We often talk about the industrial internet of things (IIoT) as if it's some great future technology, but a recent series of articles from PwC aims to change that perception. The "future" of IIoT is actually now – and you should be actively thinking about how it fits into your business model.
A Gartner report earlier this year estimated that there would be 8.4 billion internet-connected devices in use by the end of this year – more than the number of people on Earth (7.6 billion). Nearly 90 percent of U.S. manufacturers have started to incorporate the technology into their operations, with 38 percent already offering products and services around IIoT, according to a survey conducted by PwC and the Manufacturers' Alliance Productivity and Innovation.
While adoption by manufacturers and their customers is racing along, the role of this new technology for the distributors is still being defined in many ways. But the truth is, you're likely already using some form of it in your operations.
Do you use vending machines that can transmit a notice when inventory of a certain product gets low? That's IIoT.
When a product is scanned when pulled from the shelf, does your WMS and/or ERP automatically update the available inventory? That's IIoT.
But those are just the start for IIoT and the distributor.
One of the most widely accepted roles for IIoT is predictive maintenance. Yet nearly every time I have a conversation with a distributor about this topic, the same question is raised: Won't that make it easier for manufacturers and end users to push us out of the channel?
If the only service you're providing is delivering a product, then the answer to that question is likely yes. But even then, it's a tenuous yes. Manufacturers, for the most part, still don't want to provide the smaller individual orders demanded by end users. And while the data feedback they receive from IIoT will likely improve their demand forecasting, the distributor likely is closer to the end user and would be able to recognize and adapt to local changes more rapidly.
But you have to be willing to invest in defining your own role. Don't stand by and wait for changes to happen to you. Tools already exist to help you get started. Here are three suggestions for how to start defining your role.
1. Talk with your manufacturer partners about the role they see you playing. Manufacturers are embracing IIoT, and they likely have at least a start of what that strategy means for them. If you want a piece of that pie, reach out to them and discuss the future of your strategic partnership.
2. Don't wait for your customers to figure it out first. Consumers have also embraced the internet of things. Your fridge can now tell you if you're out of eggs, and in the not-too-distant future will likely be able to order them from the grocery delivery service of your choice. If Amazon Business has its way, that may happen with MRO and industrial products, as well. Talk with your customers about how they can be more efficient and avoid catastrophic downtime, for example. And make sure you highlight your own role in it.
3. Understand how broad IIoT really is. As I mentioned before, you're likely already using some tools that fit into the IIoT network. Once you recognize that, it become easier to think about IIoT on a broader scale. It's not a completely new idea to shoehorn into your operations; it's expanding the applications even further.