As anyone in manufacturing knows, it’s a pretty exciting time right now.

The industry is standing on the threshold of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – when the digital and physical worlds connect.

For customers, it means things will do exactly what we want them to. For manufacturers, it means processes can revolve completely around customer behaviour and data.

As part of this refocus, we’ve already started to see a shift from things being sold as “products” to “products-as-service“.

And with this, comes a whole new range of benefits and concerns.

Where’s the Internet of Things headed?

We’re already using smart devices in the home — think baby monitors or smart energy meters. But we’re not far off a time when every domestic device will be artificially intelligent. Some forecasts predict 21 billion smart devices in homes by 2020.

The Internet of Things will have far-reaching implications on people’s lives.

In the home, chores such as vacuuming, mowing the lawn and caring for pets will be able to be automated, saving people valuable time.

Refrigerators will not only keep food cold, but also monitor their users’ food consumption, order more accordingly and call maintenance when in need of repair.

According to IBM, 230 billion hours per year are spent on domestic chores in the US alone, 17% of which could be cut by use of smart devices.

What’s not to like?

However, these changes won’t necessarily be welcomed by everyone. Many are afraid of the pace of change in industry and business. This is one of several societal fears stoking political upheaval and causing trust in institutions to decline. Here are some possible objections to the approaching smart revolution in the home:

  • Some people like domestic chores, and wouldn’t want them automated. Many people enjoy feeding their pets. Others find washing up or mowing the lawn therapeutic. Some retired or lonely people like going grocery shopping as it gets them out of the house and gives them a chance to interact with others.
  • For some — perhaps those with large families — a refrigerator that automatically orders more groceries might be a godsend. But for others with a less predictable diet or income it could be unwelcome. Some people don’t want their lives run for them.
  • When people come to depend on smart devices, the risks when they malfunction will be high. How will disabled or infirm people feed themselves when their smart fridges fail to order more food?
  • The privacy aspect. To have machines monitoring your behaviour in every room of the house is a disquieting thought, particularly if you’re concerned about hacking, spying or unscrupulous companies selling or accidentally leaking your data. As Forbes magazine recently warned, “Those smart devices that open and unlock your doors, shop for you online, play your music and control your thermostat are also susceptible to cyber attack.”

What manufacturers should do to avoid the risks

  • Be selective about which tasks they automate. A pet food gadget could weigh food and order more when necessary, but leave the fun part — feeding the pet — up to the owner. Products like PetChatz allow owners to interact with their pets even when out of the house – that’s a nice way of adding joy to people’s lives rather than removing it.
  • Build in choice and personalisation. Instead of ordering the same groceries each time, a smart fridge could suggest alternatives to keep things varied. It could also sync with its owner’s diary to take into account periods when more or less food than normal is required: e.g. holidays or family gatherings.
  • Spend more on research to ensure devices can’t be hacked. Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home are notoriously easy to hack and the cybersecurity of these sorts of items needs to significantly improve before the public buys into the idea of smart homes.
  • Listen to their customers. Just because the technology is there for a Great Leap Forward, it doesn’t mean consumers will welcome it. It’s more important than ever for businesses to ask their customers what they think, listen to them and then act on what they say.

The way forward

In embracing the Internet of Things, it’s important that manufacturers don’t get carried away.

In transforming their industry around the needs of their customers, they must be careful not to alienate those customers by giving them something they’re not ready for.

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Are consumers ready for the Internet of Things?