Smart Lifts: A success story of SME digitalisation through standards

A consortium of small and medium players in a traditionally analogue sector responded to the pressure to go digital. Their new IoT platform could connect nearly 40,000 lifts by 2022—and inspire a European best practice for the green and digital transition through standards.

Digitalisation is not optional anymore. In 2021, there is no future for any industry without connectivity. A group of traditional small and medium businesses in the Italian lift industry started feeling this pressure a few years ago. With more and more buildings needing elevators, production and maintenance of the lifts was spread out among different players who needed to communicate and stay up to date. An additional complicating factor was the diverse provenance and significant age difference of components (the Italian lift sector is a potpourri of almost ancient and some highly modern installations—and everything in between).

Building on a shared vision for the future

On a sunny day in July 2013, 18 SMEs active in the Italian lifts sector founded the TRE-E consortium. Some of these companies had already collaborated on the development of advanced control systems in the past; now, despite being competitors, they recognised the increasing need of working together. Crucially, the CEOs shared a vision for the future. They knew that they had to put innovation front and centre if they wanted to stay competitive.

One of the first milestones of the consortium was the establishment of a joint training centre with five lifts in 2015. Its purpose was originally to train staff, but it quickly became a source of innovation for the entire SME ecosystem. In late 2017, Internet of Things (IoT) research started at the training centre. One of the challenges of the Italian lift sector is the diversity of applications. There are old, mechanical elevators on one hand and cutting-edge lifts with free Wi-Fi on the other. Companies servicing the lifts need to work with both, so TRE-E started collecting and pooling their data and spare parts to improve maintenance and upkeep.

The TRE-Engine training centre established by the TRE-E consortium in 2015

Standardisation: the key to unleash the power of industrial IoT

In 2019, the consortium’s project manager Marco Cogliati joined the European Federation for Elevator SMEs (EFESME) as an expert. Through EFESME’s membership at Small Business Standards (SBS), TRE-E was able to enter the world of standardisation.

Standardisation proved to be the key to unleash the power of the TRE-E consortium and their diverse lift instances throughout the country. Through standardised data formats and connectivity, TRE-E could efficiently share information and build an industrial IoT platform to connect lift providers, users, maintenance, and secondary service providers. Through this platform, the consortium could manage the entire installed base of nearly 40,000 lifts with the potential to scale up throughout Italy.

“Our businesses always believed in innovation”, says Cogliati, who now spearheads the consortium’s efforts to make their IoT platform a best practice that can potentially be used for the entire Italian lift sector—and beyond. The TRE-E consortium’s ambitious project manager, now a member of the European Telecommunication Standards Institute’s (ETSI) smartM2M Technical Committee, is working on the world’s first approach for open and standardised IoT applications in the lift sector, the so-called oneM2M Smart Lifts standard.

“SMEs need to understand the value of participating in standardisation”, Cogliati emphasises. “For us, entering the standardisation sphere has been a game-changer. But it’s still too hard for individual businesses. Europe needs to lower the barriers for SMEs to enter standardisation and invest in research and innovation”.

SMEs are at the centre of the project

The TRE-E consortium is a tremendous digitalisation success story for small and medium enterprises. It showcases what SMEs can achieve if they work together in synergy. Far from getting lost in competition with multinationals in the lift sector, these family-run businesses are paving the way for the digitalisation of an entire industry. And they could not have done it without the help of two key players: the “digital enablersTecnodal and Elettroquadri. Providing the software and hardware for the smart lift control panels, the digital SMEs out of northern Italy were an indispensable factor in TRE-E’s success.

“This is a prime example for what we call a ‘digital enabler’ SME: an innovative business that helps and enables non-digital businesses to transform their operations”, commented DIGITAL SME President Oliver Grün. “Together, these businesses form a sustainable digitalisation ecosystem that builds on openness, interoperability, standards, and innovation.”

 The Smart Lift IoT platform connects all stakeholders in the ecosystem

Smart Lifts for Europe’s green and digital transitions

For TRE-E, industrial IoT is just the beginning. They will optimise the prototype of their IoT platform and turn it into a solid, easy-to-use product for businesses in the lift sector. After that, Marco wants to continue innovating on the platform by including artificial intelligence: “We would like to arrive at a point where we can use AI for predictive maintenance.

The Italian lift consortium is one of many such innovative, SME-based initiatives across Europe. Increasingly, SMEs and startups are at the centre of innovation hubs that pool their resources and enable them to bring together the two worlds of industry and digital innovation. The result are cutting-edge industrial IoT applications that are catapulting Europe back to the forefront of smart city innovation.

Crucially, the model proposed by TRE-E also has enormous potential for Europe’s green transition. Instead of disposing of old lifts entirely, the innovative consortium “upgrades” and connects them to the cloud. This approach not only extends the life cycle of lifts. Analysis of usage data will make their reparation and maintenance more efficient and cheaper for the consumer while optimising their energy use.

Key takeaways: the power of SME ecosystems and standards

The key takeaway of this green digitalisation success story: “Digitalisation is not far away, it’s right here. And if SMEs like us don’t adapt, we will be left by the wayside”, in Marco’s words. The story of the TRE-E consortium is also about synergetic B2B-relationships that advance sustainable digitalisation in strategic sectors, and about the “digital enablers” that facilitate this dynamic. TRE-E demonstrates economic and social sustainability by digitising a traditionally analogue sector, creating jobs, and producing long-term growth and innovation.

Finally, this success story is about standards as a key to achieve openness and interoperability of solutions by different stakeholders. Without standards, the task of working together among so many diverse stakeholders and their operations would be impossible.

There is tremendous innovative power in Europe’s SME ecosystems. Policymakers from Brussels to Warsaw and beyond should take note and do everything they can to unleash it!