The Internet of Things now includes the grocery store's frozen-food aisle

The Internet of Things now includes the grocery store's frozen-food aisle

Supermarket giant Kroger uses temperature sensors to keep frozen foods frozen -- and makes its first foray into the Internet of Things.

Every summer, people head to the grocery store in droves to pick up cartons of cold, creamy ice cream. It's a great way to stay cool. But shoppers will go elsewhere if the frozen dairy treat is crusted with yucky ice crystals--the result of freezing, thawing and refreezing.

No one knows this better than Chris Hjelm, CIO at Kroger, a $108 billion supermarket chain and a 2015 CIO 100 award winner. He says temperature spikes in the refrigerator case can make cold goods go bad, and there are lots of circumstances that can lead to spikes: A compressor may go out, defrost cycles could run too long, a door might have a bad seal, or someone could leave a door ajar.

Hjelm and his research-and-development team decided to try to ward off such problems by turning to Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. He equipped refrigerated containers with sensors that check temperatures every 30 minutes--instead of having employees manually check thermometers twice a day--and then alert store managers and facilities engineers if the mercury hits unsafe levels.

"It's something every food retailer will have," Hjelm predicts.

Today, Kroger's IoT temperature monitoring system cuts down on the number of cold products that go bad and have to be thrown out, reduces labor and saves energy. And happy customers enjoy better ice cream and other cold and frozen foods.

A typical Kroger store's temperature monitoring system has more than 220 tags connected to a network that uses the ZigBee low-bandwidth wireless network protocol. Nearly half of the chain's 2,600 stores have the technology; a complete rollout is expected by early 2016.

Kroger's temperature monitoring system is part of a massive IoT movement. Some 4.9 billion devices and pieces of industrial equipment will be connected to the Internet this year, primarily in the manufacturing, utilities and transportation sectors, and then, later, government, according to Gartner.

That's not to suggest that embracing the IoT is easy.

"It's not as simple as saying, 'I've got a cool temperature monitoring system, let's go put it in.' There are more pieces to this puzzle," Hjelm says.

Sensory Overload

Hjelm and his team had to spend months tweaking the temperature monitoring system to work with an array of existing refrigerator cases, each with a different defrost cycle. They also had to find tags that were waterproof and humidity-proof. And they needed a data management plan, because the tags throw off a lot of data. On top of all that, employees needed training.

The temperature monitoring system has a strong ROI, but the bigger payoff will come in the future, Hjelm says. This is Kroger's first foray into the IoT, and it laid the foundation for the deployment of more systems that use tags and monitors.

"We have a pipeline of innovation, such as a mobile shopping system with laser scanners and network-connected LED lighting sensors, that we believe will take advantage of this infrastructure investment," Hjelm says.

The cherry on top, says Gartner analyst Alfonso Velosa, is that IoT projects can advance a CIO's career. For example, a store's refrigerator cases are expensive assets that literally touch the product and ensure its quality--and they don't belong to the CIO. But when IT puts tags on them, the CIO moves to the front line of the business.

"This is an opportunity for the CIO to engage and become more relevant to the business," Velosa says.

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Tags internetInternet of ThingsKrogerCIO 100 Symposium and Awards

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