You may think only giant corporations can benefit from the internet of things--the networking of nontechnical objects so they can receive and transmit data. But right now, businesses like yours are employing the IoT: digitizing work sites, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, and shipments. It's easier than you might think.

IMCO General Construction, which employs 180 in Ferndale, Washington, faced typical challenges for building contractors: a dispersed work force; far-flung work sites; gathering data from complex construction projects. Then the company began working with Seattle-based startup Unearth, which networks remote sensors, drones, satellite data, and mobile devices to help construction firms reduce accidents and respond to problems quickly.

It's a thing
Key stats about this fast-growing tech sector.
20.4 billion
Number of internet-connected "things" expected to be in use by 2020.
Source: Gartner
The chunk of IoT spending this year that will come from businesses.
Source: Gartner
$3.7 trillion
Per year potential value of IoT-related productivity and efficiency improvements in factories.
Source: McKinsey
8 to 10%
How much Italian train system Trenitalia's maintenance costs will be reduced by adopting IoT technology.
Source: Gartner
$470 billion
Estimated aggregate annual revenue in 2020 for vendors selling IoT hardware, software, and related services. Source: Bain

"If we're flying [a drone] over a site and the owner can see on the live feed that they need something changed, we can react to it quickly," says IMCO construction manager Casey Dougherty. "It's definitely made our crews more efficient, which means more profitability." The prices of Unearth's services vary, but generally start at $1,000 per month.

Other companies are using IoT to cut costs. When Magnet 360--a 190-person firm that helps businesses use the Salesforce platform--moved into an office converted from an old warehouse in Minneapolis, the staff quickly realized their HVAC system needed an upgrade. Enter local IoT startup 75F, which uses sensors to analyze air flow, and automates heating and cooling functions; the costs for a 75F system range from 50¢ to $3.50 per square foot. By using 75F, companies can cut energy costs up to 70 percent, says its chief operating officer, Bob French.

The IoT helps with harder-to-define tasks, too. Family-owned Christensen Farms, a pork producer in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, affixes wireless tracking devices called Bees, made by Santa Clara, California-based Roambee, to its livestock trailers. There, they track humidity levels inside the trucks, so drivers know if they need to adjust the ventilators. Brian Bourke, the VP of marketing for Seko Logistics in Chicago, says his company often places a Roambee device in sensitive shipments to provide an extra layer of assurance to key clients. "They can see where a package is at any point," he says--which lets Seko staffers focus on more valuable tasks. Roambee's devices, which may be stopped and started depending on seasonal need, and related hardware generally cost $1 to $1.50 per device per day of usage. Various payment options are available.

And Formlabs, a professional 3-D-printing company based in Somerville, Massachusetts, uses devices from nearby IoT startup Tulip to track the production of its customized sample parts, says chief product officer Dávid Lakatos. Formlabs' custom Tulip setup has a monitor and interface at every major station on its shop floors; there they track and record key company processes. Formlabs has grown 100 percent each of the past two years, and with the training time it's saving by pre­recording instructions for major tasks, chances are it will grow even more. Just like the IoT.

What's trending

Augmented workers

Augmenting workers with smart glasses will be huge for certain heavy industries, says Dayna Grayson, a partner with New Enterprise Associates in Washington, D.C. Not only will they record what wearers are seeing, but in a manufacturing environment, a mechanic could receive diagnostic data from such eyewear. They might even summon experts for certain problems.

Digitized shop floors

Digitizing "the last mile of the Industrial Revolution," like connecting machines to IoT applications, is starting to happen, says Grayson, who envisions improvements in maintenance, worker health and safety, and energy savings. By using sensors to monitor machinery, businesses could shift to repairing equipment as needed and move away from maintenance schedules.

Inventory control

"Retailers and other companies are using smart sensors to keep track of inventory and to automatically reorder when more products are needed," says Victoria Petrock, a principal analyst with eMarketer.

Office atmosphere

Air-quality monitors for your workers' desks are coming, says Jenny Fielding, managing director at Techstars, and soon we'll tweak the room temperature according to what they find. One Bay Area startup, Awair, offers such monitors, as well as sensors that cover broader areas of entire buildings.

Smarter shipping

Using the IoT, carriers can relay location data and other information to clients; IoT tags could reduce the volume of lost packages and in-transit damage for temperature-controlled items.

Pleased pork

Agricultural uses for the IoT include sensors that monitor humidity levels in trucks transporting pigs, so drivers can adjust instantly if they need more ventilation.

Cost shaving

Companies using IoT sensors and systems to control heat and air conditioning usage in large facilities can save serious dollars.