Recently, The Sustainability Consortium, in conjunction with Arizona State University, published a study on the feasibility of using digital tags to track clothing throughout its lifecycle. The goal was to promote more sustainable production and consumption through better information about products’ durability, longevity, repairability and reuse.
The consortium found that digital tags in clothing — near-field communication (NFC), QR codes, radio frequency identification (RFID) and Bluetooth tags — could in fact have a positive effect, and that consumers would find value in accessing data from tagged clothes, such as whether the items were authentic or where they were manufactured.
The challenge, however, comes from how the data gets collected — how today’s internet of things actually works along the clothing supply chain.
Current IoT technologies require too much manual intervention to realize the full benefits of such a supply chain management system. As the consortium study’s authors wrote, “Until a passive system is technologically and economically feasible, incentives will need to be developed to have people reliably engage over a period of time.”
Automation Is Good
We’d expect the IoT to be a model of advanced digitization, with products and materials communicating wirelessly to enable a range of digital applications, from supply chain management to asset tracking, food tracing and medication-adherence monitoring. But so far, the IoT, which was intended to connect things we use daily, has been a largely manual exercise, characterized by RFID tags, QR codes and scanners. People have been expected to initiate the connection between “internet” and “things” through a series of taps and scans, and to build out a costly infrastructure of communication interfaces and devices.
For the sake of better, smarter supply chains, and an internet of everyday things rather than an internet of expensive things, a new autonomous IoT is needed — the “passive system” that The Sustainability Consortium championed.
After all, automation is good. Things tend to work better the less we rely on human intervention. According to CarMax, 97% of American drivers drive automatic cars. Automatic transmissions rely on sensors to shift gears, rather than a manual stick shift and clutch. They’re easier to drive, and with more automatic-native electric cars coming off assembly lines, the days of manual transmissions appear numbered.
So, most of us drive automatic cars. Why is the IoT manual?
Current IoT technologies have gotten us far. But out at the IoT’s edge — the clothing in people’s closets, the food in their fridge, the medical supplies throughout the healthcare system — the IoT is still dark. Companies have made great strides in using IoT technologies for things like vehicles, appliances, shipping containers, building systems — the Internet of Expensive Things. But they’ve only just begun to confront the challenge of connecting raw materials, finished goods, product packaging and the bulk of things that surround us to the internet of everyday things. That type of connectivity requires autonomous IoT, based on ubiquitous technologies like Bluetooth and solutions in the cloud.
The Internet of Everyday Things
Evolving from the internet of expensive things, measured in the tens of billions of connected items, to the internet of everyday things, which comprises trillions of goods and materials, requires not only inexpensive, mass-produced digital tags, but also a communications infrastructure with infinite scale.
The necessary tags are disposable, near-zero-cost, Bluetooth-enabled IoT stickers, and make everything intelligent. The things that IoT stickers are affixed to become aware of their own location, condition and surroundings, communicating this information to a cloud-based sensing platform. The infrastructure is all the Bluetooth radios in existence today — and more come online every hour. Most people don’t carry with them an RFID scanner to manually initiate IoT communications. But they do carry what amounts to an always-connected, automated Bluetooth scanner — their smartphones. Moreover, our homes are starting to fill with Bluetooth-connected devices, including smart speakers, security cameras and even our refrigerators and washing machines.
The autonomous internet of everyday things functions like Apple’s new AirTag device, which communicates its location through a massive, existing network of nearby access points and Bluetooth-enabled iPhones. All those wireless radios act as scanner-sensors, and the more of them that can read and communicate information from an AirTag or IoT sticker, the more accurate and reliable they can be about everything from a product’s location to its temperature. And once initiated, the communication is automatic.
This autonomous internet of everyday things marks the beginning of sensing as a service. Once the trillions of goods and materials now “dark” to the IoT — with no sensing and no connectivity — start communicating securely through IoT stickers and artificial-intelligence-based distributed sensor networks, industries everywhere will gain unprecedented insight into their operations, supply chains, customers and more.
For example, products gain intelligence at manufacturing through IoT stickers. They monitor temperature-sensitive items from distribution to retailers to consumers. They enable item-level visibility in stores to ensure that shelves remain stocked and consumers engaged in real time. And finally, the products people use daily come alive and communicate encrypted, secure information about usage and condition — ultimately helping to reduce, reuse and recycle through one technology over the entire product lifecycle.
Going forward, brands and retailers, including food and beverage companies, will benefit from continuous insight and sensing as a service. Supply chains will evolve into demand chains, with real-time-monitoring, consumer analytics, traceability and more. Pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers will have automatic access to information about drugs, vaccines and supplies, to ensure authenticity, proper condition and handling, and efficient consignment.
The future is fast-approaching. The infrastructure is in place. With an autonomous internet of everyday things, supply chains will never be the same.
Mathieu Hoffman leads customer success at Wiliot, a sensing-as-a-service platform company.