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9 August 2019

GE’s Current nabs industrial refrigeration deal in smart buildings push

Current might have the worst ‘About’ description we’ve encountered this year, but that didn’t stop the GE venture from securing a deal with IMS Evolve, to target the food retail sector with a new combined offering that aims to cut wastage and energy use.

Broadly, the partnership combines IMS Evolve’s Industrial IoT platform with Current’s lighting and software, which are largely built on Daintree Networks, which GE acquired back in 2016. The pair say that a US regional grocer has installed the new system in 200 stores, and reports an anticipated annual saving of $1.2mn, across refrigeration, HVAC, and lighting energy costs, with 30% reductions in food spoilage, and a 25% reduction in reactive maintenance calls.

The latter two figures are going to be much more impactful than the energy savings, which work out to around $6,000 per store per year, or about $500 per store per month. The cost of having a refrigerator break down can quickly run into the thousands, especially if the goods it is storing have to be trashed.

This is one of the go-to examples of IoT-based predictive maintenance, where sensors in the machinery or the surrounding environment are used to monitor the performance of the equipment, looking for exceeded thresholds or anomalies in operation. With the increasing prevalence of edge-computing resources, essentially just computers that can be installed in the store and run the applications locally instead of off in the cloud, machine-learning applications and analytics can be introduced to the mix.

The sales pitch is that predictive maintenance is a way to save money in the long-haul, reducing unplanned outages, emergency shutdowns, and ultimately, improving productivity. For food retail, this means not having to hurl the contents of a freezer into the dumpster when the unit packs in, or having to shut shop because the ovens or the extractor have died.

It would be perhaps more unusual to suffer unplanned downtime as a result of lighting outages, and lights are one of the easiest things to self-diagnose problems with. If the workforce can’t see that a light is dead or on the brink, perhaps the recruiter or manager needs words with.

As for the optimization angle, lighting is the easiest way to reduce energy load in the store. Motion sensors or camera-based systems can trigger local dimming, to save on energy, and the fancier systems will be able to use these data points to document how customers move about within the store. That insight could be used to better place merchandise within the store, or better plan how restocking and cleaning teams are deployed.

Colleen Calhoun, Head of Software Solutions & CMO at Current, said “We see great potential in our continued collaboration with IMS Evolve. As the grocery industry progresses from manual to fully-integrated and automated controls, food retailers will see a marked drop in the operational costs it takes to efficiently keep food quality high while delivering an excellent customer experience.”

One of the big upsides that IMS Evolves claims is that it can integrate existing technologies without having to rip and replace. Its platform software can run natively on Current’s Wireless Area Controller (WAC), an example of the increase in edge computing, and IMS Evolve says that customers can leverage the offering with minimal capital costs and no disruption to sales.

IMS Evolve’s Chief Commercial Officer, Jason Kay, said “With a powerful proposition that combines our proven IIoT solution with Current’s technology and experience servicing complex retail environments, we are able to deploy our solution at scale and speed to retailers across the world, releasing significant value and rapid ROI.”

Perhaps our greatest reservation about Current is that it seems to be making a song and dance about these results, even though it has huge financial backing from its parent. If it was taking a 50% cut of the $1.2mn savings, it would not have much to write home about, but if it were to sign up someone like Walmart or Target, then perhaps we’d be more enthusiastic.

However, the largest stores have their own operations and technology departments that can easily enough create these same functions themselves. What’s more, in time, there will be less of a need for these intermediary services, as the refrigerator vendor or the lighting provider will eventually come to offer these services as an extension of the hardware itself. This is going to be a strong driver of consolidation between such vendors and the myriad startups that are active in the sector.

Now; time to address the self-description of Current by Current, where Current says it “is the digital engine for intelligent environments” that “blends advanced LED technology with networked sensors and software, to make commercial buildings, retail stores, industrial facilities and cities more energy efficient and productive.”

We don’t think we’re being too disingenuous to think of a “digital engine” as an oxymoron, or perhaps as an electric (DC) motor – but Current is certainly not one of the first things that comes to mind when someone uses that term. The rest of it could be described as ‘we provide networked lights and supporting software,’ which is admittedly less sexy but a lot more accurate.

But perhaps the most egregious thing that Current has done is insist that it be referred to as “Current, powered by GE,” even though the website URL is still Current by GE, or perhaps CurrentByge. We’ve conceded that ARM is now Arm, and companies don’t get capitalizations if their names are longer than three characters, but we definitely draw the line at using punctation in combination with selective lowercase.