Below is my contribution to the October 2018 issue of tED Magazine, published by the National Association of Electrical Distributors. Reprinted with permission.

The Internet is an interconnected global system of more than 10 billion devices enabling information sharing, services, and commerce. The Internet of Things (IoT) takes this concept to buildings and enterprises to create entirely new value from building technology.

More specifically, the IoT represents any network of physical devices, such as sensors and intelligent controllers, along with software. These networks may collect data from sensors while integrating and automating building systems to a level where they are highly responsive to users.

A strong building block includes a networked lighting control system, which already offers complete functionality as an Internet of lights. In fact, there is a strong potential for the lighting system to serve as an IoT platform. This potential coincides with stronger product development and demand for connected lighting due to complex energy codes and growing utility rebates.

In this scenario, the connected lighting provides a sensor platform installed almost everywhere in the built environment, and may offer wireless communication, bandwidth, intelligence (microprocessing), and software. Data collected by occupancy and light sensors could be shared with other building systems such as HVAC and security.

Additionally, from this starting point, other sensors would be added to measure almost anything the owner wants. Examples include occupancy patterns, temperature, air pressure, vibration, fluid levels, air emissions, traffic, gunshot detection, and more. This data could be fed to thirty-party software for analytics or other building systems for automatic response.

While centralized, integrated control can be a key benefit of the IoT, the biggest value potential is in this data and analytics, which could be used to optimize building operation and user comfort, improve business processes, and create new services.

“Generally, but especially for industrial locations, lighting is the ideal entry point for IoT data,” said Jamie Britnell, Director of Product Marketing – Lighting, Synapse Wireless (www.synapsewireless.com). “Because all these facilities incorporate lighting, an IoT communication network grid is essentially installed as part of an LED retrofit or in new construction. With this network in place, compatible sensors can be distributed through the facility to monitor various equipment and processes.”

IoT-enabled lighting

As a result, manufacturers may market their connected lighting products as IoT-enabled, which means it features connectivity, intelligence, sensors, and bi-level data communication. This enabling has led to claims that installing a connected lighting system proofs a facility for future IoT enactment, which is true in theory but requires diligence in specification, addressing issues such as interoperability, scalability, security, and more.

“Anyone who is buying a light has the potential to be an early adopter of IoT,” said Gary Trott, VP of Intelligent Lighting and IoT Platform, Cree (www.cree.com). “From a distributor’s perspective, an IoT-enabled solution can be the same price as a traditional control system. With proper research, savvy distributors can offer IoT-enabled solutions without a cost penalty. Customers can install the luminaires today and upgrade to a full IoT solution in the future. Given this, you have to wonder why someone wouldn’t exclusively buy IoT-enabled fixtures as anything else is obsolete the moment you pull it out of the box.”

If installing an LED retrofit today, incorporating intelligent networked control can be economical as opposed to making it a standalone upgrade tomorrow. The infrastructure theoretically provides either a platform or building block for IoT implementation. However, the IoT is not fully developed nor understood at this time, introducing risk.

“Future-proofing around IoT is not a one-time occurrence,” said Chuck Piccirillo, Head of Product – Lighting Networks & Services, OSRAM Sylvania – Digital Systems (www.osram.com/ds). “It is also not about avoiding future changes, but managing the inevitable changes when they come. Selecting the right lighting system should involve making some choices and managing the risk of the choice.”

He said when selecting an IoT platform, facility managers should ask: Does the lighting and control system have the flexibility to connect to various technologies? Is it inherently scalable? Does its architecture allow connecting to both wired and wireless devices? Is it non-proprietary allowing open sourcing of devices?

“IoT is still very new,” Britnell said. “Developments, standards, availability, and adoption are largely in their infancy. It’s still the Wild West out there with plenty of both opportunity and uncertainty.”

“There are two main factors that are slowing adoption,” said Piccirillo. “Lack of understanding of IoT and how to implement it, and concerns surrounding security issues.”

How networked lighting control builds up to an IoT solution. Image courtesy of Cree.

The pivot

“The main limitation to IoT is delivering a compelling value proposition through the channel to the end-user and solving their real-world problems,” Britnell said. “Manufacturers and distributors need to understand the problem of their customers and find solutions that can be solved through IoT applications. To convince the owner, the IoT solution must address some pain point he or she is experiencing.”

Trott said distributors are accustomed to selling lighting products based on energy and maintenance savings. With IoT solutions, however, they should start with these immediate benefits for connected lighting and build upon it with a discussion about business problems.

How can the owner make it easier to find conference rooms? How can they attract and retain talent? How can they grow their team without adding more space? How can they make their spaces more engaging and appealing?

“Distributors should focus on selling these solution-oriented benefits instead of a one-for-one unit sale,” Trott said. “Over the next few years, the distributors who elevate their sales conversations beyond lighting are likely going to be the winners as the industry transforms.”

When selling connected lighting and IoT solutions, the distributor sales person may have to work with IT departments, who are often skittish about risks related to maintaining the system and providing security.

Piccirillo said ideally, should the customer be looking to implement an IoT solution, the IT department should be onboard with the vision, have a basic knowledge of how the IoT solution works, and share with the facilities department any IT-related documentation and policies associated with the solution.

“When selecting a networked solution, IT departments should choose a system that can provide a parallel network separated from the existing IT infrastructure, and with its own firewall,” Piccirillo added.

Final word

Backed by growing understanding, education, and interoperability, and partially enabled by networked lighting control becoming increasingly attractive, the IoT is slowly gaining traction. This emerging category allows a customer dialogue that goes far beyond illumination and energy savings into the realm of solving business problems with the power of information. It is expected to accelerate demand for connected lighting, which can be installed now with an eye to build upon it in the future for IoT strategies.

“Do your homework and become a student of IoT,” Trott said. “Don’t just read a few articles, experiment. Buy a connected home device such as a light bulb or thermostat. That is the best way to grow your understanding of IoT, connectivity, and what is possible for your customers. The more you know and the more comfortable you are with it, the more valuable you are going to be as this industry transforms.”