“The sun was sinking over the horizon behind me. I looked down at the darkening ocean far below. The coming night was critical, for it was the first over water. I knew only the sun-charged batteries aboard my airplane would keep me from disaster.” Bertrand Piccard glanced around at his audience. “The Solar Impulse is an image of the future: built-in, self-powered technology that pushes the envelope, making things possible now that were not before. Pushing people to create them. Like all of you here. After that silent night in the skies above, watching stars and checking data streaming from on-board sensors, I saw the dawn.” Bertrand looked at us once more, challenging us to reach for our own stars.
Brought together in the great Hemicycle of the European Parliament for the annual EIS Summit, which is organized with the support of the European Commission, we – dreamers and visionaries all – sat amazed as we listened to this inspirational adventurer, famous for achieving feats most had thought impossible.
Bertrand Piccard’s words encapsulate what Silent Sensors does: tags and sensors powered by strips of energy harvesting material embedded into products that stream data to the Cloud and Apps. You might think we are a classic advanced engineering company, and we are – but we are more than that. We are part of the future, and the future is in data. Why and how did we, and many companies like us, get here?
Many strands have come together to give a strong impulse and direction to the way we seek to live. Markets are always evolving and changing, thanks to economics, technology, consumer preferences, social policies and the consequential impact of new products and services. Just look at how social media can be used and abused, and how the European Commission is proposing EU wide data management norms to ensure we can benefit from what data offer us, as companies and as consumers.
Dynamic, creative, tech aware people are everywhere. Never before in human history has there been such a jump in educated, ambitious, curious, active and mostly young people, who see things differently and who seek the power to both enhance life values and influence the products and services they buy. These consumers demand and buy more; as their preferences change and align the same products are available everywhere. Distinctive products and services, focused on leveraging the value not only of the physical asset but the usable data it generates for its entire lifetime, will be tomorrow’s winners.
The shift is happening already. Big sectors like automotive, transport and logistics are all looking to lock in long term business by offering customers a service, not simply a ‘thing’. Some makers and suppliers are beginning to price their products by usage and creating in-field service operations to monitor product status and performance for clients.
The environmental impact of production is huge, not only in the consumption of raw materials but also in energy. Badly made, used and maintained products burn up both energy and themselves. No-one wants this. New materials and processes are completely transforming industries, from their business strategy and models to costing, pricing, selling and servicing. It is now possible to install highly flexible, economic manufacturing and assembly lines, ones that use less raw materials, less power and less wastage.
The world is engaged in seeking out many sources of energy, harvesting it from the sun, the wind, the waves, and even small vibrations and stresses. What drives this is the knowledge that fossil fuels have a limited shelf-life, and advances in technology that are making alternatives economically viable. Using as little as needed is key to adopting alternatives, and the public is buying.
Badly used and maintained products cause damage and accidents, to objects and to people. That’s a heavy toll for everyone, from user and insurance company to supplier and public. Better monitoring and performance reduce the risk of failure and damage, so there are fewer accidents all around.
All things come to an end, and all things have an end-of-life value. Knowing how a product has been treated during its lifetime helps set a proper value in the recycling ‘exchange’ by letting the recycler know how much can be recovered; in turn this means less raw materials have to mined and processed, saving energy and damaging the environment less.
The Internet of Things encapsulates and brings all of these drivers together. Yet IoT is a constantly moving expression, as technology is the fastest moving driver of all. The research we do and that we receive the benefit from lets us achieve four key technology objectives at the same time: make tracking and sensing components more accurate, make them smaller, extend their transmission range and use less energy. When embedded on a strip of energy harvesting material so they can work independent of batteries, you get self-powered arrays that can ‘disappear behind the dashboard’ for the lifetime of a physical product. To make that economically viable we print electronics using additive processes which save immense amounts of material and energy. All that brings the Internet of Things to life for movable assets made of rubber, polymers and elastomers.
Imagine then the transport industry, with its millions of tyres and filters, all sending status signals to Cloud based systems and to smartphone Apps. That’s a lot of data, data which must be both protected and made accessible across borders to many owners and audiences: manufacturers, suppliers, buyers, users, insurers, market analysts and policy agents. It is clear why the European Commission has launched the Digital Single Market Strategy, as Director-General Viola details in his article.
The ever-lower cost of generating and sending data from tags and sensors is encouraging many companies to connect their products to the Internet. Here cloud based computing comes into its own, as it is the only effective and efficient way of managing and storing the high volume of data each and every sensor generates through its lifetime.
Everyone knows the intrinsic value of sensing is to be notified of events as they happen, whether that is a blown tyre, a blocked filter or a lost container. Being able to track performance through time for a specific asset adds much more value. That comes from storing a stream of data, so it is true to say the real value of a sensor is not so much in the physical device, but in the data. Recognizing this is a true game changer for businesses, because it can transform them from the makers of things into the providers of information for a product’s lifetime. It means that a product that originally sold at €1 can now sell at €1 plus another €1 a month for years, money happily paid by the user because the value is no longer just in the use of the asset, but in the monitoring and management of its performance – and potentially the user’s performance also, just like FitBit does.
The data generated have value not only for the single user, but for much wider audiences also. Data have universal value. Here’s an example. Under-inflated tyres can add up to 4% extra fuel costs, and will likely need repair sooner and last fewer years. It’s good for drivers to know what a tyre’s pressure is, and when to adjust it. It’s good for fleet managers to know too; they can also look at tyre performance across time to judge how driver performance impacts their condition.
Tyre manufacturers are beginning to offer themselves as service providers, taking care of tyres on behalf of their clients. They need data from the tyres so they can anticipate when to replace them without inconveniencing the client. Repairers, re-treaders and re-groovers all need data so they assess whether a tyre is worth putting back on the road again, and of course to register the fact the tyre has been repaired. Asset managers need to know how the tyre has performed so they can price its value for sale to recyclers at the end of a tyre’s useable life.
Manufacturers can use aggregate data to see the performance of specific tyres models on specific vehicles through time. That can and will affect product development, to make tyres more efficient at lower costs. Insurance companies can use aggregate data to see which tyres are more prone to fail and cause accidents (20% of road accidents are caused by faulty tyres). Government agencies can use aggregate data to check on carbon footprint and recycling value as offset against use of raw materials. The need to crunch high volumes of data like these gives a stimulus to developing algorithms (Artificial Intelligence) that can see patterns and begin to be predictive. Modelling possible ‘futures’ is vitally important for product designers and public policy makers alike.
Think of all the steps where tags and sensors can be applied to your products, and all the points where different users and audiences can benefit from the data generated, both in the specific and the aggregate. The value of universal data goes on and on.
A Digital Single Market will help IoT companies like us define and adhere to certified information and communication technologies to meet market wide safety standards. Standardisation can be frustrating at times, but its ultimate benefit is well known. Independent of the important issues of privacy, confidentiality, copyright and the commercialization of data, the benefits of being able to create a single market for data are enormous.
Remember that data are intrinsically “non-rivalrous”; they can be used and re-used by many parties at the same time and still retain their value. It makes sense to create an environment where data can be used many times over to maximise an economic and societal good. The unimpeded movement of data across borders, giving portability of content to consumers and users, is as important a step as the reduction and elimination of tolls were across Germany in the nineteenth century. If data are currency, then this initiative will have the same impact as the introduction of the euro.
A Single Market for data will, as it says on the tin, reduce frictions in online exchanges to maximise the positive impact of a borderless digital revolution on people’s daily lives and on businesses. Combatting counterfeit goods, reducing cyber-crime, harmful trading practices and fraud will all encourage more businesses and consumers to create digital presences and will help make eCommerce and eBanking more widely adopted. Ensuring consumer rights to privacy and the right to be forgotten, promulgated by the European Parliament as I write this article, allays fears that we, as individuals, can be damaged or manipulated by having too much of us known to third parties. This should encourage more people to feel safer being on-line.
Facilitating borderless data exchanges, where anonymous non-personal data can be shared between audiences (rights and pricing being another matter entirely) for the benefit of consumers, suppliers, producers, researchers, trade and consumer associations, third parties such as insurance companies, and government agencies, is an immensely beneficial social good. From when they were first created in the seventeenth century, open ‘clearing houses’ for trade, stocks and finance have always proven to be the foundation for solid economic growth through time. We would not be here, were it not for them. I believe the initiative in facilitating a Digital Single Market will have the same impact.
We see four clear future benefits across the board.
1) Increasingly effective use of better technology will improve an asset’s performance, extend its useable lifetime and increases its end-of-life value. Inexpensive, self-powering strips of energy harvesting material will make sensor arrays light and ‘forgettable’, so the value becomes the data, streamed to Apps and the Cloud.
2) A physical asset will come with a digital copy from the moment of its making, born with a Certificate of Provenance which will enhance warranties, lower insurance premiums, and increase resale and end of life values. Data generated by tags and sensors throughout an asset’s lifetime will be seen to have both immediate and future value, not only for the user but for wider audiences, with the digital history of assets available on exchanges for commercial and social purposes.
3) We see that many companies will view self-powered asset lifetime management systems as a future differentiator in their offering. Not only will it make their, and their end customers, businesses more productive, it will let manufacturers and suppliers move from being simple sellers of units to become essential providers of a service, a service which comes with a long tail of revenue from locked-in customers.
4) For society as a whole, manufacturers can reduce their imprint in using raw materials, help suppliers provide products with a lower carbon footprint, and help customers use less energy, effort and money to achieve their goals. This is often described as being the “Circular Economy”.
The challenges are clear too. Without public engagement, it is unlikely that commercial initiatives will build a transparent, borderless digital market on their own. Conversely, thinking that governments will do it won’t work, because a commercial ‘buy-in’ is a sine qua non. The path to effective implementation can only be in partnership, where EU agencies create and facilitate the environment in which commercial initiatives can be collaboratively launched and nurtured. We are lucky to be involved with the EU’s R&D Horizon 2020 programme, which is a excellent example of collaboration and support. We are committed to help make the vision of a Digital Single Market a reality, because it helps all of us.
We may not be as completely adventurous as Bertrand Piccard, but we are passionate about pushing the envelope of what’s possible. His telling of that night, high in the sky with challenge in his heart, inspires us. The EU’s vision of being able to empower consumers and benefit business through strategic initiatives like this encourages us to reach for our own stars.