IoT Keeps an Eye on Cold Beer in South Africa

Anheuser-Busch InBev's South African Brewery is piloting an IoT system that captures data about the temperatures and locations of beer coolers around the country, and can thus confirm that they are in use, are being used properly and are in good working order.
Published: June 21, 2019

When drinks and brewing company Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev)’s South African Brewery (SAB) sends its 120,000 coolers out to restaurants, bars and pubs that sell its products, they often have little visibility into where and how the coolers are used.

To solve its lack of cooler visibility, the firm is piloting a solution from South African technology startup CIRT, using Digital Twin wireless sensors built into Staycold coolers, as well as IoT network connectivity from Thingstream.

The Fridgeloc device

SAB not only sells beer products in South Africa, but also owns the coolers in which they are displayed and stored. They are designed to keep the product at optimal temperatures (between -2 and +4 degrees Celsius), explains Ajay Lalu, CIRT’s director. The coolers, which come with double display glass doors measuring approximately 2 two meters in width, allow the product to be stored and removed by business staff members or customers when purchased.

The coolers are high in value, the company reports, and managing them is challenging. They are used in every kind of structure and location, from restaurants in the center of Johannesburg to corrugated shacks in rural areas. To monitor each one and provide maintenance, SAB typically sends employees around the country a few times a year. Sometimes, though, the coolers simply aren’t where they were reported to be.

The company began working this year with CIRT, a Johannesburg-based joint venture launched last year by Digibiz and strategic consulting firm Black Lite Group to create the solution, known as the Fridgeloc Connected Cooler. It developed a system by which the sensors capture temperature data and forward it over a cellular-based IoT connection via Thingstream’s IoT connectivity.

CIRT considered a variety of connectivity options before selecting Thingstream’s network because of its ability to provide ubiquitous data flow over any available 2G, 3G or 4G cellular network. It then installed the sensors in about 105 new Staycold coolers that were sent to customers’ sites throughout various parts of the country. The device is mounted in the cooler. Some have GPS units included; most, however, are using GSM triangulation-based data from the cellular network to understand where each cooler is located.

The sensors read temperature levels every 15 minutes, forwarding that data and location and on/off status to a cloud-based sever via the Thingstream cellular connection. Each sensor uses a cooler unit’s power source, though it can also employ a battery that provides four hours of power in the event that an electricity source is not available.

When temperature data is uploaded to the cloud, CIRT’s IoT Platform software stores the information for each site and can indicate when a given cooler is online, what temperature it is maintaining and where it is located. If the data indicates a problem, such as the unit being moved outside of its expected area or going offline, an alert can be issued to authorized parties at SAB. The software is provided via Microsoft’s Azure IoT Central software-as-a-service (SaaS) and Power BI for the dashboard.

Once the system started collecting data, the beverage company began learning more than just where coolers were located—it now knew how they were being used. For instance, Lalu explains, if temperatures increased several degrees, then gradually cooled to desirable levels, that could indicate a unit had been restocked with new product. If temperatures rise and fall quickly in spikes, he says, the company can infer that many beers are being purchased and removed from the cooler, one at a time. The company can also understand how well compressors are operating in coolers, based on how quickly a unit can resume normal temperatures after its door has been opened.

The temperature-reading functionality, which originally served as an added benefit to a cooler-management system, has proved to be useful for other reasons as well, Lalu reports. The company requires that the coolers be plugged in and operational all day, every day, in order to keep products at optimal temperature levels and ensure that no extra pressure is being put on the cooler’s mechanics.

However, Lalu says, once products were in place, the firm could see that the coolers at some locations were being turned off during non-business hours—based on a rising temperature at night, for instance. The business might be under the impression that it is saving electricity costs, he notes, while it could actually be compromising the quality of its beer and increasing maintenance costs. SAB was able to identify those events and then could contact the business owner to change its habits.

The Digital Twin sensor is installed in such a manner that it remains invisible to users. The pilot has provided various data insights since being taken live in February, Lalu says. For instance, the country experienced rolling blackouts that lasted for several hours, and the system was able to identify how much temperatures increased during that span of time. “We found the accuracy is quite reliable” with regard to location data, Lalu adds—typically within 50 meters. “The network connectivity from Thingstream has been phenomenal,” he states, despite the varying geographical areas in which the coolers are located, as well as the diverse facilities ranging from large buildings to shacks. “For me, that was a real revelation.”

Thingstream is a Switzerland-based IoT connectivity company that spun off from telecom operators, according to Neil Hamilton, the firm’s VP of business development. Its solutions use the existing infrastructure of cellular providers, as opposed to other IoT-based networks, ensuring a more globally ubiquitous architecture. “Global enterprises require a common system they can use globally,” Hamilton says. “What we do is use existing cellular network—2G, 3G, 4G—for a very low-power, consistent connection.” It has roaming access to more than 600 carriers worldwide to ensure that consistent connection.

Because of that reliable coverage, Hamilton explains, the company has been providing solutions to places where other IoT networks may not be sufficient. “Were often getting involved in projects where companies build a prototype using Wi-Fi, cellular, SigFox or LoRa data, but then hit a problem: ‘How do we connect anywhere, using low power at low cost?'” Hamilton says.

The Thingstream-networked devices send very small payloads. There are four telco operators in South Africa, and the system is designed so that a sensor can hop onto the signal that is strongest in its area.