Internet of Toilets: AT&T Foundry uses IoT to help improve worker retention

Sometimes, the answer to a foul problem is right under your nose. Or, in this instance, right above it.

A few years ago, a major construction company turned to our AT&T Foundry in Plano for help improving job-site employee retention. Construction workers reported for duty one week and would be gone the next, seemingly without explanation. The surprising culprit?

The porta potties smelled. So the Foundry team rolled up their sleeves to sensorize a more pleasant restroom experience and, in turn, keep employees satisfied with their working conditions.

But innovation can be a messy process. The Foundry initially faced a few challenges. Construction companies don’t own their porta potties. Waste management companies do. To complicate matters, those companies frequently replace job-site porta potties. So number one, this meant any technology the Foundry created would need to be as portable as the potties. And number two, because porta potties vary in design, the device would need to be flexible.

And the more obvious logistics remained: How do we determine when a porta potty has become “unpleasant”? How can we know whether or not it’s being used? Should the technology detect smells? Cameras are frequently used in place of IoT sensor solutions, but were a quick pass in this instance.

While the Foundry team iterated several options, the eventual solution was simple – use the construction worker as the sensor.

The Foundry helped create a simple standalone, battery-powered IoT device that easily clamps to the vent pipe inside the structure – a feature found in all porta potties. When a construction worker opens the door, the worker will quickly decide based on the smell and visible condition of the potty whether or not to enter. A motion sensor contained in the IoT device detects movement within the porta potty. So sensed movement inside means a clean restroom. A slammed door and hasty retreat probably means it’s time for a tune-up. An LTE-M connection then shares analytics collected from that sensor to the cloud, allowing job-site managers to identify usage patterns based on the movement within and around the porta potty.

But the technology proves valuable beyond the goal of employee retention. The data can also help employers save time and money through maintenance efficiencies. For example, if the data is showing ongoing usage, employers can skip a scheduled routine stop.

It just goes to show the most effective innovations don’t always need an extensive amount of technology to pass the smell test.

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