The Internet of Things –– essentially a system of interconnected tracking and sensing devices that provides data on goods moving through the supply chain –– has been built around places and spaces, using cameras and wall-mounted sensors.
Simply put, it’s too costly for most companies to attach sensors to the millions of goods flowing through their supply chains, meaning only high-value objects, like your refrigerator, typically get tagged.
Today’s IoT is an Internet of Expensive Things, but according to Steve Statler, senior vice president of marketing for sensing-as-a-service platform Wiliot, it won’t be for long.
“What we’re seeing is the rapid adoption of this technology to add intelligence to everyday things, to take IoT away from being the Internet of Expensive Things,” Statler told Modern Shipper. “What we’re doing is bringing it to everyday things like medicine, food, containers and clothing. So this is a much bigger set of things that can be connected.”
Wiliot, which has garnered investments from major tech-focused VCs like Qualcomm Ventures and SoftBank Vision Fund 2, just introduced Version 2.0 of its IoT platform, an upgrade to its current sensing architecture. Wiliot’s revamped sensor, the V2 pixel, has double the range and charging speed of its first-generation counterpart, and the company will also introduce automation to its sensor network via a Universal Automation Platform, which is still in alpha testing.
Wiliot’s pixels set themselves apart from other IoT sensors in a few ways. For one, they’re powered entirely by their surroundings.
“We have developed a computer the size of a postage stamp which powers itself in unusual ways, most notably by harvesting radio frequency energy from other Bluetooth devices and other radio frequencies,” Statler explained. “So it’s battery-free Bluetooth.”
Another differentiator is their cost. Many supply chain operators hemorrhage tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars outfitting spaces with expensive machinery. But the infrastructure to read Wiliot’s pixels cost just $10 to $44, according to Statler.
“Rather than buying a $1,000 handheld RFID reader or a $10,000 tunnel or spending half a million dollars on putting arrays of readers in the ceiling of a store, for basically tens of dollars you can start to blanket large spaces with Bluetooth devices. And all of that traffic can get routed through to the Wi-Fi access points,” he said.
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The V2 pixel boasts double the range of the original model, meaning supply chain operators can cover the same area with fewer sensors. The second-generation devices also harvest energy from surrounding Bluetooth devices and radio frequencies twice as fast, allowing them to charge in half the time.
But what can they actually do? For example, Statler told Modern Shipper that Wiliot has experimented with attaching pixels to vaccine vials, allowing them to gather information about their temperature, fill level and even whether they’ve been diluted. The devices can be tagged to just about any item, but for the time being, the company is focused on one object in particular.
“I think anyone that’s studied business knows that if you try and do everything, you end up doing nothing,” Statler explained. “And so we fairly recently have started to focus more and more on putting these stickers on plastic crates.”
According to Statler, attaching V2 pixels to crates and containers can give supply chain operators a much more generalizable solution. Because the devices have a sort of X-ray vision that allows them to sense objects within crates, he believes putting them on that outer layer can integrate just about every item into the IoT –– without the need to equip all of them with sensors.
“If you do that, you turn on a spotlight where everyone was carrying flashlights,” Statler emphasized. “Suddenly, you can see where everything is. And if you can see where everything is all the time, and also what the temperature is, and if the crate is full or empty, then you can operate the pool of crates that you have a lot more efficiently.”
While Wiliot is producing millions of pixels every month, the company is also building out the SaaS component of its offering through the alpha launch of its Universal Automation Platform (UAP). Through that offering, Wiliot’s network can automatically generate a Slack message or email when something is wrong with an item, meaning companies no longer need to rely on an analyst sifting through a data lake.
“Rather than feeding data into a dashboard that a data analyst sees, you can actually drive actions with a codeless platform, which is drag and drop,” Statler explained. “Nonprogrammers can set up rules that will drive things happening in software that already exists.”
For example, if a crate of tomatoes were sitting out in the sun for too long, the UAP would automatically notify someone at that facility. Additionally, the UAP launch will add edge processing to Wiliot’s cloud network, allowing it to better manage the data flowing through the system.
“We’ve expanded the cloud from being just centralized to software that now goes down to the edge,” Statler added. “If you have 100,000 products in a store, each with a Bluetooth radio, each broadcasting, that’s actually like having a tsunami of data hit you. And what we found since version one is we needed software that runs at the edge.”
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An intelligent IoT network has a host of potential benefits for supply chain operators. For one, they’ll lose fewer crates. But they’ll also be able to tell the status of those crates and the products inside them, which is a major advantage in quality control.
Statler also touted the environmental benefits of Wiliot’s IoT network, explaining that it can help reduce waste from products like food. “We now have the technology to trace down to the crate, who touched the crate, where it came from and where it went to. And if we know that, then we no longer have to purge every spinach leaf from the supply chain. And that’s a lot better for the environment.”
Going forward, Statler sees Wiliot’s pixels being attached to individual products like apparel. Sticking with that example, pixels tagged to articles of clothing could provide insights into demand by identifying what items customers purchased after trying them on in fitting rooms.
“That’s an amazing predictor of returns,” he explained. “And if that information goes back to the people that are making the sweaters, then maybe they can start making them into something that people won’t throw away or ignore.”
Statler even sees the pixels as a way to automatically meet demand, akin to a subscription model for retail products. Already, the company works with fashion, pharmaceutical, retail, logistics and CPG brands around the world, and Statler envisions all of those products being delivered without customers needing to lift a finger.
“Rather than having the Amazon Dash-style button that you press when you want more coffee or whatever, this will just be built into the packaging. And as you start to need more, you can receive more,” Statler explained.
Recently named a finalist for the 2022 SXSW Innovation Awards, Wiliot will continue to build out its sensor-as-a-service platform to unlock new benefits for supply chains.
“Ultimately,” he told Modern Shipper, “the opportunity is to profoundly change the services that companies offer and the way products are made, distributed, sold, used, reused and ultimately recycled.”
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