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AB InBev pilots IOT solution to maintain refrigerators

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Pub employee next to a refrigerator monitored by Fridgeloc Connected Cooler.
Pub employee next to a refrigerator monitored by Fridgeloc Connected Cooler.

Black empowerment outfit Black Lite Group, founded by well-known BEE expert Ajay Lalu, and joint venture partner Digi Biz, have entered the Internet of things (IOT) solutions space through a company called Consumption Information Real Time (CIRT).

It is piloting a system with Anheuser-Busch InBev’s local subsidiary SAB, to capture data about locations and the temperatures of beer refrigerators across the country.

The world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) acquired SAB Miller in 2016 for $107 billion.

It has been having monitoring challenges with its 100 000-plus refrigerators stationed at bars, taverns and restaurants in SA, which have resulted in an astronomical cost running into millions of rands.

CIRT says this is why it has been appointed to resolve the challenges, using Digital Twin edge-enabled wireless sensors built into Staycold refrigerators, as well as IOT network connectivity from Thingstream.

Lalu, founder and director of CIRT, explains the project: “We do a lot of BEE work for large corporates and multinationals. We started looking at how we can engage a lot more with our clients in a value-adding way.

“A lot of our clients said: why don’t you look at the fourth industrial revolution and data analytics? Data is the new oil or gold for the world and there are not many black-owned and black women-owned companies providing such services.”

According to Lalu, it was through research that his team stumbled upon IOT and blockchain, and began further investigations into how the technology could be used to save money for clients.

“We went to present some of the ideas with our clients and one of them we approached was AB InBev. We wanted to develop a beer tech solution to tell you how much beer has been sold, live and in real-time, as well as the quality of beer,” he explains.

“The guys we spoke to said to us, our biggest challenge is that we have over 100K coolers across the country and a substantial portion of it goes missing every year. We were asked to solve real world problems in a value-adding way.”

Besides beer products, AB InBev also owns the refrigerators in which its drinks are stored and displayed. He notes the refrigerators are high in value and managing them can be a nightmare.

They are used in every kind of structure and location, from restaurants in the centre of Johannesburg, to corrugated shacks in rural areas. The brewer sends employees to provide maintenance and monitor them.

“They told us to solve these problems for them in September 2018. We started researching and found you can’t use a normal tracker because the coolers are indoors, often in iron or concrete structures which interfere with GPS (all existing tracker units use satellite GPS location to track and trace).”

The AB InBev refrigerator that is mounted with Fridgeloc Connected Cooler.
The AB InBev refrigerator that is mounted with Fridgeloc Connected Cooler.

He says SAB asked for a solution that was relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of refrigerators. It also had to make financial sense and be globally deployable. “We wanted to monitor the location and what is the temperature inside that fridge. We felt our IOT solution is the best and will provide valuable data for the client.”

According to Lalu, with the specs in hand, CIRT went on to create the solution, known as the Fridgeloc Connected Cooler. The IOT solution has sensors that capture temperature and location data, forwarding it over a cellular-based IOT connection via Thingstream's IOT connectivity.

Thingstream's network was chosen because of its ability to provide ubiquitous data flow over any available 2G, 3G or 4G cellular network, and its connectivity is available in over 190 countries and over 600 GSM networks globally. 

The Fridgeloc explained

The Fridgeloc Connected Cooler was installed in a pilot of 105 new AB InBev Staycold refrigerators sent to customer sites throughout the country. The device is mounted in the cooler. Some have GPS units included; most, however, use GSM triangulation-based data from the cellular network to understand where each cooler is located.

The sensors, using edge computing, read temperature levels and location information every 15 minutes to one hour, forwarding that data to a cloud-based server via the Thingstream cellular connection. Each sensor uses a cooler unit's power source, though it can also employ a battery that provides up to four hours of power in the event that an electricity source is not available.

The Fridgeloc Connected Cooler monitors location and maintains temperature in the refrigerator.
The Fridgeloc Connected Cooler monitors location and maintains temperature in the refrigerator.

Lalu says when temperature data is uploaded to the cloud, CIRT's IOT software stores the information for each site and can indicate when a given cooler is online, what temperature it is maintaining and where it is located. If the data indicates a problem, such as the unit being moved outside of its expected area or going offline, an alert can be issued to relevant parties at SAB.

The software CIRT uses is provided by Microsoft's Azure IOT Central software-as-a-service and Power BI for the dashboard.

Once the system started collecting data, the brewer began learning more than just where refrigerators were located, also gaining useful insight on when they are being operated.

The Fridgeloc Connected Cooler works even in remote taverns like this.
The Fridgeloc Connected Cooler works even in remote taverns like this.

If temperatures increased several degrees, then gradually cooled to desirable levels, that could indicate a unit had been restocked.

According to data analytics by CIRT, if temperatures rise and fall quickly in spikes, it is an indication that it’s a busy period with many beers being purchased and removed from the refrigerator, one at a time.

AB InBev can also understand how well compressors are operating in fridges, based on how quickly a unit can resume normal temperatures after its door has been opened, which helps with preventative and predictive maintenance.

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