Why building back greener doesn't need to break the bank


29 September 2020
Jason Murphy of IMS Evolve

Jason Murphy is Managing Director of Global Retail at IMS Evolve, a UK-based IoT company specialising in energy-saving software specifically for assets, including refrigeration and HVAC appliances, in the food retail sector.

The world is going green. A silver lining of the past few months during the pandemic has been a significantly reduced carbon footprint, both from the general public and across almost every industry. As we exit lockdown, every sector across the UK is seeking ways to continue reducing their emissions as the nation looks to ‘build 
back greener’. 

The food retail sector is no different, but the decarbonisation of our supermarkets will prove tougher than most other areas. With supermarket refrigeration alone representing 1% of the UK’s total energy use (and 12% of carbon emissions), how can the sector adapt to a greener world and reduce its carbon footprint in an economically viable way?

In the US, the average 50,000 sq ft retailer spends around $90,000 a year on energy costs. It follows that reducing energy consumption should also save food retailers quite a bit of money. Energy efficient infrastructures, from specialist low-consumption lighting systems to ultra-efficient air conditioning, contribute to a reduction in energy bills however, these large-scale infrastructural upgrades are becoming increasingly less viable in the post-lockdown era. As margins become even tighter, supermarkets simply cannot afford to rip and replace existing store assets with 
new equipment.

Total store transformation
However, this doesn’t mean supermarkets have to choose between tightening their belts or going green to help save the environment. The key to decarbonisation, not just within refrigeration but right across the food retail industry, doesn’t lie with costly new infrastructure. Rather, significant energy efficiencies can be gained and sustained through a total store digital transformation.

This sounds costly. Digital transformation brings to mind images of robots whizzing up supermarket aisles or converting the back storeroom to house a supercomputer. The truth is slightly less science fiction, however the transformative results suggest that digitalisation really is the future of the food retail industry.

Through the implementation of an Internet of Things (IoT) solution, a virtual software layer is created that connects assets such as refrigeration units, air conditioning units and lighting systems. This machine integration layer collects and processes hundreds of thousands of data points from sensors, controls and systems across entire estates, monitoring and optimising the performance of machines in real-time. As well as significantly improving efficiencies and in-store experience, this supports and automates predictive and preventative maintenance regimes to avoid equipment downtime, which can have a significant impact on food wastage. It’s an approach that is already being used by a number of forward-thinking organisations to reduce avoidable loss of food and achieve significant reductions in reactive maintenance costs. It can even bring down the number of customer complaints through improvements in food quality. 

Crucially, the real-time data generated by these interconnected assets also supports a comprehensive energy management strategy. This works by incorporating a range of different metrics, from seasonal fluctuations to product location and equipment reliability, meaning that a store can radically reduce its annual power consumption. 

That’s a lot of data
Real-time monitoring across entire food retail estates results in the generation of a lot of data. Traditionally, this would need to be analysed manually to identify inefficiencies and make recommendations about how to optimise assets. Now, however, sophisticated IoT software can drive automation and remotely take corrective action on assets based on the collected data to continually ensure they are working as efficiently as possible, without the need for manual intervention. In addition, this data is processed on site using edge-based gateway devices that only pushes relevant and actionable data to the cloud. 

But how is any of this possible? In a world of complex, multi-layered and interconnected technology, the implementation of an IoT solution is dependent on its ability to operate independently of the immediate systems and assets it seeks to integrate with, while also being able to communicate and interact with all types of controllers, sensors and systems. 

This is where IoT is getting really clever. 

The Technical Bit: integration and agnosticism 
When looking to deploy an IoT solution at scale, the key challenge faced is the proprietary nature of the infrastructure that is already in place. So much of the thinking behind IoT is based on the premise of a greenfield site where entirely new and compliant technology can be wheeled in and switched on.  

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Unfortunately, reality is not quite so kind. In practice, an IoT solution would need to integrate with a complex range of existing legacy and modern equipment from a variety of manufacturers (OEMs), many of which use controllers with closed protocols or siloed monitoring systems – and all speaking different data languages. All too often, IoT projects flounder on the requirement to integrate the old and the new in a seamless architecture, rendering the project unable to move beyond a pilot stage. 

Effective IoT solutions must be able to integrate with existing infrastructure and legacy equipment to be a realistic option for most food retailers, especially at a time when few can afford to rip and replace their existing assets. In other words, the solution needs to be agnostic. 

An agnostic solution is one that communicates seamlessly across all levels and types of devices across the network. In layman terms, they can collect data from and optimise any device – legacy or brand new – without the need for costly infrastructure upgrades to the latest smart-assets. This ‘plug and play’ approach can provide almost immediate energy savings at minimal start-up cost.

A second challenge for IoT solutions is being able to understand and contextualise the information being collected across all connected assets.

To achieve this, data needs to be acquired, processed and analysed locally through what’s known as edge computing. This allows for both a cleaner dataset in which the data can be contextualised, but also for analytics to take place in real-time. It’s this real-time analysis that allows for rapid automation to take place – critical when responding to a potential fault.

Edge-based processing enables the system to focus on exceptions from pre-determined rules, prioritising potential asset failures that threaten customer safety or energy efficiency.Through this deeper operational understanding, IoT solutions can look for inefficiencies in asset behaviour, schedule condition-based maintenance, drive predictive maintenance and identify root causes, such as compressor issues and temperature variation in refrigeration cases, that if unattended can lead to machine failure. 

A greener future for retail 
As the sector looks to adapt to the ‘new normal’, it must juggle its responsibilities to the environment with the economic uncertainty of our post-lockdown world. Balancing the two is crucial, but agnostic IoT is proving to be an important tool for food retailers. 
It is this real-time identification and correction of inefficiencies and automated optimisation of assets that leads to significant reductions in energy consumption across a food retail estate.

With an IoT solution capable of connecting all aspects of a store, combined savings in areas such as HVAC, lighting and refrigeration will drive down a retailer’s carbon footprint, streamline operations and improve customer experience, whilst positively impacting their bottom line. 

Seasonal temperature optimisation has been proven to reduce HVAC-related energy consumption by up to 10% and the use of sensor data to identify potential faults in a machine early can save anywhere between 40% to 75% of energy usage in a single asset by highlighting problems in compressor running times, operating capacity or operating condition. 

IoT is already having a huge impact across the food retail sector. Will it be an effective tool in decarbonising the sector? Well, last year, one major food retailer saved over 120,000 tonnes of CO2 just six months after integrating an IoT solution, equivalent to around 13,847 domestic homes’ energy use for one whole year, without having to replace a single piece of hardware.

IoT is helping to ensure that supermarkets don’t need to break the bank to contribute towards building a greener future.