objects. Unlike a barcode, the tag does not necessarily need to be within the line of sight of the reader – it may be embedded in the tracked object. RFID is one method for Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC).

What impact does IoT and RFID technology have on field services?

IoT and RFID technology impacts every business in some shape or form. Mobile, the Internet of Things and RFID (sensors) will change the types of devices that connect into a company’s systems. These newly connected devices will produce new types of data. The IoT will help field service businesses gain efficiencies, harness intelligence from a wide range of equipment, improve operations and increase customer satisfaction. IoT will also have a profound impact on field service worker’s day-to-day work. It will improve employee safety, reduce administration time, make it easier to access business related data (product details, client account history, warranties, etc.), and minimize travel time with better information and faster communication. While there are many ways IoT could improve the field service company, there are at least three major benefits of IoT that will impact every business, which include: communication, control and cost savings.

Communication. IoT communicates information to people and systems, such as state and health of equipment (e.g., on or off, charged, full or empty) and data from sensors that can monitor tools and parts on a company vehicle and estimate time of arrival of a field technician. In most cases, the business did not have access to this information before or it was collected manually and infrequently. For example, an IoT-enabled HVAC system can report if its air filter is clean and functioning properly. Almost every company has a class of assets it could track. GPS-enabled assets can communicate their current location and movement. Location is important for items that move, such as trucks in the field, but it’s also applicable for locating items and people within an organization. In the transportation industry, a business can deliver real-time tracking and condition of parcels and pallets. For example, courier companies can use sensors to track the location of a package, step in the delivery process (distribution center vs. vehicle) and estimated time of arrival.

Control and automation. In a connected world, a business will have visibility into a device’s condition. In many cases, a business or consumer will also be able to remotely control a device. For example, a business can remotely turn on or shut down a specific piece of equipment or adjust the temperature in a climate-controlled environment. Meanwhile, a consumer can use IoT to unlock their car or start the washing machine. Once a performance baseline has been established, a process can send alerts for anomalies and possibly deliver an automated response. For example, if the brake pads on a truck are about to fail, it can prompt the company to take the vehicle out of service and automatically schedule maintenance. The RFID then can provide detailed part information like warranty, installation date, known defects, and other compatible manufacturers that could be used.

Cost savings. Many field services companies will adopt IoT to save money. Measurement provides actual performance data and equipment health, instead of just estimates. Businesses, particularly industrial (manufacturing, utilities, telecoms, etc.) companies, lose money when equipment fails. With new sensor information, IoT can help a company save money by minimizing equipment failure and allowing the business to perform planned maintenance. Sensors can also measure items such as driving behavior and speed, to reduce fuel expense and wear and tear on consumables. New smart meters in homes and businesses can also provide data that helps people understand energy consumption and opportunities for cost savings.

As the Internet of Things develops and complimentary technologies like RFID tag evolve and becomes increasingly used, field service businesses with will need to adapt or quickly encounter a competitive disadvantage.