It just so happens that one of the best uses cases for machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies is tracking things, whether it’s company-owned vehicles, shelf inventory, expensive assets, or monitoring equipment deployed remotely in the field.

M2M platforms and tablets offer both potential cost and operational savings for businesses, such as home services businesses and virtually any business that makes use of delivery trucks through replacing paper-driven processes, offering secure communications, global positioning support for improved routing, and many other benefits.

Here are some examples of how M2M and tablets factor into some very common back office processes that we all take for granted but can be an expense for companies.

Fleet management/Field service automation

I live down the road from a new UPS facility and marvel sometimes that all their trucks move in a precise orchestration in the mornings and in the evenings. This is the result of a fleet management solution — hardware and software that coordinates the movements of the trucks and cargo between the depot and their destinations. Behind every medium- to large-size fleet of vehicles, fleet management solutions govern reporting and tracking with tablets and M2M devices while they’re out in the field.

One popular M2M solution for fleet management is the Pedigree Technologies OneView, which includes:

  • Cloud- and tablet-based components connected via a 3G/4G network
  • Electronic Onboard Recorder that replaces paper logbooks and still meets federal audit requirements
  • Fuel purchase form for recording fuel purchases, fuel receipts capture, and compliance reporting
  • Two-way messaging between the vehicle and the central office in compliance with federal regulations
  • Job scheduling and prioritization for more efficient vehicle routing, which leads to the lower cost of delivery/customer visits
  • Electronic bill of lading for recording shipment information in the field
  • Work order and invoicing directly from the tablet by field workers

Such a fleet management solution, balancing on M2M and tablets, improves status checks between the vehicle and the central office for better security and use of resources. This is important for personnel, vehicles, and especially fuel management, during these difficult economic times. Even just moving from paper to electronic logs can help save on central office staff and driver trips back to the central office to drop off their paper log books.

Pedigree Technologies OneView is just one example, and there are certainly a number of custom-built fleet management solutions available. However, fleet management is one potential growth area for M2M and tablets.

Inventory management

Inventory management, along with fleet management/field service, is where tablets and M2M have real opportunities. I spoke with Jeff Smith, CTO of Numerex, which is a leading developer of  M2M solutions for industrial applications. An M2M industry veteran, Smith has seen the need for mobile devices rise for M2M solutions and even has Android and iOS developers in his department.

Smith turned my conception of tablets and M2M for inventory management upside down. I had the basic concept of the following:

  • Tablet, GPS-enabled, running on a 3G/4G network
  • M2M device acting as wireless sensor/alarm attached to inventory that a company wants to track
  • Router or other communications apparatus, depending on the facility

Smith gave me an example of how M2M and tablets can be applied to a common business problem that changed my thinking of M2M and tablets. He told me how a beverage company uses M2M to reconcile the inventory they have in retail stores with the store’s Point Of Sale (POS) terminals inventory count. Suffice it to say, the POS inventory of their products that were sold was not always correct.

The beverage company deploys small M2M sensors inside the shelves, coolers, and store end caps where their products sit. The M2M sensor is infrared-based and monitors inventory by detecting the open space left on the shelf. When the sensors detect the inventory running low, the sensor sends an alert to a hub and then to a centralized server, which then triggers an alarm on a delivery driver’s tablet, prompting them to come to the retail store to restock the beverages.

With the tablet-friendly fleet management software available now, the tablet can provide the driver the location of the store and even directions. Considering the high rate of turn over with drivers in some companies, this inventory management solution plays a major role in getting their product restocked in the most expeditious manner, especially before the big football game. This is an example of tablets and M2M that we probably see almost every time we walk into a store but never realized it.

Remote monitoring

M2M and tablets are also becoming a part of remote monitoring solutions over facilities and equipment, such as the following:

  • Environmental monitoring in office and warehouses
  • Kiosk monitoring on sales room floors
  • Vending machine monitoring, even in remote locations over a cellular network
  • “Lone worker” monitoring to protect solo workers using their GPS-enabled tablet or other mobile device if they don’t check in or overrun an appointment time

You can look at the M2M and tablet options for remote monitoring as invasive (like Big Brother) or as a business extender, where M2M and tablets help organizations and their workers extend monitoring and control over business assets without the need for having personnel onsite at all times. A mobile worker can monitor devices and machines using a tablet regardless of their location. They can also use the alerts they receive to prioritize site visits and the routing of technicians and repair people during the business day.

Streamline the back office with tablets and M2M

The combination of M2M and tablets put to work in the back office can be effective tools for helping control costs, expenses, and limited resources (such as staff and vehicles) for those businesses working with customers, equipment, and inventory dispersed over a wide geographic area.

More resources

For a comprehensive look at the issues and technologies surrounding the Internet of Things and the emerging M2M ecosystem, check out ZDNet’s latest feature page, Tapping M2M: The Internet of Things.