By Luise Urth Krog
Smartwatches, smart refrigerators, Fitbits and the “Nest” thermostat are probably some of the things most consumers think of first when talking about Internet of Things, or IoT as it’s often called.
In the northern part of Jutland, Denmark, there was a large cluster of cellphone companies in the 90’s, often referred to as the Danish Silicon Valley, which centered around the university of Aalborg, among others. However, most of this cluster disappeared in the early 00’s after the IT industry crashed and lots of jobs was moved to China. Xtel Wireless is a spin-off from that mobile adventure and they add their knowledge and expertise to the world of IoT which is now their primary business.
We have talked with Martin Jørgensen, chief of innovation in Xtel Wireless in Aalborg, about Internet of Things, the possibilities and limitations of this technology and what he thinks will happen in the future.
Martin Jørgensen, Chief of Innovation at Xtel Wireless
Xtel specializes in Industrial IoT, but our talk also leads us to the benefits of private consumers and how the evolution of consumer products have pushed the evolution of IoT within the industry.
For years, we have been talking about smart homes, smarts refrigerators, smart ovens etc. without those things ever really coming true – yet. In fact, the company Eriksson already talked about those things 20 years ago.
- The first job interview I went to was at Eriksson where they talked about – this is almost 20 years ago – that they needed to connect refrigerators etc. to the internet, so that people would be able to turn on their oven and cook the chicken before coming home from work. This was the next big thing back then… but we’ve barely seen it yet”.
A big part of the reason that not much happened with our ‘smart homes’, Jørgensen thinks, is because there are no common standards. The way things are now, we use a lot of different technologies that don’t communicate with each other.
- It’s no use buying a light bulb that doesn’t communicate with other things around the house. The systems become fragmented… It’s too technical at the moment, I think, he says
Apple and Google are both major players in the smart home market and they both dream of being first with a standard that lets them “own” data in our homes. But this hasn’t happened yet.
- The term IoT has existed since the late 90’s, so why is it interesting now? Martin Jørgensen asks himself and answers,
- My think it’s because we are more prepared for the technology now primarily due to the smartphone market.
This development now benefits the industry as IoT is spreading– in both manufacturing and in the companies’ physical shops.
- There’s actually a lot of resources in a smartphone that are cheap and highly optimized in relation to low power, for instance. And then there’s a lot of wireless technology available. But the smartphone has also provided plenty of infrastructure, backend and cloud servers, all the things we see today. Within the past 5-6 years it has matured significantly. So, the things we can do today, we weren’t able to do 5-6 years ago, says Martin Jørgensen.
One of the companies who have developed a good business based on IoT is the Danish company Trackunit. They've developed a small tracking device that can, for instance, be placed on a construction machine. The unit sends data into the cloud and then the owner can monitor where the machines are from his own computer or smartphone.
IoT Platform structure
Another way to use IoT, which many industrial companies are interested in at the moment, is ‘predicted maintenance’. With the right usage of IoT, companies can optimize their maintenance expenses. For instance, this may be a good idea if your company has a product with a critical component that usually requires service checks. Xtel has several customers whose products are placed around the world. In collaboration with these customers, the company has developed special sensors that monitor these critical components and forward sensor data to a Cloud server. This way, the customer has access to server data and receives notifications and warnings if the components are about to fail which makes breakdowns predictable.
Xtel's wireless sensor module
Another interesting technology that Xtel offers its customers is Energy Harvesting. This technology strengthen an IoT product because the product creates its own energy. As such, we don’t have to worry about maintaining batteries or whether or not we have physical access to a certain sensor.
Many companies have already realized the importance of digitalization and see great advantages in IoT. But how do you get started? According to Martin Jørgensen, it’s about much more than just finding the right technology. Implementing IoT requires a lot from a company. For instance, the entire organization must be ready, at C-level level as well as in manufacturing.
- It’s very much about understanding the people around it: The end user, manufacturing employees, the people who install and configure it. We have to think current processes into it. From development, manufacturing to distribution, sales etc. We have to consider it all. And then of course, we have to consider technology as well, says Jørgensen
That’s why Xtel treats every IoT project as an innovation process. Previously, customers often brought a new feature upgrade and a requirement specification for their product, so the company could somewhat easily begin developing, testing and manufacturing the solution.
That’s not the way it works with IoT, Martin Jørgensen explains. IoT is often like a brand new business for the companies they talk to, and as such it requires a sort of innovation to run it initially.
- We need to think like Google: How can we create business from data within 10 years and which data can we “own” in the future?
This has been a success for Trackunit, among others.
- For the past 10 years or so they have built a business from delivering tracking units to construction machines. And that’s IoT. You basically connect a construction machine to the internet, says Martin Jørgensen.
One of the big challenges with IoT is of course the matter of security. Because how do we ensure that data isn’t leaked when it’s stored on an online server? Martin Jørgensen agrees that the matter of security is one of the absolute biggest challenges with IoT and he advises companies to think carefully.
- We need to think safety on many levels. We must be rational and logical. How big of a security risk is there? It’s difficult to say: “If we do this then we're covered everywhere.” We need to take every product and go: “What do we need to protect ourselves from? Which use cases will it land in? What kind of environment will it enter, and what do we have to protect ourselves from?” And then we can integrate it in our design from the beginning. Security is a huge area, because if we’re talking about nuclear power plants or military industry then it’s a whole other category of security. Then we have things that are far less important, and of course those must be treated and designed differently.