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Interview: The Internet of Things opportunity for industry

In recent years, the consumer market has been hit with a proliferation of connected consumer gadgets like thermostats, fitness trackers, and smart lightbulbs. All of these have been a massive game changer in how consumers interact with and benefit from services available to them, from health services to municipal utilities.

In addition to improving consumer experiences, the Internet of Things is also able to shape and redefine the ways in which global businesses and entire industries operate. In an industrial setting, connected devices have significant potential to increase efficiency; however, these solutions require investments in network routers, data centers, and specialised data storage that can cost millions of dollars and take months to deploy.

We spoke with Kiren Sekar, VP of Product Management and Marketing at IoT-connected sensor system Samsara, to understand the full potential of sensors in terms of an enterprise application and how industrial companies can adopt sensor data to increase their efficiency at a massive scale.

1. Is the adoption of sensor-connected devices across industry still in its infancy or will we soon begin seeing a seismic shift in how business is being done?

When you look inside of an oil refinery or an electrical grid or a jet engine, you’ll see thousands of connected sensors. Connected sensors are what keep the lights on in our day-to-day life.

But connecting sensors is expensive and complex - from $50,000 for a small site to millions of dollars for a large plant. This focus on mission-critical sensing left a huge technology gap: what if you wanted to monitor hundreds of small sites, or plug your sensors into a vehicle? Existing systems didn’t solve for these problems. We have fully shifted to an era of instant access to information, so we see a major shift in the works for industrial sensing and how companies gain greater visibility into their operations.

2. To date, what have been the main barriers to implementing sensors across industry?

Historically, any operator wanting to deploy connected sensors would use a technology architecture designed for multi-million dollar systems. On top of the sensors themselves, they’d have to make investments in data centres and storage, software, and proprietary networks.

We created Samsara so we could offer an affordable plug-and-play solution for industrial IoT. The product suite is built on readily available cellular networks and cloud infrastructure, with our proprietary software ensuring that the system is reliable and secure for industrial users. The complete Samsara system starts at $5,000, which is 1/10th of the cost of industrial IoT solutions - and can be installed in an afternoon.

3. Does IoT have greater potential across the industrial segment as opposed to the consumer segment?

Much of the IoT buzz is around consumer gadgets like fitness trackers and thermostats. But if we look at the industrial sectors that aren’t yet fully benefiting from sensor data - like transportation, food safety, or energy consumption - we see an opportunity to impact trillions of dollars of our economy. Our mission is to help these industrial customers accelerate the adoption of sensor data to improve their efficiency at a massive scale.

4. Which industry verticals stand to benefit most from the upcoming wave of sensor connected devices and the Internet of Things? Can you provide an example of sensors’ industrial application and potential traditional business models?

From the start we’ve built a general-purpose platform, and have been surprised by how many different verticals are seeking sensor solutions. Even in our private beta we had a very diverse set of users - from traditional industrial customers like manufacturers and utilities to food producers, pharmaceutical companies, and even school districts using our system to monitor their buses, their environmental conditions, and food safety in their cafeterias. Some of the new applications for IoT that we’re seeing firsthand include:

  • Helping food and drug companies keep their products safe. Samsara can monitor temperature during transportation and storage, preventing contamination and spoilage.
  • Enabling service fleets to cut wait times for their customers and save fuel by optimising routes. Samsara can provide real-time visibility and analytics to the 85 per cent of commercial vehicles that have no onboard GPS systems.
  • Saving campuses thousands of dollars on their energy bill. Electricity is a major cost in everything from lighting buildings to pumping water, and Samsara helps them measure efficiency.

5. What is Samsara, who are the people behind the company and what problem does it solve?

Samsara was started early this year by Sanjit Biswas and John Bicket, who are two founders of Meraki, the cloud networking company acquired by Cisco for $1.2 billion. While the company is young, Samsara’s founders and leadership team worked together for nearly a decade building Meraki - first as an independent company and then as Cisco’s fastest growing business unit.

At Meraki, we succeeded by taking a software-centric approach and focusing on simplicity in a traditionally complex, hardware-centric IT market. We are now taking this approach to the world of sensors and industrial operations.

Fundamentally, we believe that embracing sensor data will make industrial operations more efficient - enabling companies to build better products, conserve resources, and lessen their impact on the environment. We’re focused on helping industrial customers accelerate the adoption of sensor data to improve their efficiency on a massive scale.

We have raised $25 million in initial financing from Andreessen Horowitz and Marc Andreessen sits on our board.

6. How is Samsara different from other connected sensors available on the market?

In the industrial IoT market, vendors focus on making parts of a solution - networks, storage, analytics, and so on. Samsara is the only industrial IoT product today that is a complete solution, with sensors, connectivity, and software that all work together out of the box.

Our product experience is so different that we’ve taken the unusual step of offering free trials - prospective customers can sign up for an evaluation on our website to try our equipment with no commitment or up-front cost. Because the product is designed for ease of use, they can install it and see results in an hour. This practice is common in software-as-a-service products, but unheard of in the industrial sensor world, where solutions historically involve multiple vendors, months of integration, and large up-front infrastructure investments.

7. What’s next for sensor-connected technologies and the Internet of Things with regards to industry? How will it shape our world as we know it?

The technology created by the smartphone wave over the past decade - ubiquitous wireless connectivity, scalable cloud services, and low-cost, power-efficient hardware - have made products like Samsara possible. Moore’s Law means that new communications standards will emerge with even better range and lower power consumption, analytics capabilities will grow, and sensors will become smaller and smaller until they can be embedded in practically anything.

For industrial customers this presents opportunity. But the opportunity will be limited to the most sophisticated customers unless there are readily available tools that make it easy to aggregate all of this data and make sense of it.