Minimizing Downtime Via Internet of Things in Textile Industry
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Minimizing Downtime Via Internet of Things in Textile Industry

Brad Whitehall, VP-IT & CIO, UniFirst Corporation
Brad Whitehall, VP-IT & CIO, UniFirst Corporation

Brad Whitehall, VP-IT & CIO, UniFirst Corporation

Profound changes by Internet of Things in Textile Industry

The Internet of Things will bring profound changes to the textile Industry in the coming years. The most immediate impact will likely be in the laundry plants and trucks. In the plants, we can expect sensors in the washers, dryers, and other equipment, providing real-time feedback via onsite software regarding the efficiency and effectiveness of each. We anticipate that we will be able to detect imminent equipment failure before it occurs, allowing us to minimize downtime. Beyond that, we expect to be able to monitor the actual usage of the equipment and gain a better understanding of the proper soap formulas needed. For instance, wash times may soon have the ability to be dynamically adjusted during cycles because the sensors will be able to detect soil levels, so loads with less heavily soiled textiles will run for a shorter period of time than those that are more heavily soiled.

“We are taking steps to get more experience with the cloud and exploring how to take advantage of the range of options available”

Delivery trucks today already have telematics and other IoT-like technologies that provide input regarding gaining better gas mileage and certain maintenance issues that should be addressed. But soon, the trucks will interact with the buildings. As a known truck approaches the delivery door, the lock will “recognize” the truck and unlock.

But this is just the beginning. As chips with sensors are put in clothing, tremendous amounts of information can be collected. Today, clothes with chips can be automatically counted and sorted. But in the future, garments will tell us how long they were in use, what chemicals they were exposed to, and if they sensed any stresses Chips in floor mats could “call home” to let the laundry facility know that they are more heavily soiled than expected, or perhaps that a substance was spilled on them and they need to be replaced immediately.

Cloud Computing for the Textile Industry

Cloud computing is really just another step in the evolution of determining what a company should manage itself versus having someone else manage it. Many years ago, there were service bureaus, then ASPs, then hosting facilities, and now the cloud. The biggest difference today is the ease of deployment and relative low cost of cloud solutions. UniFirst has not shied away from the cloud, but we do not have a cloud-only approach either. We use cloud solutions where they can provide a distinct advantage to us in terms of speed to market, cost savings, or taking mundane commodity types of activities away from our staff. We are taking steps to get more experience with the cloud and exploring how to take advantage of the range of options available.

One of the benefits of the cloud is that it helps level the playing field. UniFirst is a large organization in our industry and we compete with many smaller businesses. The cloud has put vast computing power and software capabilities in the hands of firms that could not previously afford it. Small firms have reliable, virtually unlimited processing capabilities and storage, along with sophisticated applications and analytics at their disposal. So companies like UniFirst, with great size and experience, cannot rest on our laurels; we are forced to continue to push forward.

Role of CIO in the Last Couple of Years

While the role of CIO has changed tremendously over the last few years, the role of many IT professionals has changed as well. These changes are occurring because IT is instrumental to almost any initiative in the organization these days. Today, the CIO has the opportunity to be much more strategic than in years past. The role is not about just keeping the lights on to make sure the invoices go out on time—although that responsibility has not gone away either. IT can view all the critical information of the business units within an organization, and with that ho­listic view, CIOs are able to evaluate data and recognize potentially missed opportunities for coordination among those business units. In prior years, we would optimize within our own individual departments, but now you can opti­mize across them. However, simply understand­ing how data or systems can be leveraged is not enough. One must work with, educate, share, and communicate these insights with oth­ers. To move the organization for­ward, CIOs often have to ask-even convince-others in the organization to take business risks. Communication skills are more important now than ever. Not just for the CIO, but for many posi­tions in IT.

Another big change that we often overlook is that every person in the company and every cus­tomer is a more sophisti­cated user of technology today than they were ten or even five years ago. The computational power now housed in our smartphones would have filled a room a few years ago. (The Apollo Guidance system performed 41.6 instructions per second and the iPhone 6 can perform 3.36 billion instructions per sec­ond. The Cray-1 super computer in 1975 could perform 80 mil­lion floating point operations per second (FLOPS) and the iPhone 5s graphics processor produces 76.8GLOPs.) But it is not just the computing power, it is the access and interaction with the soft­ware that makes everyone more experienced with systems today. This means IT professionals have to work harder to stay ahead of their “non-technical” associates.

Yes, IT is more challenging today. But it is also more fun with the results having a direct impact on the business.

Advice for Fellow CIOs

The CIO role is about bringing change and improvement to an organization by utilizing technology. Business comes first, then technology. CIOs need to learn how their particular business operates- really get to understand what your business peers are struggling with. Then you can apply technology in an effort to solve the problem.

Also, establish relationships with people before there is a crisis. This makes communication easier. The executive team here eats lunch together every day. As CIO, this is great. Yes, a lot of time is spent talking about football and kids and jokes. Sure, business sometimes. But as CIO, this time is precious to me. When there is a problem, that foundational trust and relationship is already established. When I have to tell someone bad news—maybe it’s about their project being delayed, or a software outage—we already know each other and that makes it easier not only to deliver the news, but provides credibility for what I am saying.

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