The promise of IoT to leverage data in industrial and manufacturing settings is something we've heard about a few times already, and for good reason. Using data collected by IoT sensors to get a holistic picture of what's going on in production in real-time seems like a perfect use case for IoT.
So, why have we not seen this materialize up to now? To make this work, data integration is key. The more IoT sources there are in a certain setting, the more the chances the data they produce will be in a variety of formats. To make that holistic picture possible, someone has to collect all that data and make sure they all make sense when put together.
Enter Zira. Zira is a data-driven industrial marketplace, launched from stealth by the team behind Lightapp, an energy and process optimization software company that works with hundreds of manufacturing plants, OEM suppliers, and utilities around the globe. Some of the names listed as Zira clients include 3M, Bimbo Bakeries, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nikon, and Westrock.
What? That was our first thought, too. What is this Zira / Lightapp thing, who are the people behind it, and how did they get that kind of names in their clientele? Let's take it from the start.
"Zira, which means 'arena' in Hebrew, is derived from our core service which brings all business members including customers, suppliers, machines, people and processes onto one platform and streamlines interactions between them," said Guy Peer, co-founder and COO of Zira.
The team behind Zira is about 30-people strong, with substantial experience. They have been working on this since 2012 and have raised about $18,5 million in funding. Their long term goal, according to Peer, is to create the all-inclusive, go-to platform for business automation. To do this, however, several things need to be in place.
First off, data integration. We've often mentioned how this otherwise mundane layer needs to be in place. When data integration comes into play, interoperability standards are a must. The thing to know about IoT standards is there's a bunch of them. This would explain why it's so hard to build bridges among different IoT systems. We'll have to assume Zira has done this, and give them credit for it.
Zira's integration tools are part of its offering, said Zira CEO Elhay Farkash. It's a self-service application that guides the customer through the integration process, which is focused on specific deliveries (by customer priorities and type), he went on to add. Zira also has a common set of data drivers, API integration tools, and webhooks -- where more complex integrations are required.
So, now that you've found data integration, what are you going to do with it? How about real-time, actionable insights for starters? Zira claims to show real-time data for any device, production line or energy source, highlighting anomalies and benchmarking against baseline performance and other facilities and manufacturers.
Getting all that data together is a good start, but the point is to be able to get insights from the data. Zira pushes recommendations to improve business processes and profitability to its users, via what it calls the Zira Feed. Zira Feed is a data-driven service for machines and people to communicate, collaborate, and automate business processes. The main purpose is to keep everyone in the facility on the same page and also to automatically create drive actions.
Work orders are auto-assigned to individuals within an organization based on data collected from the facilities systems and machines. Same goes for procurement processes and maintenance processes, said Farkash. And there's more.
An IoT data marketplace with AI-driven recommendations
Zira also offers the marketplace, a platform that allows industrial buyers and suppliers to interact, bid, and buy, with recommendations driven by operational data. Farkash said it's an AI-driven platform for Zira members. For example, a manufacturing plant ordering supplies such as starch or motors or even bearings or maintenance services from a supplier that is approved to sell them.
Zira claims its Market is the first marketplace for manufacturers in which recommendations are driven by operational data. When asked to clarify this, Farkash said this means that any task or procurement order generated through Zira is based on operational data and insights:
"For example, when Zira recognizes that the efficiency of a reverse osmosis machine has degraded (based on water flow rates), a procurement order for new filters will be created in addition to a task to install the new filters.
In this case, the factory does not need to have extra inventory sitting on their shelves, they know exactly when they need to order, can automatically fulfill that order on Zira marketplace, and complete the process by assigning a work order for the appropriate employee to install the filters upon arrival."
Now, if you're like us, you may be wondering how exactly Zira has achieved this greatness. Streaming frameworks for real-time data collection, rules for on-the-fly processing, machine learning for recommendations? Possibly -- your guess is as good as ours. The closest we got to a technical reference by Farkash was about what Zira calls a hub for collecting data from machines, systems, and people. The data involved can be of two types.
Structured data from sensors (e.g. pressure, flow, weight, units, volume), data from machines (e.g. on, off, idle, runtime, error codes), data from systems (e.g. supplier, invoice, shipping order, work order), and data from suppliers (e.g. data sheets, inventories, quality, lead time). Plus, unstructured data, mainly from people, such as conversions, replies, pictures, and videos.
"The data is analyzed, and meaningful information is pushed to users through a series of posts in the Zira feed. Various business processes can be automated with the collection of data such as automating procurement based on inventory levels and automatically scheduling service for problematic machines. Zira allows a business to automate their processes and operate more efficiently," said Farkash.
AI, really? But how?
Although we'd like to know more about how exactly this all works, it does sound convincing. Farkash did mention that Zira leverages some of the technology that Lightapp has -- data drivers and integration tools. Most of Zira's technology, he went on, is new and unique.
The 23.9-trillion-dollar question, however, is what is the competitive edge in Zira? $23.9 trillion is what the B2B e-commerce is worth, according to the US international trade commission. So, what is it that made a relative unknown like Zira get the likes of Boeing and Coca-Cola in its clientele? Here's Farkash's answer:
"Zira's technology is changing the way manufacturers use data and operate their business. It's a platform that integrated data from existing systems and new systems and supercharges features and functions (and ROI) of those systems. Zira is focused on process automation that results in tighter and faster engagement cycles for all members of Zira."
Our answer? It's probably a combination of a solid data integration layer, and a successful business strategy and outreach. Having started in 2012 would give Zira a head start of seven years in data engineering and accumulation. Zira leverages data from over 150 customers already running Lightapp. Plus, Zira claims to provide the majority of their services to customers at no cost -- a freemium model.
Does it matter we can only guess what exactly is used to support Zira's claim that once triggered, their industrial procurement processes are driven by AI? There probably is no silver bullet here, just solid execution on a clear-cut recipe -- from big data to AI. It will be interesting to see where Zira goes from here. This could become a de facto standard platform for industrial IoT data and applications.