We recently spent time with Mesh Systems, a Microsoft Gold Cloud platform partner based in Carmel, Indiana, to understand what a day in the life of an Azure IoT partner looks like. They shared some of their recent IoT customer engagements and talked about the types of everyday challenges Azure IoT partners face like building an IoT solution with legacy endpoints, how to approach tracking assets through a supply chain, and integrating an IoT solution with a business application. Finally, we discussed what best practices have driven the success of their IoT practice.
Connected coffee: building an IoT solution with legacy endpoints
Mesh’s experience in the beverage category caught the interest of a large European company that provides coffee beans and routine maintenance to thousands of coffee machines. The company wanted to innovate by providing their bean supplier with robust consumption data using an IoT solution.
But there was a catch. The company managed machines made by many different manufacturers across many different classes of machines. It would be cost prohibitive to build a custom integration for each machine type. There was no way to connect them to the cloud without expensive rework.
“This is a typical brownfield use case,” said Doyle Baxter, Manager of Strategic Alliances, Mesh Systems. "The client understands their business case but the cost of connecting legacy endpoints is sometimes higher than the value of the data. It was a tough nut to crack."
For this use case, Mesh came up with an innovative proposal. Their concept was to identify unique electrical current signatures for different coffee machine processes. The signature of a double shot of espresso would be different from a single shot. Using this current analysis, Mesh could determine the amount of coffee being dispensed.
“There’s work to match up coffee machine actions with current consumption, but the enablement hardware is really inexpensive compared to other connected coffee applications," he said. "Additionally, the same enablement hardware has potential application across other beverage equipment—not just coffee machines."
Connected assets: improving supply chain efficiency
A manufacturer of glass products approached Mesh to investigate an IoT solution for tracking shipping racks. The customer ships their fragile products on expensive, custom-made racks. Unfortunately, the racks often come up missing! All told, the customer writes off more than half a million dollars of lost racks each year.
“We always look for the most cost efficient and easily deployed endpoints, especially in the case of asset tracking,” said Baxter. “In this case, our team specified a small, battery-operated Bluetooth beacon for each rack.” The beacons communicate to low-cost cellular gateways each covering 125,000 to 200,000 square feet.
“Our team designed and manufactured both the beacons and gateways and wrote the embedded software. We built the cloud solution with Azure IoT Central,” Baxter explained. The Mesh team leveraged the continuous data export functionality of IoT Central. The architecture was configured to continuously export data to Azure Blob Storage, Azure Functions, Data Factory, and Azure SQL.
The customer viewed rack movement in a detailed report within a Microsoft Power BI dashboard. With this information, they identified the end customer responsible for the shrinkage. They then coached customers on best practices for managing racks to reduce their lost rack expenses.
Connected construction: integration into business applications
Mesh worked with a construction company that needed to track which employees and contractors were on their construction sites on any given day. The data was critical to meet compliance requirements. This means the company needed to manage the whereabouts of thousands of people over the course of a project. The customer was looking to build one, unified solution for both access control and real-time location.
Mesh proposed a badge access system in which employee badges had Bluetooth beacons that communicated to local gateways and then into Azure over a cellular backhaul. Mesh built its solution with Azure IoT Central, leveraging the continuous data export function.
“A challenge in this project was designing the interface to the project management system in use that was used by the client,” said Baxter. “Sometimes a solution can provide value with its own user interface, but more often than not, the IoT data needs to be integrated into existing business systems.” Mesh worked with its customer to define the integration points and test out communication.
The result was the ability to view both present and absent employees and contractors natively within the company's existing project management system. They used a Power BI dashboard to analyze detailed historical trends.
Partner best practices
Mesh has had a strong pipeline of IoT projects and success moving customers to production. They pointed to their company’s philosophy on proof of concept engagements and best practices. “When we engage with a client on a project, we start with the end in mind,” said Baxter. “We don’t look at proof of concepts as a ‘throw away,’ but rather as a milestone on the journey to scale implementation.”
“Partnership is the name of the IoT game. The IoT stack is simply too deep for one company to provide a turnkey solution without good ecosystem partners. We realize that we are only as successful as our partnerships,” He said. The company has developed strong partnerships with cloud infrastructure, connectivity, and silicon providers.
Mesh brings deep technical skills and a wealth of experience. “We understand the reality of implementing IoT on a large scale – from thousands of sensors and devices being shipped, unboxed, installed and activated to architecting, piloting, and deploying IoT cloud solutions with the latest Azure IoT services,” said Baxter.