The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Jerill Johnson, program manager for connected devices at Big Ass Solutions, a fan and lighting manufacturer headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky. Johnson discussed how a company primarily known for its giant industrial fans got involved in the consumer Internet of Things market, as well as how companies and consumers alike benefit from the increasing amount of “dumb” objects connected to the Internet of Things.
This interview has been edited.
Joshua New: If people know Big Ass, they probably know it for the iconic giant fans and not because of the Internet of Things. How does a company that specializes in fans become an Internet of Things company?
Jerrill Johnson: It was a natural evolution. At Big Ass Fans, we focus on the efficiency of our products and on the comfort of the people who use them. Our residential line of fans, starting with the “Haiku” won awards but we never stopped improving on the design. Incorporating environmental sensor technology—a system we call SenseME—makes Haiku even more efficient. We added a microprocessor and temperature, humidity, and occupancy sensors to allow the fan to intelligently optimize its energy use around a user’s comfort. With the SenseME app, you can control your fans and integrate them into your home’s HVAC system to save money on energy bills. Technological advancements such as Haiku with SenseME rely on Internet-connectivity and cloud computing to turn usage data into information that powers a smart home. The promise of the Internet of Things is a smart home that not only just works, but gets smarter as the technology advances, all without you having to lift a finger.
New: Could you talk about Big Ass’ partnership with Jawbone?
Johnson: We recently launched a customizable “Sleep Mode” that learns your nighttime preferences automatically. Many people use ceiling fans while they sleep, but standard ceiling fans don’t help as much as you’d think. Ever wake up freezing at 4 a.m.? That’s because your fan doesn’t slow down as the temperature drops overnight. You can activate sleep mode from a Jawbone fitness tracker, which will allow Haiku to adjust to nighttime temperature fluctuation to keep you comfortable throughout the night.
As we continue to explore the Internet of Things, partnerships and integrations with other smart home devices and wearables are going to be key. They allow us to use sensor technology and automation to cut steps out of your daily routine and make life more convenient.
New: At a recent Internet of Things showcase, you demonstrated a “day in the life” scenario for consumers with your products in their fully connected home. Could you walk me through that?
Johnson: When you wake up in the morning, you use the SenseME app or a remote to turn off Sleep Mode. Your Haiku with SenseME automatically starts “Whoosh Mode,” which simulates a natural breeze to help you wake up gently. During the night, the Haiku with SenseME in your family room was working with your Nest thermostat to circulate the warm air that normally gets stuck at the ceiling. So, the floor isn’t cold when you walk out of the bedroom, and your heating system didn’t have to work as hard.
All day long, motions sensors turn energy-efficient LED lights on your fans on and off automatically as you walk in and out the rooms. SenseME automatically detects temperature fluctuations throughout the day and adjusts fan speeds accordingly, preventing from more costly air conditioning from kicking in. When it’s time for bed, Sleep Mode turns off lights and adjusts fan speed to respond temperature drops throughout the night.
New: How might this experience differ for your industrial customers?
Johnson: Big Ass Fans’ focus on energy efficiency and comfort at home applies just as well in the industrial and commercial spaces. In fact, this is where Big Ass Fans got its start, so we know these sectors really well. Our iconic high-volume, low-speed fans have been mixing heated air in the winter and keeping people comfortable with increased airflow in the summer for over a decade in large spaces like warehouses. Operational savings and productivity gains have been driving the adoption of technology in these areas for a long time, long before the Internet of Things was even called that. People are simply more productive when they are comfortable, and companies save money on their energy costs when they efficiently heat and cool spaces.
New: Beyond convenience for consumers, why do you think we will see an increase in the amount of “dumb,” but still well-functioning objects, like fans, connected to the Internet of Things?
Johnson: The convenience use cases are easy to understand and are often compelling enough to sell a product to someone. But while something like energy efficiency can have a very big impact on someone’s life, it’s hard to engineer and consumers usually have a hard time taking advantage of it. However, connected technologies will allow companies to solve both of those problems quicker and with less investment in research and development. On the engineering side, connected devices help product manufacturers learn how their customers are actually using their products. What works? What doesn’t work? What can be better? How? Manufacturers can use this data to inform their design processes in real time, whereas other manufacturers may never know the answers to those questions and see their products quickly fall out of the market. And consumers get products that are not only easier to use, but could also continuously increase in value because companies can add or improve features over time.
There is also aggregate value for a customer when all their connected devices begin working with each other to save energy and improve the user experience more than any single device can by itself. One manufacturer isn’t going to make the entire connected home or connected factory or connected office. The standards for the Internet of Things are converging quickly, and it’s becoming easier and easier for companies to work with each other to bring benefits to their customers that weren’t even economically possible just a few years ago. But we have to get the data flowing from these “dumb” devices before we will figure out what they can really do!