Here is a brief excerpt from a classic article written by Michael Chui, Markus Löffler, and Roger Roberts for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.
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More objects are becoming embedded with sensors and gaining the ability to communicate. The resulting information networks promise to create new business models, improve business processes, and reduce costs and risks.
In most organizations, information travels along familiar routes. Proprietary information is lodged in databases and analyzed in reports and then rises up the management chain. Information also originates externally—gathered from public sources, harvested from the Internet, or purchased from information suppliers.
But the predictable pathways of information are changing: the physical world itself is becoming a type of information system. In what’s called the Internet of Things, sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects—from roadways to pacemakers—are linked through wired and wireless networks, often using the same Internet Protocol (IP) that connects the Internet. These networks churn out huge volumes of data that flow to computers for analysis. When objects can both sense the environment and communicate, they become tools for understanding complexity and responding to it swiftly. What’s revolutionary in all this is that these physical information systems are now beginning to be deployed, and some of them even work largely without human intervention.
Pill-shaped microcameras already traverse the human digestive tract and send back thousands of images to pinpoint sources of illness. Precision farming equipment with wireless links to data collected from remote satellites and ground sensors can take into account crop conditions and adjust the way each individual part of a field is farmed—for instance, by spreading extra fertilizer on areas that need more nutrients. Billboards in Japan peer back at passersby, assessing how they fit consumer profiles, and instantly change displayed messages based on those assessments.
Yes, there are traces of futurism in some of this and early warnings for companies too. Business models based on today’s largely static information architectures face challenges as new ways of creating value arise. When a customer’s buying preferences are sensed in real time at a specific location, dynamic pricing may increase the odds of a purchase. Knowing how often or intensively a product is used can create additional options—usage fees rather than outright sale, for example. Manufacturing processes studded with a multitude of sensors can be controlled more precisely, raising efficiency. And when operating environments are monitored continuously for hazards or when objects can take corrective action to avoid damage, risks and costs diminish. Companies that take advantage of these capabilities stand to gain against competitors that don’t.
The widespread adoption of the Internet of Things will take time, but the time line is advancing thanks to improvements in underlying technologies. Advances in wireless networking technology and the greater standardization of communications protocols make it possible to collect data from these sensors almost anywhere at any time. Ever-smaller silicon chips for this purpose are gaining new capabilities, while costs, following the pattern of Moore’s Law, are falling. Massive increases in storage and computing power, some of it available via cloud computing, make number crunching possible at very large scale and at declining cost.
None of this is news to technology companies and those on the frontier of adoption. But as these technologies mature, the range of corporate deployments will increase. Now is the time for executives across all industries to structure their thoughts about the potential impact and opportunities likely to emerge from the Internet of Things. We see six distinct types of emerging applications, which fall in two broad categories: first, information and analysis and, second, automation and control (exhibit).
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Michael Chui is a senior fellow with the McKinsey Global Institute, Markus Löffler is a principal in McKinsey’s Stuttgart office, and Roger Roberts is a principal in the Silicon Valley office.
The authors wish to thank their McKinsey colleagues Naveen Sastry, James Manyika, and Jacques Bughin for their substantial contributions to this article.