Interest in the Internet of Things (IoT) tends to focus on glamorous opportunities to make everyday life easier, such as refrigerators that do the online shopping. As always with technology, the real value comes from something that some might regard as more mundane.
Paul Leonard heads technology at the William Tracey Group, one of the UK's largest recycling and resource management companies, and headquartered in Scotland. His strategy has put RFID tags on commercial wheelie bins, connected weigh arms on collection trucks to the onboard PCs and introduced an at-base data management strategy. Connected together via the internet, these tools produce a wealth of data that doesn't go to waste, creating new business opportunities, enabling a city and its enterprises to meet new regulatory demands, and most importantly, protecting the Scottish environment.
"The William Tracey Group was started by the grandparents of the current chairman, but is owned by DCC," explains Paul Leonard, Head of IT and Business Change.
DCC is a distribution and services company that is involved in healthcare and gas road transport, as well as other markets. It acquired 50% of William Tracey back in 2006 and now owns the remaining stake.
We met Leonard at the organisation's Linwood headquarters on the edge of Glasgow. Outside the office, green and white collection trucks shuttle in and out, while 40-tonne articulated lorries take reclaimed materials to the next stage of the cycle to reduce, reuse and recycle waste in Scotland. The William Tracey Group now handles approximately between 1.2 million tonnes of waste a year. Leonard explains that the company has been working to improve the reuse and recycling of its customers' resources to minimise those ultimately disposed of as waste, focusing on driving material away from landfill. In doing this, the William Tracey Group has played a role in helping Scottish business comply with new Waste (Scotland) Regulations, which came into effect on January 1, 2014.
The waste management business in Scotland is a great example of how a government, in this case the Scottish Parliament, can create a legislative position that improves the long-term needs of society and create a platform for business opportunities. The regulator aims to make Scotland a zero waste society: "Where all waste is seen as a resource, waste is minimised, valuable resources are disposed of in landfill and most waste is sorted, leaving only limited amounts to be treated," the Parliament states.
"Waste management used to be about tipping it, now it is about separation, so different paper and card types are separated, as are all materials, that then creates a commodity for us," Leonard reveals. He takes CIO UK on a tour showing us cubes of crushed cans that are a sought-after source of metals, bales of paper and a complex production line that doesn't start with raw materials from the ground and create something desirable, it takes something formerly desirable and breaks them down to their constituent parts of papers, plastics and metals, which will be sold to raw material producers for use in new desirable products.
"Refuse derived waste that has a high calorific value at present goes to Holland for use in power stations," Leonard says. For Scottish businesses, the change has had a significant financial impact. In April 2013, the Landfill tax rose to £72 per tonne and then up to £80 per tonne a year later.
"The regulations and campaign by the government was also an opportunity to communicate to customers that we can help, and that created a spring board for our business to come in and help people," he explains.
New regulations weren't just a launchpad for the William Tracey Group to offer new services to its customers. They were also a starting point for the organisation to change its processes to benefit from the new platform that the Scottish Parliament was offering waste management businesses.
"We didn't want to keep doing what we were doing. So I got the sign-off for a £1.5 million programme for the onboard weight technology, cloud services and QlikView BI, as well as putting our core financials on Navision and a new ERP," Leonard explains.
RFID tags ensure that the right bins are collected. When the wagon arrives, it lifts the bin, and a scale in the arm logs the weight and feeds that data directly into a Windows 7 touchscreen device in the cab, which the driver also uses to define the team's collection round. The CIO is watching the development of Smart City technology with interest as he believes it will create further opportunities for his trade.
"Mention Internet of Things to anyone here and they wouldn't know what it is," he says. Rightly, Leonard and the William Tracey Group have looked at their business and looked at the opportunities, and taken the tagging, networking, process and data handling technologies available to transform the way their business operates at the very time when transformation can deliver business and customer benefits.
Putting technology into the vehicles and hands of the teams collecting the waste has been transformational for the business, Leonard reveals. It added 120 users to the business technology estate, but the CIO is evidently pleased to see the frontline teams benefit from having technology to guide them to be more efficient. Skip drivers have adopted PDAs to capture information and images that help with ensure that William Tracey teams are aware of the safety considerations for every job they might work on.
"We want everyone to get as much out of it," he says. Leonard has used satellite navigation specialists TomTom to track all the vehicles and integrated that into the new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tool to enable the organisation to optimise it routes and help the teams that are literally on the streets.
"We thought the drivers would be the hardest to crack, but they were not and one driver asked a lot of great questions, so now he's part of our team," Leonard says of the process transformation that has taken a great deal of paper out of the cabs, making data more accurate and life easier for the teams dealing with waste materials and the weather of this fair isle. Leonard says the teams had triplicate paper to deal with before.
No data waste
"We know that a McDonalds restaurant puts 12kg of food waste in our bins, that means we can help that customer," Leonard reveals. "This legislation means that we will help the customer and at the same time we are in it to make money, but the margin will depend on the material."
Since introducing the technologies to monitor and catalogue waste things the William Tracey Group has been able to move its business model to not only being a service provider, but also a business partner to its clients, using its data to help organisations gain maximum value from their waste resources contracts. The organisation has a team of business advisors that consult current and new clients on waste management and their role to play in Scotland's ambition for zero waste.
"We are known for trust and it really helps that the customer can get information. We can also know if we will make any money from a contract so it leads us to have more productive conversations with customers," Leonard explains. He adds that clients have used the data provided by the William Tracey Group to target their bar managers for example to ensure the segregation of waste materials is done well and explained to business managers the benefits.
Leonard says that the legislation and approach by organisations such as his to be consultative with clients has driven up the value in the waste management industry as clients expect a data driven business relationship. The Edinburgh operation has had to move site as demand has grown significantly in the Scottish capital.
"From a sales point of view, we are looking at where the trucks are going and target future customers. So the systems are critical. Previously, it was like a milk round. William Tracey is now a sophisticated business." The CIO describes the role of his department as "us telling them ways we can be a wee bit smarter."
Leonard and his team have played a part in the William Tracey Group transforming its business. "We are helping the environment and we can see we are doing that. My team gets a lot out of doing that. Leonard says putting the QlikView BI tool in and hiring some business analysts has really helped.
"There was a realisation that we really needed to know what our business is and you need the right people to do that," he says. Leonard purposefully sought out businss analytsts that had no previous experience of the waste management industry to ensure that the right level of questioning took place. The BAs work with Leonard's business partner managers to support the business in using the data and to demonstrate that his department is "not just IT. We are helping the business trust the information and to show them where they can make savings," he says.
Leonard joined the William Tracey Group in May 2011 as an IT Manager before becoming Head of IT and Business Change in January 2013.
"There was no IT structure and a lot of outsourcing. Becoming part of a plc was a realisation that the business needed a step change. I spent 18 months virtualising and standardising, so that we had a good base, and at the same time we travelled the UK and Ireland to look at what was going on with best practice," he explains. The business was growing during this period, opening a further eight waste management sites by 2011. Leonard wanted to make sure that the platform he put in could roll out to any new sites that joined the estate and to a sister company, the William Tracey Group has in Nottingham.
Leonard opted for Navision from Microsoft as the core platform. "It was the best of breed and it integrated well with the other applications such as Salesforce," he says. SAP were keen to win the William Tracey contract, but as a former project manager with British Gas, Leonard describes SAP as "taking a lot of money".
Leonard is also increasing the adoption of cloud computing as the company moves away from a culture of buy and keep to services, adding that although low, managing waste goods such as thousands of tonnes of paper does have some fire risk at the site headquarters. IBM is already providing data centre services. Currently, Leonard's IT budget is £1 million, which he describes as a "huge spike" to deliver transformation. "My target will be on the savings we achieve and I'm comfortable with that."
On a tour of the Linwood facility, it is sobering to see that our society creates so much waste. I watch tonnes of boxes, cans and bottles move across heavy production lines belts to be sorted into Scottish mountains (no exaggeration) of waste. But there is also a reassurance that organisations can bring to bear technology and strategy to eradicate the definition of waste and create a new commodity, and that governing bodies such as the Scottish Assembly create the platform for business and society change.
Just days before our interview, Leonard passed his three-year fitness test for the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service, which as a retained (part-time) firefighter takes up his spare time – it is one of the busiest part time fire stations in the west of Scotland. "You don't do that for the money. You have to give 120 hours per week and it is a worthwhile thing to do, and William Tracey really supports it," he says - with a glen of combustible paper behind him.