Is ice cream the real reason IoT was invented?

“Smile, there is nothing ice cream can’t solve.” Despite going to great efforts T-shirt sayings rarely catch the real mood of our times but this one is something special. For one it is true and two, it seems to dovetail neatly as a great example of why one of the biggest technology trends of the past couple of years actually exists.

The internet of things (IoT) has had a lot of hype, some of it justifiable and some of it misdirected. It is still climbing the slope of expectation on Gartner’s Hype Cycle and while numerous analyst reports throw around big-number forecasts about future IoT device market penetration, the reality is that in most sectors it still needs a viable use case.

But things are changing, certainly in the industrial space. At Dell EMC World in Austin, Texas last month, one booth was dedicated to showing how collaboration through IoT can work to make ice cream manufacture more efficient.

Dell EMC’s IoT commercial solutions manager Kevin Terwilliger played host in an attempt to show that IoT is no longer hype but a viable technology solution in use today. Using partners such as Emerson, Software AG, Eigen Innovations and Kepware to help illustrate the point, Terwilliger talked about how connected devices and machines, sensors, data and analytics can play a part in improving the ice cream manufacturing process. Living the ice cream dream? Not quite. While it is a hypothetical solution created for the purposes of the event, each of the parts is, according to Terwilliger already in action in the real world. So what’s the vision?


Ice cream pieces

The solution is broken down into three key areas – ice cream manufacturing inputs (which includes power and energy, ingredients and IT), ice cream manufacturing operations and ice cream manufacturing outputs (including distribution). All, says Terwilliger, can be improved through IoT.

“[That includes] the manufacturing of the ice cream and the energy that has to power the process, everything from automated demand response to valve monitoring but then as it goes out towards retail you need refrigerated trucking and refrigerated warehousing – being able to monitor all that is a huge challenge, for ice cream and other perishable goods,” he says, adding that 33 percent of food in the world is wasted, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization because the supply chain isn’t efficient.

“We want to solve that challenge, which is why we’ve focussed this on ice cream,” adds Terwilliger.

Part of the demo involved a mini conveyor belt with imaging sensors monitoring the packaging. Produced by Eigen Innovations, a company that uses video analytics to detect product defects, the aim is to ensure quality compliance. Greg Picot, director of product development at Eigen Innovations says the company gathers data from the factory floor, or in this case the mini conveyor belt, to help manufacturers remotely monitor products and packaging and be alerted to any potential issues.

“We collect data from various types of sensors and machines and process it through a Dell Edge Gateway [industrial embedded system] to determine what is important to upload to the cloud,” he says. “What we utilise in the cloud is an artificial intelligence layer that looks for anomalies and correlations in the data that can lead to defects in the manufacturing process. We develop algorithms which then feed back to the factory floor itself to help with decision making.”

Picot had a little demo of a Haagen-Dazs ice cream box moving along the mini conveyor belt. The box had a dent in it which was picked up by the imaging system. The system then alerts the factory floor to remove the item. Picot says that the interactions between humans on the factory floor analysing real-time data and the data-driven system enhance the machine learning process, improving the system for each specific use case.


Not flaky

According to Terwilliger, although the system isn’t actually real, it does show the collaborative process which is key to making IoT work in industry - from energy management, to increasing crop production, to improving production operations, to cold chain logistics and retail automation. It’s not just big companies either. He is keen to point out that not IoT businesses in the chain are large firms such as GE.

Clearly this is a fragmented market. Does Terwilliger envisage any impending consolidation?

“Yes, the IoT market is very fragmented today from the number of protocols required to connect all the 50 billion new connected devices coming online to the 400-plus IoT platforms. The only way the IoT market will accelerate will be through the consolidation of technologies and partnerships.”

Dell EMC has over 60 partners in its IoT programme so Terwilliger can see first-hand that fragmentation in action. But as Dell EMC is in the market of selling IoT gateways and infrastructure tech, it won’t really care. Helping customers find use cases for IoT is fuelling its own fires.

So what sort of efficiencies have you seen? Surely this is where the market driver will be?

“We see a maturity curve of IoT starting with operational efficiencies, moving to customer experience then expanding to mitigating risks, and finally the creation of new revenue models,” says Terwilliger.

So could this solution work in the real world?

“Why not?” says Terwilliger. “Everyone loves ice cream.”


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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