Sending Out a Smart SOS

Manufacturers of big-ticket, industrial and commercial products ranging from factory-floor freezing tunnels and commercial air conditioners to office copiers and espresso vending machines are beginning to tap the Internet to monitor, diagnose and service

Not long ago, Internet visionaries such as Sun Microsystems Inc. Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy were confidently predicting the emergence of smart, Web-connected consumer appliances. You remember the idea: Smart refrigerator detects critically low milk level, sends urgent e-mail to Webvan Group Inc. and, boom, fresh milk on the doorstep the next morning. Breakfast saved.

It turns out McNealy didnt get it quite right. Internet-connected refrigerators are about as common as, well, Webvan vans. A different type of smart, well-connected machine is beginning to emerge, however. Manufacturers of big-ticket, industrial and commercial products ranging from factory-floor freezing tunnels and commercial air conditioners to office copiers and espresso vending machines are beginning to tap the Internet to monitor, diagnose and service equipment. Theyre doing it with a new class of products that includes software and microprocessors embedded into industrial devices. The systems allow devices to connect over the Internet and, for instance, warn about malfunctions and report on their own performance. Makers of the industrial equipment, such as LAir Liquide SA (Air Liquide) and Carrier Corp., save money by reducing expensive service calls while, at the same time, increasing customer satisfaction and even driving new revenue opportunities.

"What youre doing is giving a machine the opportunity to call out and say its hurt," said Erik Keller, principal of IT consulting company Wapiti LLC, in Ridgefield, Conn. "All those servicing type of applications [is] where this will find its greatest use and utility and where companies will get the biggest bang for their buck."

Experts point out that the emergence of smart, Internet-connected industrial machines is just beginning. In fact, analysts havent yet been able to agree even on what to call the category of hardware and software products springing up to address the market. Some call it distributed asset management. Others prefer collaborative asset management and device relationship management. Whatever you call it, a critical mass of deployments is at least five to 10 years away, Keller said.

That doesnt mean that manufacturers and their service dealers should put the technology on the back burner, however, experts say. The first to latch on to the technology should be makers of equipment that carries high-support costs or for which outages mean big customer losses. These would include manufacturers of factory-floor machines; medical devices; HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) equipment; office equipment; and heavy equipment such as construction trucks, experts say. A broken HVAC unit, for example, could shut down a building in extreme weather and cost a customer lost productivity. At the same time, unnecessary repair visits can cost manufacturers or their dealers hundreds or thousands of dollars for each visit, Keller said.