A large BMW branch building in Munich located a stone’s throw from the famous Olympia Stadion is, despite its unremarkable façade, something of a trendsetter for the Internet of Things (IoT).
The building is as a repair centre for BMW cars. It has 800 parking spaces and used to handle around 250 cars a day, a number limited by the logistics of locating the cars and getting them to an available mechanic.
Arthur Schmidt, head of IT for the BMW Niederlassung München (pictured above), explained to V3 that this was far from ideal.
"We had no system in place to track where cars were. It was all done manually with staff writing everything on paper and it was not very efficient at all,” he said.
The situation came to a head in 2010 when Schmidt helped a mechanic to find the next car he had to work on, which showed him the difficulties at first hand.
"Someone had issued a cleaning order for the car and we had the last position written down on a work order, but someone had already delivered the car to the washing area," he explained.
By the time they had figured this out and headed to the washing area it had already been washed and sent back to the position the work order had originally intended. This confusion prompted Schmidt to improve the situation.
“I always wanted to take our company forward and after that day, realising how staff were working and the problems they faced, I said that we had to do something,” he explained.
So he set about the process of installing an IoT network at the facility to track the location of vehicles, something he knew would have a huge impact.
Show me the money
Of course, like any new IT project, the first hurdle Schmidt encountered was getting those holding the purse strings to splash the cash. This was no easy task in 2011 when the IoT was still very much in its infancy.
“Me and the boss had to go away and search for this money and convince many, many people it was worth investing in,” he said, before adding with some satisfaction: “Since then it’s paid for itself many, many times over."
The next stage in the process was to find the right suppliers. Zebra Technologies was chosen after an evaluation of several potentials, and a company called Tagnology was selected to build the back-end software to manage the information delivered by the Zebra network.
This led to the next problem: deploying the network in a building that was never designed to host a large-scale IoT network.
“It was a huge challenge to install the system. Everything is dense, the ceiling is only two metres high, there are other items already installed like sprinklers, and there’s a lot of metal around the facility, so it took a lot of planning, but everything was tested and it all worked,” Schmidt explained.
Sensors were installed on walls throughout the facility, and the system requires every driver who brings a car in to be serviced to attach a tag connected to the network to the rear-view mirror.
This connection means that the location of the vehicle is always known while it's in the building.
This makes it easy to locate and deliver the car when a mechanic has finished working on it and is ready for the next, saving a huge amount of time.
The image below shows a visualisation of the system to understand how the vehicles are monitored. Red means that work is in progress, yellow that the car is being delivered and grey that the working bay is idle.
This has increased the number of cars the facility can handle per day from 250 to 600, a huge increase that has improved customer satisfaction and revenues.
“Before people had to go and find the car and then deliver it, which could waste a lot of time. With the IoT system it’s easy to find the car and operate far more efficiently,” Schmidt said.
Open and transparent
For the mechanics, the system requires nothing more than pressing a button on a workstation that tells support staff they are ready to have one car removed and another delivered.
Despite its simplicity, though, Schmidt explained that the mechanics were given adequate training to understand exactly how the button should be used in their workflow so it is pressed at the right moment.
He added that firms should not overlook this aspect as any new technology needs to be understood and used correctly to get the maximum benefit.
"People had been working in the old way for 20 years, and then suddenly we were changing that so, despite the simplicity, it was a problem for some, so we made sure they understood how it worked to make sure it worked as we intended,” he said.
Schmidt's team also felt the need to explain the purpose of the sensors on the walls to allay any fears that the mechanics were being spied on.
“It could have seemed suspicious to employees so we worked with them and with the Workers Council to ensure they understood what it was for," he said.
These concerns were not just limited to workers, as a handful of customers were wary of being asked to clip a tracking device to their car.
“I would say 99.999 per cent of customers are absolutely fine with it, but there will always be some who find it a bit unnerving,” he said.
The person who first logs the car’s arrival into the garage is entrusted with explaining the purpose of the tag and ensuring that the customer is happy to attach it, underlining that an IoT deployment is not just the preserve of IT.
Schmidt urged anyone engaging in IoT deployments to think through the consequences and consider all potential problems and address them head-on, rather than hoping that they won't occur.
“It’s very important that you are transparent and honest about how an IoT deployment will be used. We had no intention of tracking workers or their movements, but we made sure we were open about how it would all be used,” he explained.
There are now almost 200 sensors installed, not including the tags provided to the cars.
Schmidt doesn’t intend to quit while he’s ahead either, and has plans to enhance the use of data from mobile apps that customers can use to track their car’s work status.
“We want to give customers even more transparency so we hope to offer iOS and Android apps that let them know exactly where in the process their car is and what’s been done, and let them contact our staff directly from the app,” he said.
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