Internet of Things ‘can unlock huge range of circular economy opportunities’

EXCLUSIVE: The Internet of Things (IoT) phenomenon will play a "critical role" in creating efficient reverse logistics within supply chains, with big players such as Samsung, eBay and UPS already recognising its potential, the UK trade association for the technology sector has said.

Speaking at edie Live on Tuesday (17 May), Tech UK’s head of environment and compliance programmes Susanne Baker told a packed show audience in Birmingham that companies should look to streamline supply chain logistics by utilising the IoT, which is set to have a “hugely disruptive impact across all industries and systems”.

“The IoT will revolutionise the way we collect, store and act on data,” Baker said. “It can unlock a huge range of opportunities for the circular economy. It has the chance to revolutionise products, avoid wholesale issues in manufacturing and really shape how we manage materials and energy use in supply chains.”

Baker highlighted research from tech company Cisco – which predicts that by 2020 more than 50 billion objects will be embedded with “connected technology” – to suggest that the burgeoning IoT could shape how businesses and consumers interact with products that can be managed remotely and that have an increased life expectancy.

Baker was also particularly complimentary of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s work to promote the IoT concept in partnership with ongoing developments of closed-loop models, before going on to list some current business examples. 

Serve and prolong

Samsung – which has already delved into servitisation models – is one example of how companies are now able to ease performance issues in smartphones by rolling-out apps that allow engineers to solve software issues remotely, Baker said. With 49% of all smartphone issues related to software problems, Samsung has been able to enhance the performance of its devices without creating any extra hassle for the consumer.

And, with companies such as ebay and UPS realising the impact that IoT can have on reverse logistics, Baker urged more companies to embrace the concept and use it to create more efficient supply chains and increase product performance and durability.

“One of the barriers that businesses face when implementing closed-loop models is that it’s very hard to predict when products will end up back at the factories,” Baker added. “If there isn’t a constant and measurable flow of product returns, how can you build a profitable business around that?

“The IoT can help overcome these challenges and prolong the life of electric products. We can develop efficient reverse logistics supply chains, which is absolutely essential to being able to crack the circular economy. So far managing these assets has proved expensive and unsuccessful. But knowing the location and condition of resources can help companies overcome a huge barrier within their supply chains.”

Unlimited connectivity

Baker also noted that the global push to increase broadband performance and availability will also accelerate the potential impacts of IoT. Baker alluded to the One Net project – a 600-strong satellite constellation that aims to provide 10TB of broadband to consumers around the world – as the shining example of innovation push to promote world-wide broadband.

If projects like One Net can be implemented, Baker predicted that the world’s cities – which account for around 60-80% of global carbon emissions and 50% of global waste – will utilise IoT in order to streamline and enhance energy systems, already trialled by Vodafone and Phillips, and traffic control; but that the primary aim should be to enhance e-waste solutions.

“We need to challenge product designs to enhance longevity,” Baker concluded. “In Europe 80% of WEEE that goes through authorised treatment facilities ends up in shredders. We are in a situation where we are employing the cheapest available tech, narrowly avoiding prosecution to deal with waste. There’s no incentive for recyclers to invest in better technology and embed more sophisticated models.

“Consumers, retailers and manufacturers need to work together to ensure that products are safely recycled when they reach the end of life.”

IoT and business

Tech UK and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s belief that the IoT could provide significant opportunities for businesses and society have also just been echoed by energy management specialists Schneider Electric.

Schneider’s IoT 2020 Business Report, released today (18 May), surveyed 3,000 business leaders across 12 countries to conclude that IoT will take “centre stage”, with connected sensors, embedded intelligence and control, faster and more ubiquitous communications networks, cloud infrastructure, and advanced data-analytics capabilities transforming how companies operate.

Matt Mace

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