Labor. Everyone in the hotel business knows this is the number one most draining cost on the industry.

Small motels and large five-star operations alike deal with the impossibility of automation every day: in most cases, it’s simply not practical to replace the hours an employee spends checking every single room once or twice over. A single stray hair left on a pillowcase or a toilet paper roll left unfolded before the arrival of a new guest can condemn a five-star operation, says Walt Strasser, Executive Vice President of sales and marketing for the Maryland-based company Minibar Systems, a company that’s trying to help hotels automate in one of the few areas they can: their minibars.

When a company can, for a change, automate some of that otherwise-racked-up labor time, while still keeping customers happy, and cutting costs, hotel owners’ ears perk up.

Minibar Systems manufactures and installs automated mini-fridges stocked with goodies in hotels around the world, from the iconic Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York to massive five-star operations in Las Vegas to mid-size hotels in the Middle East.

What hotels have in common, regardless of size, Strasser says, is a tendency to focus on “putting a head in the bed,” which means the industry as a whole has less time to think about improving operational efficiency.

The mini-fridges, equipped with sensors, can report various trackings to a tablet/touch-screen run software system, where hotel management can follow fridge usage. The minibars use LED-lights to indicate whether the fridge has been opened, so a hotel employee doing a sweep can quickly see whether to run inventory on the fridge. The bars are also capable reporting any time the minibar door is opened and to amass years worth of data on product usage -- a helpful standard by which management can plan for the future. Most of all, the product comes down to efficiency, which, for hotels, is not just a buzzword: here’s a look at the hard numbers -- Pre-automation,hotels would invest about 8 hours of an employee’s time in systematically checking the minibars in 120 rooms. That time is spent walking between rooms, going inside, opening the minibar, and checking to see if anything was removed. As any hotel guest knows, minibar purchases aren’t always likely; their success lies in impulse, and only about one in four guests uses a minibar. It’s enough of a draw that hotels aren’t about to get rid of minibars -- especially knowing that impulse buys allow them to raise the price of standard Pringles or Kit Kat bars by an enormous amount. But absent automation, when hotels crunch the numbers, the labor costs of maintaining that tiny little fridge might seem unreasonable.

"When a company can, for a change, automate some of that otherwise-racked-up labor time, while still keeping customers happy, and cutting costs, hotel owners’ ears perk up."

With an automated minibar doing that checking, an employee can get through 400 rooms in the same 8-hour chunk, knowing which bars have actually been touched. Minibar Systems isn’t exactly new to this world: they’ve been around for 40 years, and they’ve been installing their own automated systems for two. As an industrial company already familiar with the market, they stepped their existing minibar installation business up a notch in recent years to push automation.

This technology offers an interesting twist on the sometimes misty-eyed vision of the Internet of Things. We talk about it at times as though the ideal application of the IoT would be to sync up a home refrigerator with an iPhone and car and tablet, so that on the way home, a busy parent could check in to see just how many eggs are at home and if a grocery stop is needed.

But Minibar’s application of device-communication technology takes place on a much larger, more industrial scale -- a scale that actually allows quantifiable cost savings and has the potential to change a sector.

Mark Cosgrove, the company’s Chief Technology Officer, says a major challenge for keeping the minibars up to modern snuff has been dealing with the changing internal technology of hotels -- a challenge developers of any kind face within their own niche markets, especially when dealing with older buildings. But the minibars have ridden the adaptability wave. Now, the company uses the hotel’s ethernet network and builds communication devices for the minibars into the building’s walls. By setting up 4,000-room hotels with a combination of Echelon controllers and plugins on programmable logic controllers (PLCs), Minibar Systems essentially creates a virtual network of communicating devices.

This blog will be exploring this reality of scale and scope when it comes to the industrial Internet of things. We’re interested in the way small -- quite literally, physically small chips -- can change the quotidian operational realities of larger industry. In this way, communities of devices are already about much more than itty-bitty smart technologies all talking to one another. They’re being created by developers to solve very particular industrial problems.