Let's Get Visible

April 1, 2006 By: Barbara G. Goode, Sensors Sensors

In meteorology, the word "visibility" refers to the distance that can be seen clearly. The newly hot discipline of business process management (BPM) has generated a new definition for this long view, one that will increasingly depend on sensors.

In an article on the BPM Institute Web site (, Forrester Research defines BPM as the designing, executing, and optimizing of cross-functional business processes that incorporate systems, processes, and people.

The connection between BPM and sensors may not be immediately obvious, but it will become increasingly apparent to those who know sensing technologies. (To others it will simply be a part of the landscape as more and more sensors provide data that are necessary and expected.) The connection derives from the maturation and proliferation of sensors as well as the related technologies that enable sophisticated communication and use of sensor data. Thanks to these developments, sensors can create clearer pictures of the world and its subsets, including business enterprises.

The Three Phases of Visibility

The term visibility entered the sensor arena by way of RFID. Interest in RFID has reached a fever pitch thanks to organizations such as Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense who understood quickly how this technology could streamline their supply chain operations. In supply chain parlance, visibility refers to interrogating a system to learn where goods are when en route to their destination. If you've ever tracked a UPS or FedEx package through the carrier's Web site, you've had "visibility" into the chain of events that gets your order to you. Today, sensors are being combined with RFID to provide a richer set of data for more informed tracing.

In his introduction to the February issue of Sensors' Wireless & M2M newsletter (, Wayne Manges says that operational visibility is a result of dramatic transitions affecting manufacturing and raw materials processing systems, and that supply chain tracking is only the first phase of its appearance.

The second phase, asset visibility (this includes monitoring the health of machines, for instance), is growing as sensors are put into place to enable predictive maintenance. Indeed, many companies are recognizing the value of this discipline, which vendors and end users also refer to as "diagnostics and prognostics" and "machine monitoring."

The third phase, process visibility, has yet to receive much recognition—but ultimately brings to bear the greater value of sensor data. Process visibility is nothing more than sensor data integrated with other data to inform business process management. Manges says that this "will bring the benefits of visibility to the transition of raw material to product." And, he warns, companies that don't take advantage of these benefits will not be able to compete with companies that do.

Looking Ahead

As Tom Kevan discusses in his monthly column Extreme Data, sensors will increasingly become integral informants for "enterprise intelligence." If the sensors you design into systems aren't already feeding data into your company's enterprise software, they soon will—or should. And sensors designed into OEM products will enable new services (not just features) for customers, and be able to report information back to you.

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