The journey starts with the question: What is our business case?
It is vital that you have a real business case when putting forward IoT to a potential customer.
It needs to be:
- simple to understand and easy to implement
- versatile and easily understood by the client
- Real and relevant to the client’s business objectives
We asked Microsoft about the business needs of its current customers (and potential clients), and we have learned that the business case should also illustrate:
- monitoring of assets and predictive maintenance
- integration with enterprise software
- generation of new business opportunity
- operational cost reduction
How to implement: Knowing the business case, we can now put this into practice. The printing device is a great example to explain the concept and can be easily substituted with another asset that is relevant to your client or prospect, says Michał Puterman, IT operations and development guild master, Objectivity.
Everyone knows how printers work, what to expect from them and what problems could be encountered in their daily usage. Our potential client understands its, business better than we do so let’s allow them to identify the opportunities we don’t see – hence the importance of using a presented asset (in our case a printer) that can be easily substituted in the business case. Of course we should also think about some obvious benefits that our solution would bring to the client. Now, where is the business in printing devices and how can we meet other business case requirements?
The company Print Prince is leasing printing devices for office use. It is not generating profit on an asset when it is not working due to product failure, lack of toner or lack of paper. Each printer requires services for both repair and maintenance. Support and service is complicated because often the information about malfunction or lack of toner is only provided once the machine is out of action and affecting productivity. It is hard to monitor the device and predict failure or the need for new toner.
The company (Print Prince) has currently ten different type of devices, with around 1,000 devices leased to 60 clients in three cities.
By introducing an IoT solution, Print Prince will be able to: Reduce chaos in planning for the technical team and limit the number of visits required at the client’s site/s (this would save costs) be informed about failures as early as possible without the need to wait for the client’s call (this would limit the time the asset is not productive) track the number of failures per asset, to predict when assets need to be replaced to keep quality of service high (increasing overall quality)
So we have a concept and the business case, how are we going to achieve it?
To deliver the solution, we have used the Microsoft IoT platform with the following components:
- IoT Hub – responsible for receiving messages from the gateways and sending messages to the printing devices
- Stream Analytics – to analyse incoming messages and react if necessary
- SQL database – to store the messages that can be used later by the BI platform
- Machine Learning – to run algorithms allowing prediction of a few parameters
- Power BI – to present data in the form of interactive reports, charts and dashboards
- Microsoft Dynamics CRM – enterprise software storing information about assets and clients
- Atlassian Jira – ticketing system used by technicians to organise the backlog of tasks, dispatching and tasks assignment
- Dashboard – our web application used to group and visualise the current state of devices
Why do we need a gateway? Well, there are two reasons. The first one is that the Microsoft IoT platform doesn’t support the SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) at least yet directly from devices. The gateway is a module enabling translation between protocols: SNMP used by the printer and AMQP (Advanced Message Queueing Protocol) supported by the IoT Hub. If we want a ‘return channel’ then the gateway would also be used to translate from AMQP to SNMP protocol.
The second reason is security. The assets are connected to the client’s network, therefore there might be an issue with the direct connection to the Internet. Thanks to a gateway, we can make sure the communication is secured.
The dashboard is something that the user sees after successfully logging in to the application. It is used by an analyst to determine the current status of each client’s account, using device information including current RAG status, level of toner and days left, Mean Time before Failure (MBTF), quality and connection status to enable smart dispatching of service technicians.
RAG status clearly indicates which devices require our attention in the first place.
- Red means failure or 0% of toner level. It is equal to “my assets do not bring value to me or my client”
- Amber shows that the toner level is low and soon someone will have to replace it
- Green means all is OK
The view is easy to sort and filter in order to present only those devices that require maintenance. Thanks to that, the analyst can identify where to send the technician first and to which devices. All this is using logic that collects and analyses messages sent by the assets, while they work, for example: toner level 10%, toner level 5% or printed one page. It is a good example of assets’ monitoring with Stream Analytics.
Let’s focus on “days left” parameter. This parameter is calculated for the specific device type using an algorithm hosted by Machine Learning. This means that there is a data model behind it and, depending on data injected, it counts the parameter informing a user that “this type of device with its current load should operate for “X” more days”.
For the analyst, this is very important information. Sending a technician to the client’s site is often expensive, so if there is a broken device, and another one with almost empty toner that most probably would need to be replaced tomorrow, we can ask our technician to replace it straight away and save the cost of travel the next day. This is a good example of predictive maintenance.
There is also one exciting feature hidden behind it. It would be nice if we could send some commands directly to the assets from our dashboard via the gateway. For example, the analyst can remotely switch the mode of printer quality between normal and eco to extend the time of a printer’s operability.
Reducing visits to a client’s site will cut the cost of maintenance. To make it even more interesting, this action can be performed automatically by the Stream Analytics module. When the toner level falls below 10%, for example, Stream Analytics will send a message through the gateway straight away after receiving the message “toner level at 10%”. It is a good example of effort reduction and automation.
Visualisation of collected data in Power BI
It is hard to visualise all this data for many devices, but with help of Power BI (an application for business intelligence to be used within the Azure environment) it is achievable. Our challenge is to create the most relevant views for the Print Prince Technician and analyst.
We have decided that it would be nice to know where the assets (printers) are located geographically. Being a technician that visits our clients’ locations, I would like to know exactly where the assets are located on the floorplan to avoid wasting time looking for them.
The proposed views have been configured accordingly:
I would like to analyse the following chart in more depth:
This represents the load of a particular asset. The black line shows the designed average load level, declared by the manufacturer of the printing device. It simply means that the asset shouldn’t break too often during usage up to that line. This is also the point at which the three-year warranty applies.
If we want a printer to operate longer, we have to keep its load balanced. Thanks to this visualisation, the Print Prince analyst can easily notice if an asset is overloaded and, at the same time, any others that might not be loaded enough.
This identifies any printer likely to suffer more failures and reduction in its life time – which would lower the quality of our service and result in more travelling for our technician, leading to increased costs. At the same time, we have an underutilised device which is not generating as much profit as it could. In both cases, an account manager can act as follows:
- Propose an additional device to the client with the overloaded asset
- Replace the overloaded printer with another type of device with the right parameters and designed load level
- Move the under used device to another client or location where the load would increase and hence generate more profit
All of this is a great example of identifying new business opportunities within an existing client’s portfolio and generating more profit from the assets we possess.
Enterprise software integration
We have decided to use Microsoft Dynamics CRM to show the integration possibilities between enterprise applications. Our example, the company Print Prince, is using CRM to store information about the assets and their current deployment. The system also collects records of failures.
Thanks to this information, Account Managers are always up to date with the quality of service that clients receive. Having all data from analysts, they can easily propose new devices to be deployed or other actions to increase efficiency and quality, always being supported by real data coming from the assets directly. Account Managers will no longer be surprised by low client satisfaction; if there are any issues they will know almost immediately.
Moreover, Print Prince uses third party billing software integrated with CRM, which gives us the opportunity to automate the invoicing process: as soon as our IoT solution updates the number of printed copies to the CRM the invoicing data is ready.
Another example of integration with an enterprise level application is automated communication between Jira and our IoT solution. Each time a malfunction is detected, a ticket is created automatically, enabling the fault to be tracked through the dedicated technicians’ workflow.
The Print Prince business case meets all the requirements to become a great IoT selling tool. Thanks to its simplicity, we can trigger the association between what is seen as a Printer and the potential client’s real asset. It is all about use-case justification: as soon as the client grasps the concept, the potential areas for IoT deployment will come thick and fast. It is better when the idea comes from the client, we do not need to convince anyone to their own ideas right?
The author of this blog is Michał Puterman, IT operations and development guild master at Objectivity.
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