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Internet of Things
Internet of Things Updates

Three Big Reasons Auto Replenishment is Not Ready For Prime Time

Posted by Matt Power, Editor-In-Chief

Dec 29, 2016 11:50:54 AM

New research suggests that half of IOT devices will have the ability to "replenish" household purchases, but unless they learn from the smart grid, they'll create more environmental problems than solutions.

amazon dash auto replenishment.jpg
Image: Amazon's Dash auto replenishment devices are among the first to enter the commercial market.

THE IDEA OF AUTO-REPLENISHMENT of goods and services in the home is neither new, nor malicious. It is simply an updated take on the "better living through chemistry" themes that have been around since at least the 1950s, when Walt Disney World gave us Monsanto's plastic home of the future (which is now a planter in the theme park incidentally). The idea is that the RIGHT gadgets will simplify our lives, and give us more time to do the things we really want, whatever those might be. But there is no definitive evidence that the presence of more technology impacts the amount ot work done in the home. Certainly, most of us appreciate the presence of dishwashers, clothes dryers and so on, but we have shifted mentally to believe that clothes need washing more often, and a clean glass is preferable to rinsing out a dirty one. The result is a "wash," quite literally, in terms of total labor time in the house.

It's easy to imagine the discussions that take place in the boardrooms of IOT gadget makers such as Samsung. They're deep into the weeds of lifestyle. Will people want cameras in their homes? How likely are they to access them from a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet. The list of "what ifs" and variables is almost endless. Then add the fact that geographic differences in culture and expectation are immense. What works in Japan doesn't necessarily transfer to the U.S. If you leave out just one "unconsidered" variable, or get one assumption wrong, your whole venture may be less of a disruptor to the market than a disruptor to your company.

In fact, that's exactly what happened with Samsung. Their Smart Things suite of devices looks pretty snazzy at first glance, but once people started installing them, the complaints began to roll in. Because many of the devices are battery powered, the batteries die at different times. Worse, some devices drain the batteries very rapidly. Smart Things began to look pretty dumb.

I read this article from Mediapost.com this morning:

Within four years (by 2020), 50% of everyday essential household consumable products will be auto replenished from the connected home through the Internet of Things, according to Gartner. By that time, Gartner estimates the global smart home market will grow to near $60 billion and family homes in ‘a mature, affluent market’ could contain several hundred smart objects, with brands and retailers already beginning to take part in auto replenishment initiates. (the Gartner Retail Industry research is available HERE).

If I were a consultant for the IOT industry, I'd suggest they take a hard look at some of the real-world data and demographics of life betore jumping on the "replenishment" bandwagon. I also have serious concerns about this "instant gratification" capability and its impact on our already excessive levels of consumption in the U.S. Auto-replenishment promises to normalize overconsumption.I can think of three giant red flags that need to be addressed by the IOT "replenishers" before we even consider accepting this type of technology.

1. Endless Consumption?. Let's look at how a replenishment scenario might work. As you finish off a bag of almonds in your IOT-enabled cabinet, a new bag is ordered immediately. Like a pampered Roman emperor, you needn't go a single day without a constant supply of almonds at your behest. But if you're like most of the rest of us "plebes," you sometimes run out of almonds, but you don't buy more for weeks, or months. Perhaps you switch to peanuts for a few weeks, or you undertake a nut-free diet to help you lose five pounds. Or, reading an article about the devastating effect of almond farming on California's water supply, you decide to cut back to just eating them during the holiday season. These nuanced and unpredictable choices are not available to the IOT scanner. It replenishes the "almonds," because they are empty.

But more important than the fact that you're no longer free to turn on a dime to get EXACTLY the products you want (a first-world problem), is the fact that you have now lost the ability to forego purchases. The device maker will argue, of course, that you can simply REPROGRAM the device to order the products less frequently, or switch up the products. But now, instead of simply making a choice that's easy and fluid in our lifestyle, we have to EXPLAIN our shift, and spell it out to our technology. That translates into reading manuals and reprogramming devices, something that consumers simply won't do. As a tech editor for techmamas.com notes, "The big secret discussed by technology journalists every time we get together is that while we use the newest technology for our work, we have not fully implemented the newest technology in our personal lives because of problems with usability."

Perhaps some of the new "learning" protocols that adapt to behavior, (such as NEST) could make auto replenishment less rigid. But for those concerned about sustainability, reduction of waste and overconsumption, there's a fatal flaw in the current, simplistic concepts of automated consumption. What you end up with is a "smart' device that's mindlessly chugging along, replacing one form of consumption for another. What you don't get is a leaner, greener lifestyle.

2. Precarious Payment. I am not a big fan of paperless, automated payment of bills, particularly for private citizens. The environmental advantages are overrated, and the risk to your personal credit is high. Contrary to the hype, digital communication is not "free," from an environmental standpoint,. Now think about a dozen devices in the home, each granted access to the homeowner's financial routing, in order to make automated payments. Things go quite smoothly for a while, until life changes. Consider that the average job tenure in the U.S. is currently 4.6 years. A divorce, lost job, death, promotion, or any other significant "human" event can disrupt the financial flow from device to bank account, to vendor. And each of these institutions has its own fine print (which is rarely if ever read carefully by end users). The surprised homeowner may be slapped with fines, alerts and other stress-inducing blowback from his auto-replenishing gadgets. Again,the end user gets stuck with responsibility for alerting the IOT replenishers that something has changed. There's no room for sudden changes of heart in IOT programming. Instead of making life easier and less stressful, a new layer of attention-demanding technology has shackled him to the marketplace.

3. Anti-Localism. At the same time global corporations are consolidating power, a promising counter-movement is underway that reduces the hidden environmental costs of most goods. My bet is that localism ultimately will dominate the American landscape, particularly in the categories of food, clothing and other essentials. The only thing keeping the global shipping market afloat is cheap fossil fuel, and Climate Change is going to make continuing use of this fuel at current rates untenable. The problem with IOT auto-replenishment, in its current form, is that it inevitably takes the sustainability "low road." An IOT-enabled refrigerator is not going to order raw milk from your local farmer. It's going to order a highly-processed milk from an agrifarm owned by a multi-national that interfaces with Amazon or Whole Foods.

Machine-to-Machine comunication, at this early stage, doesn't trickle down to local businesses and small shops. Big manufacturers partner with big, corporate players, and the result is a narrow range of products and goods. Economies of scale, unfortunately, do not translate into more sustainable use of resources. If that were the case then Wal-Mart, with one of the largest economies of scale on the planet, would be less polluting than local alternatives. Instead, as the Sierra Club reports, "A broad-scale view of Wal-Mart and its goals reveals problematic environmental and climate change impacts when it comes to transportation, land-use, energy consumption, waste and carbon emissions. The growth of this inefficient model is increasing the environmental footprint of retailing." Even ostensibly "green" companies such as Whole Foods have a much larger ecological footprint than their local competitors, due to their reliance on shipping from far-flung corners of the world. Whole Foods is far more polluting than its messaging suggests.

Is there hope for tying IO-enabled auto replenishment to local businesses? The answer may lie in how the IOT industry approaches M2M protocols. If they offer open-source programming, free, easy-to-use interface modes and so on, they might entice small businesses to join their "web" of providers.

An Auto-Replenishment Manifesto

Perhaps, however, the next generation auto-replenishing IOT products could make a quantum leap and incorporate conservation principles into their programming. They could learn from what's happening in the arena of energy efficiency and smart plus solar technology. This is already well underway. Household devices communicate directly with local power sources, utilities, neighbors, and even the electric vehicle in the garage, to determine and adjust the optimal flow of electricity. The result is a more stable, far more efficient energy grid, lowered consumption, less CO2 pollution.

Now imagine an auto-replenishment protocol where the devices select goods based on a hierarchy of sustainability. They automatically choose locally grown foods over 1,000-mile salads, switch seasonal vegetables for out-of-season imports, and adjust menus accordingly. The weigh the carbon footprint of individual products and companies to make ethical food choices. They examine the ingredients of every packaged food and screen out those containing preservatives, BPA plastics and other known health hazards.These are not impossible goals. They are challenging benchmarks that could be achieved, and now, in this early stage of the auto-replenishment introduction, is the time to begin.


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