Genetic research brings Internet fridge to life

SUMMARY:

Despite ridicule as a zombie idea, the Internet fridge is finally showing commercial promise in the biotech industry, delivering enzymes for genomic research

New England Biolabs Internet freezerFor more than fifteen years, domestic appliance manufacturers have been vying to bring smart, Internet-connected fridges and freezers to our kitchens. Not one has succeeded, and even Silicon Valley still struggles to bring the concept to life.

In recent months, the Internet fridge has been variously ridiculed as a moronic fantasy (The Register) and a zombie idea that will never, ever happen (The Guardian).

Yet in the quiet corridors of genetic research labs across the US, the connected smart freezer has already sprung to life, incubated by engineers at biotechnology company New England Biolabs (NEB).

The basic idea of an Internet fridge is that it monitors its contents and alerts you to replenish items when they’re running low. This is complete overkill for your fridge at home — it’s much easier and more reliable to simply open the door and look inside — but it’s a perfect fit for the freezers NEB maintains in its customers’ premises.

New England Biolabs is a world leader in the development and supply of enzymes for genomic research. It maintains on-site freezers at many of its customers so that scientists can quickly access enzymes for their research as needed. The freezers have traditionally sat behind a service counter, but adding Internet smarts has made it possible to move the freezers into public areas and give scientists self-service access, even after the counter staff have gone home.

“Our buyers are scientists. They don’t work regular hours,” says Ruben Melo, manager of business systems and applications at NEB, explaining why the company wanted a self-service solution.

But adding digital smarts to the freezers has done much more than automate the existing process, in which NEB often didn’t know which scientists were requesting their enzymes. The new software implemented on the self-service freezers has helped the oompany join up the dots on who is buying what, as software engineer and data architect Ben Huntley explains:

There was always this disconnect with what was happening on the machine. We wanted to get that connection to the end user and who was actually doing the buying.”

Managed from the cloud

NEB freezer in useThe connected freezers are regular, upright freezer cabinets that NEB has modified by adding a range of off-the-shelf electronics components, including a Dell tablet, a temperature probe, a door lock, a barcode scanner and Internet connectivity.

When a scientist needs an enzyme, they log in on the tablet to access their order and release the door lock. After removing the item, they scan the barcode to complete the checkout and the door locks again. The application tracks each step and emails a confirmation of the transaction.

All of this is managed from a cloud application that NEB built and runs on salesforce.com’s Heroku development platform, and which connects into customer records maintained in Salesforce. Tying together what’s happening at the freezer with other customer information has been invaluable, says Huntley.

End user sales have been almost a black box for us until recently. Since our integration with Salesforce we have been able to get a lot more insight.

The benefits are obvious in terms of targeted marketing — and from a research perspective, getting a better handle on how our products are used.

It’s the closest thing we have to being right next to the scientist on the bench.

Retail inspiration

Buying frozen enzymes for genomic research is as far removed from the consumer world as you can get, but nevertheless the NEB team have looked to the consumer retail experience for inspiration when developing their Internet freezer application. Says Huntley:

One of the things we’re trying to emulate is the supermarket experience.

When designing how the barcode scanner would work on the device, the team went to the local supermarket to see how self-scanning worked. The decision to build in a separate dedicated scanner was taken after testing showed that the tablet’s built-in camera was too slow in recognizing the barcode to provide an acceptable user experience.

Shelf space profitability is another concept borrowed from retail — making sure there’s enough stock on the shelf to meet requirements, but no more than needed. Melo explains:

Having that inventory be optimal has always been a difficult thing to do.

[Now] we can restock based on purchasing — the shipment can focus more on what’s being bought. There’s limited real estate on the freezer.

Marketing has always monitored sales but previously they were working with quarterly reports. The reporting and dashboards now provide real-time insight, supplemented by more detailed contextual information about each buyer, such as what questions they’ve been asking of customer support. Email marketing is now more targeted too.

Remote control

With no direct human supervision of the self-service freezers, NEB needed to build in reliable communications and remote-control capabilities. It uses Xively messaging technology from LogMeIn to send information to and from the device. The cloud-based Xively platform uses MQTT to queue messages to and from the freezer into heroku and the Salesforce API, ensuring that no data gets lost in transit. Says Huntley:

We’re doing temperature measurement, door locking, the checkout. We had to be sure those items got to the right target and were recorded appropriately.

Any remote management that’s needed on the tablet is done using LogMeIn Central remote control software.

Work is now under way to roll out the solution globally, using local components where possible. This will mean working with smaller freezer cabinets that fit better with space and energy consumption constraints in parts of Europe and Asia.

The team is currently looking at a design that replaces the tablet with an Arduino microcontroller board. The NEB application would then run on the scientist’s smartphone, explains Melo.

We are looking to shrink into a much smaller footprint. We’ll make the tablet non-mandatory and put the app on your smartphone.

This ability to detach the app from the device while still have it interact with the smart electronics on the freezer is one of the advantages of a cloud architecture. It adds even more value, as the scientist can now check what’s in stock and place their order from their smartphone without having to leave their bench — they can even send a colleague with their smartphone to collect the enzyme, as the lock is released by showing a barcode on the smartphone.

Verdict

In finding a commercially viable use case for its Internet-connected freezers, New England Biolabs have demonstrated what all those early Internet fridge makers got wrong.

  • The value of an Internet-connected fridge comes not from putting the Internet into a screen on the appliance but from connecting components on the appliance to the Internet.
  • Realize the value by joining data from the appliance with other data you’ve collected about your customers, both individually and collectively.
  • Don’t simply automate or collect data from an existing process. Work out new ways of enriching the data and enhancing the process.
  • Letting the user choose where they access the application provides a lot more value than tying it to the physical appliance.
  • No one will bother to scan their own milk cartons in and out of a fridge, but it does make sense for high value items that are paid for on consumption.

Disclosure: Salesforce.com is a diginomica premier partner and currently a consulting client of the author. LogMeIn PR arranged the phone interview with New England Biolabs.

Image credits: courtesy of New England Biolabs