As he prepares to retire from his “second career” in teaching, IUPUI professor Lou Lenzi discusses the importance and impact of the internet of things and the leading role IU is playing in the convergence of the classroom and industry.
When Lou Lenzi arrived to teach at Indiana University in 2016—after having spent 36 years designing and developing technological and other solutions for several major multinational corporations, including IBM, GE Healthcare and Thomson/RCA—he was determined to tear down any existing walls between the classroom and the corporate board room.
“At each one of my career stops, I was a big believer in internship programs and other experiential learning programs that gave students the opportunity to design and develop solutions to real-world, real-time marketplace challenges, while simultaneously giving employers an early glimpse at the pipeline of future employees,” says Lenzi, who will retire at the end of the month from his “second career” at the School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI. “I really believed that the more we could connect our classroom activities to regional business and economic development initiatives—and the more we could raise awareness of our entrepreneurial spirit and problem-solving capabilities—the better off everyone would be.”
As he began to conceive a new advanced curriculum in the school’s Department of Human-Centered Computing, Lenzi, who in 2016, was named one of the top 50 industrial designers over the last 50 years, envisioned a comingling of entrepreneurial-minded students with industry professionals that would expose students to a real-world, fast-paced business environment, as they worked to devise solutions to the most pressing challenges facing companies and community organizations.
Lenzi’s arrival at IU was as timely as his vision for a new design curriculum was prescient.
Around the time Lenzi joined IU, the “internet of things” was becoming a real thing. Though the actual term was coined by British technology pioneer Kevin Ashton in 1999 to describe the network connecting physical objects with sensors, software and other technological features to the Internet, it would be several more years before the IoT began to make a more pervasive and pronounced economic and societal impact.
Today, IoT devices—including cell phones, tablets, watches, home security and automation systems, household appliances, health monitors and vehicle communications systems, to name just a few—are routinely deployed across our home, consumer and manufacturing settings. And their usage is expected to grow exponentially. A recently published report indicates that the number of IoT devices are expected to climb to nearly 30 billion worldwide by 2030, triple the number from 2020.
Lenzi’s arrival at IU also coincided with Indiana’s increasing determination to support and catalyze innovation in IoT. In 2018, Lenzi was asked to represent IU at the grand opening of a new, state-of-the-art Indiana IoT Lab in Fishers, Ind., a 24,000-square-foot facility that serves to connect Indiana’s leading entrepreneurs, startup companies and established companies and inspire the delivery of new IoT-driven solutions to the market. One of the founding members of the lab, IU arranged for an immediate presence in the space, which came in the form of an office and meeting space, across from a sponsored conference room. This sponsorship would enable IU students, faculty and staff to utilize the entire lab and all of its leading-edge equipment, including everything from 3-D printers and touch-screen walls to table saws.
“It was extremely fortunate that just as I was coming on board [IU Vice President for Government Relations and Economic Engagement] Bill Stephan and Tony Armstrong [IU associate vice president and president and CEO of IU Ventures] were talking about how Indiana University could develop a strong and active presence at the Indiana IoT Lab. They were looking to seize the opportunity to participate and interact more closely with companies around our state, and this dovetailed very nicely with a course we were building in IoT design and business innovation.”
Over the past five years, that course has generated more than 20 student-driven, industry-sponsored projects spanning such important industries as advanced manufacturing, energy management, home health, industrial automation, precision agriculture, process automation, rural telecommunications, and retail food and beverage.
Several of these projects have come out of the Indiana IoT Lab, including what Lenzi calls his program’s “first meaty project.” It led to the creation of a smart water filtration system for multinational coffeehouse chain Starbucks.
As part of a semester-long project in 2019, a team of IUPUI students researched water quality, learned how to retrieve data from interconnected appliances and then figured out how to create a data dashboard that would help Starbucks with preventative maintenance on water equipment used across more than 8,000 company locations across the U.S. To allow the students maximum interaction with its equipment, Starbucks installed a prototype water filtration system in the IoT Lab so the students could pull data from the sensors installed on the unit. There are only five such installations in the country—four are in Starbucks cafes and one is in the IoT Lab.
“This was the perfect situation where we had several really bright graduate students with an idea around creating data visualizations to address customer experience challenges faced by major retailers, a test bed and lab space at the IoT Lab in Fishers where Starbucks could mount its water filtration system, and the technological capability of retrieving data locally or from campus,” Lenzi says. “Today, the dashboards our students built are being used at Starbucks, which has been able to reduce its costs and improve the quality of its product through this user interface.
“It was a great spotlight on the value of IU’s engagement with IoT and the university’s partnerships with industry and community leaders focused on moving our economy forward.”
Since that time, Lenzi has overseen two to three fast-paced projects per semester, which he calls “design sprints.” These industry-sponsored initiatives have allowed students to advance their research and design skills in the latest digital media product areas, including smart technologies, while helping companies and community organizations determine how to solve such problems as increasing their productivity and operating efficiency, improving regulatory compliance, driving revenue growth and creating new revenue streams. These projects have also expanded beyond the IoT Lab to, among other statewide innovation spaces, the 16 Tech district in Indianapolis, The Mill in Bloomington, and IUPUI’s newest building, the 100,000-square-foot Innovation Hall, which opened last year.
In 2019, IUPUI students in Lenzi’s applied HCI program worked to devise innovative solutions to help Indianapolis residents who are homeless and hungry. The concepts included remodeling buses into mobile homeless shelters, installing solar-powered cellphone charging stations in public spaces and establishing community refrigerators in areas where there is a high demand for food.
The following year, another team of students, working with community leaders in Carmel, Ind., devised several innovative solutions using artificial intelligence technology to help emergency responders more quickly and effectively relay critical information to dispatchers, hospitals and central information units. For their efforts, the students were recognized with the top three prizes in the nationwide Tech to Protect Challenge, sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Last October, students swept up several of the biggest prizes, including the $25,000 grand prize, at central Indiana’s fifth annual AT&T 5G Sports Hackathon. The event challenged teams of student developers, designers and other creatives to develop cutting-edge mobile technologies that enhance the fan experience and spotlight the benefits of a 5G network. In Indianapolis, investment in 5G connectivity is seen as a major development in the city continuing to be a mecca for world-class sporting events, such as the Indianapolis 500, the Super Bowl and NCAA March Madness.
And this past spring, several teams of students engaged with customers of Endress+Hauser of Greenwood, Ind., to review their water monitoring and sensoring processes and suggest changes to improve their operations. Endress+Hauser, one of the largest field instrument manufacturers in the country, produces and sells a cloud-based IoT system for global water treatment monitoring and sensoring, which has applications across a number of regional Indiana industries.
“What Lou and his students have accomplished by successfully engaging in these industry-sponsored projects is truly extraordinary,” says David Gard, IU assistant vice president for economic development. “They’ve demonstrated the enormous interest in IoT, what it represents to business and community leaders in terms of innovation and entrepreneurial impact, and the potential for it to have a transformative impact on the lives of Hoosiers across our state.”
Over the past five years, IUPUI’s business innovation students have worked on projects with regional, national and multinational companies including, among others, Amazon, GE, IBM, Rolls Royce, Allegion, Beck’s Superior Hybrids, Delta Faucet Company and Guardian Machine Protection.
“The scope of these projects we’ve done is just mind-boggling,” Lenzi says. “Ag tech, we did that. Warehouse functioning, we did a project on that. We even did a project on youth sports and improving the experience of young athletes and that of their parents.”
As pleased as he is with the number and variety of projects that have come out of his design curriculum, Lenzi is most proud of the impact those projects have had —especially in preparing IU students for successful careers as entrepreneurs and innovators.
“Many of my students have gone on to make an immediate impact in corporate settings, in laboratories and in internships. In each instance, they’ve confidently entered those environments with a mindset of ‘Hey, I can hang with you. I can speak your language. And I know how to help you solve your problem.’ It’s amazing what our students can bring to the table in terms of helping businesses advance their goals.”
Lenzi is equally satisfied with how those projects have helped to strengthen key industries vital to the success of the state’s economy, including manufacturing, and, more broadly, how they have contributed to an ever-expanding culture of entrepreneurship and innovation across IU and the communities it serves.
“When people think about the Internet of Things, they think of smart phones and other smart devices used in their homes, but we shouldn’t forget manufacturing and other industrial applications,” Lenzi says. “We’re invested in the IIoT—the industrial internet of things—which has enormous potential for solving the problems of the automotive and transportation sector, of process automation, the chemical industry, in food and beverage, in farming, and elsewhere. Part of our mission is to maintain the awareness of IoT as very broad and not just limited to the consumer world.”
“It’s all part of the value proposition of what we’re doing,” he continues. “We’re giving our students the experience of working within industry so that they can now go to Starbucks or to Google and immediately make an impact. We’re helping businesses be more productive, efficient and regulatory compliant. And we’re building a more innovative culture, which will give our state a competitive advantage in attracting new businesses, launching startups and creating high-quality jobs for Hoosiers.”
A few days shy of retiring from teaching, Lenzi, who will continue doing consulting work and leading design and business innovation workshops, is confident that the foundation is set for the partnership between IU’s innovation ecosystem and the state’s key industries to continue “moving forward.”
“That’s the beauty of IoT,” he says. “There’s so much right now in our field of view.”