Better, cheaper, faster. The digital technologies of the fourth industrial revolution have disrupted markets around the world, but many companies cannot afford just to rip and replace their existing systems in an effort to stay competitive. Luckily, they do not have to. Local technology innovator IoT.nxt is one step ahead of the game and has set itself up to partner with any enterprise wishing to take advantage of the efficiency of digitisation. All without having to discard any existing legacy systems or the valued operational know-how accumulated over decades.
“We see ourselves in the business of digitalisation, rather than as system integrators,” explains IoT.nxt’s chief operations officer, Terje Moen. “Our speciality is incorporating all the different moving parts and components of an organisation into a single integrated view designed to give managers the support they need to make better business decisions in real-time. Working in isolated silos is simply no longer economical.”
IoT.nxt evolved out of a company that was contracted to work on a project which required the integration of multiple complex subsystems – 16 in total. The team found it tough going. They needed to engineer one common user interface across all of the platforms, but everything had to be developed from scratch. On completion, the power of what they had accomplished dawned on them, along with the understanding that there simply had to be a better way to do things.
Shortly thereafter, the seed company was sold to the firm of consulting engineers that had managed the original project. “This gave us the opportunity to refine our solution,” explains Moen. “We realised that what we had just done could easily be replicated across almost any organisation, but we had to have a common reusable infrastructure before we could offer this as a service to industry.”
In December 2015, IoT.nxt was founded to do exactly that. The solution – Raptor – looks unremarkable from the outside. It’s a deception. The modestly sized enclosure is jam-packed with all the functionality required to implement a successful Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) project. Moen describes Raptor as a combination intelligent field gateway, able to handle all device connections; a data manager that regulates the load as it is transmitted across the network; plus a translation platform, which incorporates all common industry standard protocols.
Raptor is an edge device that amalgamates the data from any number of disparate systems and orchestrates this data into the IoT.nxt platform and upstream systems, all the way up to the cloud.
Connectivity problem – solved! Big Data problem – solved! Interoperability problem – solved! Implementation problem – solved! Little wonder then that Moen chooses to describe the company’s core values and culture as ‘never be ordinary’.
The world starts to notice
According to Gareth Rees, leader of Deloitte Digital Transformation SA, the IIoT is not about rip and replace, or even about devices, but about consolidating and enhancing a myriad of data.
First, the data from the silos, or pockets of automation which exist within many companies, must be normalised in a central place. Once the data is centralised in a common format then it can be analysed for the insight that leads to new value creation through increased operating efficiency.
“Companies that want to deploy an IIoT system should future-proof themselves and invest in a device-agnostic interoperability platform,” notes Rees. “In order not to lock a customer into any one company’s automation devices going forward, we looked for a development partner that could offer the flexibility of a vendor-neutral solution.”
Ultimately, Deloitte Digital Transformation SA picked IoT.nxt and its agile cloud-based system with the ability to customise and deploy any required IIoT configuration.
Next, long-time backer Talent10 Holdings, provided a further R100 million investment, with the specific aim to drive international expansion. IoT.nxt’s office in The Hague, The Netherlands, will be operational in the weeks ahead. Speaking at the recent IoT Tech Expo, CEO Nico Steyn outlined how the UK and European markets offer exciting opportunities for the Iot.nxt solution.
“We are using the momentum we have built in South Africa to gain traction in Europe,” he says, “in sectors like mining, ports, automotive, smart buildings and retail. We are grateful for the confidence Talent10 has shown with this latest round of funding and believe it will accelerate our growth exponentially. These are exciting times for us. It is exhilarating to be part of a truly South African engineered solution as good as any in the international arena.”
So what is all the fuss about?
It’s about bursting a PR bubble that has drifted loftily above the market for years – a blimp, filled with IIoT hot air.
The way IoT.nxt did it was to develop a universally configurable platform that can be deployed to solve real-world business problems using the next generation of digital technology. Moen uses a practical example to illustrate the power and versatility of the Raptor solution, and how it can be layered above any existing automation infrastructure.
The company was recently commissioned by a coal mining operation to streamline its workflow processes. “Management understood the mining and coal businesses extremely well,” explains Moen. “What they had struggled with for years, though was a lack of real-time insight into the state of their operations. They realised it was costing them and decided to call us in for a discussion.”
After an evaluation of the plant, IoT.nxt was confident that it could give the mine managers what they wanted. Mostly, the required sensory infrastructure and controls already existed, but the different areas – raw materials, beneficiation and dispatch – were all operating in isolation. “We found cases of trucks arriving to offload at stockpiles that were already full, or waiting to be loaded in dispatch areas that had already been emptied,” explains Moen, leaving one with the impression that problems like these are his natural habitat.
The solution was to deploy Raptor gateway technology across all the operational areas, overlaid on the existing infrastructure. The data streams from the different areas were then brought into what Moen describes as a ROM (Run of Mine) solution. The platform even had the flexibility to incorporate drone technology and CCTV footage into the architecture.
Once the analytics had weaved their magic, the result was a contextualised stream of information that could show, in one view, the entire state of mine operations in real-time – including video from the areas covered by CCTV.
“We gave the mine the ability to check mass flow, production figures and dispatch amounts at a glance,” outlines Moen. “It allowed managers unprecedented insight into areas of process inefficiency and stock loss, and it also removed the need for manual stock reconciliation completely. Their information is now accurate, almost to the second.”
What is even more staggering is that a project which gave the mine a double digit increase in efficiency, took a mere six weeks from design to handover – and with no downtime. Such is the power of the IIoT, but only when it is deployed by people who understand its underlying methods, and how they can be utilised to solve a client’s specific business problem.
IoT.nxt has the people, but how does it retain the talent?
“Our most valuable asset is our staff,” says Moen emphatically. “So we put a lot of thought into how we could attract and retain the best talent.”
The research was extensive. “Financial reward, flexible working hours and working from home all had to be considered,” says Moen. “But it turns out that the type of person our company requires is most motivated by the work environment itself.”
It had to be cool. “The world over techies are obsessed with Star Wars,” says corporate communications officer Daleen van Wyk. “It’s a fast-paced world of futuristic technology and that is exactly what our company is all about.”
Team IoT.nxt took the fascination one step further. It designed its new offices around the popular movie to reflect the forward thinking ethos the company has become known for since it was established in 2015.
The unmistakable themes of the ‘dark side’ and ‘light side’ have been incorporated into the office design. Black décor elements dominate the reception area and meeting rooms, while hues of white and grey are prominent in the offices and the open plan work area. Technology is everywhere in this ‘smart’ office space, from the audio visual systems to the air conditioning, and there are also the privacy booths for when you just need to chill or call a significant other.
IoT.nxt is a company that understands the power of the industrial Internet, but that alone is not unique. It also understands that the technology companies which thrive are usually the ones that get voted onto the ‘Best places to work’ lists, but there are other companies that know this as well. What sets it apart is the vision to create an IoT platform that horizontally layers across devices and systems in a business ecosystem, promoting interoperability that drives improved productivity, processes and efficiencies. That all of this can be implemented and provide measurable improvements within time frames of the order of six weeks is the stuff manufacturers dream about. This may very well be the fourth industrial revolution unfolding. At the very least, it’s the next big thing.
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