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Network of IoT devices helps cut costs, improves productivity

A Texas beer distributor has used Cisco's IoT devices and networking equipment to lower energy costs and improve worker productivity.

Del Papa -- a Texas-based beer, water and energy-drink distributor -- began integrating Cisco's IoT technology into its new Texas City facility in the spring of 2012. The company was simply hoping to reduce energy costs, but it found that IoT technology also came with a nice bonus: It helps workers fill orders and get them out the door more quickly.

The company can now monitor and make real-time remote changes to the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. Keeping an eye on the thermostat is important, since Del Papa has an agreement with Anheuser-Busch to keep the warehouse at a certain temperature to protect the beer.

Similarly, the company can remotely control lighting in its buildings. Many of the lights are automated, with office lights turning on at 8 a.m. and turning off at 5 p.m. The warehouse has motion-sensor lights that turn off if no activity is detected within 15 minutes. This provides an additional security bonus; if the system shows that the lights in the back of the warehouse turned on in the middle of the night, the company can look into whether it was because an intruder entered the building. And if the lights are accidentally left on at the end of the night, they can be remotely shut down.

"We had to sell the efficiencies to the board members," says Steve Holtsclaw, information systems manager at Del Papa Distributing. "There is this up-front cost, but when you look at the kilowatt usage now versus what we could be using, we're seeing an incredible savings. We can also set targets and decide we only want to use this much wattage every month or every year, and we can control it so that we will hit those targets or come under them."

The network supporting the IoT technology has also led to big, albeit unintended, productivity gains. The company's previous wireless infrastructure was unreliable, and if an employee stood in a certain section of the warehouse, the worker might lose a signal and lose access to the details of an incoming order on a wireless device. So the employee may then have had to move to a different section of the warehouse to see the order before pulling the products. Now the warehouse is saturated with strong, consistent wireless coverage to remove those dead zones.

"Filling orders is what sells beer and makes money," Holtsclaw says. "You wouldn't think it was time consuming, but the old system turned an eight-hour day into a 10-hour day in terms of overtime costs, delays in verifying orders and loading trucks. We don't have that issue anymore."

Holtsclaw and his team had to gut most of the legacy network and start from scratch with their IoT infrastructure.

"We had a mismatched hodgepodge of vendors and equipment that didn't work well with each other," Holtsclaw says. "It was all out of date and not up to par with what we needed to do."

Del Papa's network runs on Cisco's Catalyst 3850 series and 3750-X series switches in its access and distribution layers, Nexus 7000 series switches in its core, Aironet 3602i APs for its WLAN and Cisco's 5508 wireless controller. It also uses the vendor's Integrated Services Routers, along with a fiber optic backbone into the facilities with connecting intermediate distribution frames inside each building. Holtsclaw wanted to make sure all the switch ports were capable of going up to 10 Gbps to accommodate future needs.

"Not only did I buy this equipment to utilize it with what we have, but we are also thinking in terms of the future," he says. "Everything is at a minimum now, but it is capable of being upgraded with an easy switch-over."

The sensors use a mix of wireless and wired connectivity, and they all communicate via the IP on the network. "Those sensors or nodes on my network have an active heartbeat back to the server and the application used to manage those devices," Holtsclaw says. "That active connection allows for the real-time management of each device and provides an accurate read on the status and settings of the devices."

The company encountered a few hiccups after installing the technology -- although not in terms of the technology itself functioning as it should, but rather in training non-IT employees how to use it properly.

"Many of our people don't normally deal with technology, so it took a lot of effort to make sure people were trained," he says. "For the first couple of months, there were times when the gates weren't opening because warehouse personnel were getting familiar with the software, so my team had to get involved sometimes."

Stephen Lurie, vice president of IoT solutions at Zones, the Cisco partner that helped set up Del Papa's network, says IoT is bound to grow as businesses find new ways of using data to pinpoint inefficiencies.

"All of these sensors, they have a voice," Lurie says. "They speak a language. And now, with the adoption of IoT, that voice can be heard."

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