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How the IoT keeps Ben & Jerry's ice cream safe

If a dropped ice cream cone is one of the saddest images in the world, then the loss of tens of thousands of dollars of ice cream—especially Ben & Jerry’s ice cream—is a tragedy.

It’s also a huge financial hit, and one that Udder Ventures experienced when a new walk-in freezer malfunctioned at its Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop in the Haight-Asbury section of San Francisco.

The equipment wasn’t installed perfectly—it wasn’t localized for temperature variances in San Francisco properly, said John Slater, Udder Ventures’ chief euphoria officer (the managing member of the company). So, it kept tripping the system, and when the system tripped, the freezer shut off—and the ice cream melted.

“It turned off 230 times in nine months. That loss of product is substantial—tens of thousands of dollars of lost product,” Slater said. “I had many sleepless nights. And I’d come in every morning and have this anxiety: ‘Is all my ice cream melted again or did it stay on last night?’”

The scoop shop had a security system that included a trip alarm connected to the freezer. It would send an email notification if it sensed a problem, but no specific information about the problem, so Slater didn’t know, for example, if the freezer was shutting down again or if it was simply the defrost cycle, which occurs four times a day.

And if he received an alert in the middle of the night, he would have to go to the shop to make sure the freezer was still running.

“I had a lot of sleepless nights. I lost a lot of money. I finally decided this was giving me an ulcer and I needed a solution,” Slater said. 

Temperature sensor to the rescue

After nine months, the scoop shop’s freezer was recalibrated and stopped tripping the system and shutting down. After what Slater went through, though, he was on edge wondering if the freezer was going to fail again. The email alerts were still unhelpful and were often false positives. Slater needed a better sensor system.

He decided to use a temperature sensor system from Monnit Corp. in Kayesville, Utah. The system takes what’s essentially a dumb piece of equipment and makes it smart, said Brad Walters, CEO of Monnit.

Udder Ventures

Serving up ice cream at the perfect temperature at the Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shop in the Haight-Asbury section of San Francisco

It includes a probe that goes into the freezer; a wireless, battery-operated sensor; a gateway to receive the data and then send it to a cloud-based portal. Finally, software analyzes the data and alerts users when sensors detect a problem.

The sensors run on a quarter-size battery that will last two years, and they operate long range—200 feet to 300 feet through walls, Walters said.

Monnit’s sensors operate on low-frequency wireless technology Monnit developed specifically for IoT. Many other companies use existing wireless technology, which is less efficient and less reliable for IoT devices, he said.

“A lot of the companies out there are typically trying to use existing wireless technologies like Wi-Fi to deliver IoT connectivity,” Walters said. “The challenge is Wi-Fi was developed for streaming audio or streaming a video. It’s like using a Mack truck to try and deliver a little red wagon worth of data. So, inherently it’s much less efficient.”

Walters also said Wi-Fi-based sensors consume much more battery power, and transmit about one-fifth the range of Monnit sensors.

Slater said the sensor system was relatively inexpensive and easy to install, and it provides useful information—more than what Slater said he could get from any other sensor system.

“I took out the security system’s probe in the freezer, inserted the Monnit probe, put a battery in the sensor, logged into the iMonnit portal and turned the sensor on. And immediately my probe started feeding me information,” he said.

And when the system issues an alert, it includes detailed information to help Slater quickly determine if it’s an emergency or not.

When Slater gets an alert, he can log in to the portal via the iMonnit app or through Monnit’s web-based software. The online software uses SSL encryption for web access, and user access and permissions are managed through the software once logged in as an administrator for their account.

The software supports a variety of user permissions that the administrator controls, ranging from `view-only’ for individual sensor networks to creating additional administrators at the account level (and everything in between). For example, a user can have manage capabilities for one sensor network and view-only permission for all other sensor networks on the account.

Monnit also provides local PC software (Monnit Express), which runs on the user’s computer and does not need access to the internet. The software is limited to 10 wireless gateways and 50 wireless sensors at a time.

The data can also be exported to APIs to run in a company’s own applications.

Data allows for better business decisions

Slater said the alerts from the Monnit system provide useful information, which helps him make good decisions—does he need to wake up a manager to go into the store, does he need to call an emergency 24/7 repair person, or can he relax because he knows the defrost cycle triggered the alert?

“It’s a lot smarter than the security system I used to have,” he said. “And the whole thing, including a year’s subscription to the portal, is about $300. It’s a minor investment for all of the information you get and compared with the cost of lost product.”

Also, because the sensors are so accurate, Slater said he can adjust the freezer to the temperature he wants the ice cream to be. He can handle the product better, as well as better manage the power usage.

And he hasn’t lost any product—or sleep—since the sensor was installed.

“Unfortunately I had to go through a crisis to find out this technology was available,” Slater said. “But I went through it and thought there must be a better way, and sure enough there was.”

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