Why bother with IoT?

Information.. That is one important aspect of IoT automation.

But first, what is this "IoT" buzzword? Well, it means having a device, connected to the internet, that sends information about itself, in a running process. Here are some examples:

  • Shelf XYZ678 in your warehouse, is now empty.
  • Items on conveyor belt 78G stopped moving.
  • The engine of truck 354, overheats and require maintenance.
  • Employee number 1234 just passed by gate ABC.
  • Tank HL233 is now 75% empty.

These are just examples of information that can be received from IoT devices, and can trigger an action. You can order parts, book appointments, sound a siren, or whatever action that completes a process. This can help the business by moving the automation forward, without the intervention of a person.

Automation is beautiful. Imagine your fridge is running out of milk, and it automatically sends an order to the grocery store to have it delivered. Imagine your employee attendance system knows if an employee came through the gate. Imagine your clothes starting you on a diet when things get stuffy... etc. The possibilities are endless.

This all sounds very nice, but there is also the risk of false information. False information can be a device malfunction, or a security breach. A security breach is the most critical, as it opens the doors to industrial espionage. An attacker can listen to your information, and can also alter the information to degrade your business. So, it is important that information security is well practiced, with validation & verification steps in your IoT automation.

Let's see some false information examples:

  • Shelves are full, no need to restock [Fact: they are empty].
  • The conveyor belt is moving smoothly, we will meet the deadline [Fact: items are jammed, shipping is delayed].
  • Truck 354 broke down, we should send a rescue truck to move the cargo [Fact: no alert was sent to warn of engine overheat, no maintenance booking done, no spare-parts ordered].
  • Items tampered with in room or building [Fact: no alert was sent to warn of unauthorized employee access].
  • All fish in the tank are dead [Fact: no alert for low-water in tank].

Any automation should be monitored & measured for optimum performance. But when in tune, the business processes run smoother than ever, less costly, with minimum errors.

O Data. Where Art Thou?

Standard static reports are available with most applications, and those reports increase over the years, as newer business demands arise. I've seen people digging through 70 static reports, trying effortlessly to find the one that matches their current need.. Yes, 70.

But what do I mean by static reports? Those are specific well-defined reports, that will rarely change. Here are some examples: 

  • List of products.
  • Employees going on leave next month, sorted by department.
  • Sales this quarter, compared to sales the same quarter, last year.
  • Customers in the city of Riyadh, who are overdue in billing, ... etc.

Those are fixed reports, pulling specific data from the operational database, for a specific purpose. What if I need to know more? Do I have to send a request to the IT Department? How much time will they take to develop it? How can I confirm its accuracy?

Do you really want to add more to those 70 static reports? No, you want a different view of your data. A more dynamic and intelligent way of reporting. Something like:

  • List of (the top 5) products, (categorized by city).
  • Employees going on leave next month, (with an HR retention rate less than 50%, AND, without a succession plan).
  • Sales this quarter, (with a historical view of sales in the same quarter, the last 15 years).
  • Customers in the city of Riyadh, who are overdue in billing, (and qualify for our financing plan, sorted by interest rates, of our top 5 banks).
  • Which branch has the most delays, in shipping the top 5 products, to the city of Jeddah, AND when?
  • What is the most requested products, by customers in Dammam, between the ages 20-25?

Ahaa.. So, there is a different way of looking at data?

Of course there is, as long as you have it stored correctly in known data repositories. This means, you know their year, application, structure, accuracy, format, codepage, .. and a few other prerequisites.

Cool, what's next?

You'll need a business analyst to look at two things:

  1. Your corporate business requirements, pains, and strategies.
  2. Then, sit with your IT Department's database and application experts, to see how the data can be collected from those trusted data repositories.

This is it? Sounds simple. Well, now you need to build one HUGE data repository for ALL your data. Your IT Department will be able to select the proper data warehouse repository, and schedule how often it extracts updates from all your applications and repositories, apply the needed transformations, and load it all for your to see; IT savvy people call this process: ETL.

This is getting boring, when will I see it?

That is it, you're almost done. Next, you'll need an analysis and reporting tool. You can now create all the business analysis reports and dashboards you desire, without even going back to IT.

For more detailed information, you can search the internet for Business Intelligence, and start the quest for the best tool that fits your business. 

Other topics recommended to dig through: data mining & pattern recognition, projections, forecasting.

Driving a Successful ERP Implementation

Most businesses are seeking off-the-shelf ERP apps, instead of writing them from scratch. They will be less expensive with much lower risk of mistakes, and if done properly, much faster to Go Live. However, some people fall for the conning Salesperson, and start the process by purchasing the ERP software; which is wrong.

There are several steps to take, before deciding what ERP solution to purchase. You'll save yourself major headaches during and after implementation. Here is what I suggest doing first:

  • Get C-Level Management sponsorship, be it the CEO, CFO, or CIO. Authority is needed to facilitate entry to the different areas of the business.
  • Assign a Project Manager.
  • Gather the business requirements, from all departments & line-of-businesses. This will protect you from saying "Oops" later, and give you the knowledge of how the business is running.
  • Did you assign a Project Manager yet? Just in case you forgot.
  • Hire a consultant; to review your business requirements and match them to your processes, policies, and procedures. If you have a mismatch, then you'll need to adjust your processes, policies, and procedures. Once the new processes, policies, and procedures are approved by senior management & your auditors, implement them in your daily business.
  • In parallel, Change Management is needed, if you're moving the users from an older software environment to the new ERP environment, or if there is a mismatch in your processes, policies, and procedures. This requires additional instructions from your consultant, and it involves senior management, internal marketing, and training.

So, what do you have now? You have committed senior management, with working business processes, policies, and procedures. Now, we move on to the next step: shortlisting ERP providers, that have matching solutions to your business needs.

Two flavors of solutions are out there, subscription-cloud-based solution, or a solution that runs in-house. There are pros and cons in both, and the business needs to chose where to go, based on performance and running cost. Cloud solutions are off-site, resilient, will not need servers, backups, or operators. It can all be part of your subscription. However, it is 100% dependent on your internet communications infrastructure, in addition to the sound LAN/WAN communications infrastructure . While in-house will need server rooms, servers, backups, operators, and a disaster/recovery plan. In addition to the sound LAN/WAN communications infrastructure.

The running cost will differ in the number of people managing the solution, and the support contracts for the software, hardware, and server rooms (air condition, fire prevention, servers, OSes, ... etc).

What's next? You've selected the software solution from a certain vendor, defined the BoQ (bill of quantities). Next, is the shortlisting of available implementation partners. This will be tough, because their resources change more often than you think. So, don't focus much on the CVs you'll see from them, because they'll change by the time you sign the contract.

Ahaa, this is the magic word: The Contract. This is where you agree on deliverables, timeline, and cost; neglecting availability of resources. The most common excuse I've heard from implementers in Saudi Arabia: the resource's visa expired, and had to leave the country. So, make sure you've covered this part when shortlisting the implementer. You can add a delay penalty clause, and insist on a handover between resources, before any visa expires. Your Project Manager should have dates of everything (you assigned one, right?).

ERP software, selected. Implementer, selected. What about your IT team? Your consultant should provide you with an updated structure of your IT Department, that needs to be executed with you & the HR Department. Once the team is in place, you can sign your software and implementation contracts, and start. 

What are the expected hurdles?

Let's see.. Inaccurate implementation plan & budget, expired support contracts, expired visas, delayed payments, lack of internal resources, resistance from users, change of scope, lack of governance, power outage, network outage, coffee outage, ... Just make sure they're covered by your Project Management and IT teams.