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Start thinking strategically about how sensor networks can help your company, but start with a small project.

At Pickberry Vineyard, in Sonoma, Calif., owner Lorna Strotz thought a sensor network might help her better understand why grapes weren't growing on a particular plot of land. "We were having trouble growing in the soil, and we thought moisture could be a part of the problem." So when Accenture approached Strotz in fall 2003 and asked if she'd let them use her vineyard as a test bed for a mesh network that measures soil moisture, rainfall, wind velocity and direction, and air and soil temperature, among other things, she jumped at the offer. "It's a great way to gather detailed information," she says. The project started in January and while it's too soon to tell about the soil issue, Strotz expects the mesh network to be very useful in the coming months as the weather gets cold. "For example, if you have a network that tells you your grapes are about to freeze, you can do something about it promptly. Some vineyards use wind blowers to keep the air moving to make sure the grapes don't freeze, for example." And that can be significant, since each ton of grapes can bring in anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000.

Pickberry Vineyard, which grows grapes for Ravenswood Winery, is one of the few small companies that has the luxury of a sensor network (Accenture installed it for free as part of the research deal). Most small and medium-sized businesses aren't that lucky. Each sensor node can cost upwards of $200. "At this point it's really only the larger companies that can afford sensor networks," says Dennis Gaughan, a research director at AMR Research.

But there are some inexpensive ways you can prepare for what's coming, and the IT department is a good place to start. Vendors such as Crossbow Technology Inc. and Ember Corp. sell starter sensor network kits for as little as $2,000, which means that, for a small investment, CIOs can begin to automate asset tracking. "Right now, that's done with bar-code scanners and sticky tape," says Gartner's Reynolds. "The time spent doing all that tracking manually is expensive, but the real problem is when the IT department realizes they're missing a $50,000 server. So there's an immediate benefit in terms of keeping track of the asset." Whereas RFID has physical limitations in how far the signal can transmit, sensor networks can blanket entire campuses, constantly relaying information on the location and status of assets.

Another good starting point is preventive maintenance. At Intel Corp., researchers aren't just conducting extensive R&D into wireless sensor networks that they could potentially sell to their customers, they're also deploying them in their own fabs—the factories that make the Pentium 4 microprocessors. "You have all these pumps and motors that process all the needs of the fab; it's extremely important for those machines to be running at all times," says Lama Nachman, an Intel researcher who develops sensor networks. "If anything goes down, it's a huge loss, basically in the millions of dollars." At the moment, most of Intel's manufacturing equipment is inspected manually, which takes months. "It's very error prone, and we're happy if we can hit each piece of equipment once a quarter, which doesn't give you the detection you're looking for." Nachman estimates that the manual process uncovers about 80 percent of all potential breakdowns annually. "If you can do it once a day, you can catch more like 95 percent of the cases." So Intel is fitting all its equipment with sensors that can measure vibration and predict when a piece of machinery needs to be replaced.

Talk to your business unit heads and do some brainstorming on how sensor networks could create greater efficiencies or deliver deeper analytics. Analysts say most companies can achieve ROI in the supply chain, asset tracking and building HVAC systems, even in these early stages. There are a slew of vendors out there that specialize in different areas of the market. Some focus, for example, on creating efficiencies in heat and electrical systems. Others develop only the nodes, not the sensors. "Look at the integrators and service providers who know the limitations and challenges of this technology; those are the folks you want involved in the process," says AMR's Gaughan.

Ultimately, you'll want to fold your sensory network into a larger system, such as order management or your supply chain. It's those integration issues that will be your largest headache, say analysts. "It's not a trivial task," says Gaughan. "A lot of factors will have to come together in terms of standardization." The ZigBee Alliance claims it will have standards ready by the end of the year, easing integration woes and helping to secure the networks. "If you are controlling a building's lighting and air conditioning," says Bob Heile, chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, "you need to make sure that's as secure as if you were doing a $1 billion financial transaction. Can you imagine someone turning off all the lights in your high-rise building?"

Ask your chief security officer:
  • How do we keep track of our most important physical assets?

    Ask your chief operating officer:
  • How often do our key machines break down?

  • This article was originally published on 12-01-2004
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