EP 085 - IIoT product design and development - Mitch Maiman, President, Intelligent Product Solutions
|Apr 21, 2021|
In this episode, we discuss end to end process for developing IoT products from market validation to manufacturing. We also explore technical challenges for integration energy management and selection of communication protocols and technology.
Mitch is the President and Co-Founder of Intelligent Product Solutions (IPS), a company that delivers a new model for software and hardware product development, integrating the full spectrum of design and engineering disciplines as a single source solution. Always espousing a hands-on approach to design, he holds a portfolio of United States and international patents and has more than 30 years of product design experience. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Erik: Welcome to the Industrial IoT Spotlight, your number one spot for insight from industrial IoT thought leaders who are transforming businesses today with your host, Erik Walenza.
Welcome back to the Industrial IoT Spotlight podcast. I'm your host, Erik Walenza, CEO of IoT ONE. And our guest today is Mitch Maimann, President of Intelligent Product Solutions. Intelligent Product Solutions is a full stack product design and development firm built on a team of deeply experienced design and engineering professionals. In this talk, we discuss the end to end process for developing an IoT product from market validation through manufacturing. We also explored technical challenges related to integration, energy management, and the selection of communication technology.
If you find these conversations valuable, please leave us a comment and a five-star review. And if you'd like to share your company's story or recommend a speaker, please email us at team@IoTone.com. Thank you. Mitch, thank you so much for joining us today.
Mitch: Thank you for inviting me. I'm glad to be here.
Erik: So Mitch, our topic here is quite interesting to me. I think it's a very practical topic of the discussions of challenges in building industrial IoT solutions. So from your LinkedIn profile, you have a very extensive background in this topic. So it'd be interesting to hear where you first touched on the topic of IoT. What was that? I know, you were working with Motorola? Was it there? Was it even earlier?
Mitch: So, by way of background, prior to starting and cofounding IPS, I was with a company called Symbol Technologies, eventually got bought by Motorola, and then that division was sold off to a company called Zebra Technologies. And, broadly speaking, when I was in Symbol, the product line was barcode scanning systems and mobile computing devices at a time when handheld computing was still relatively new. That's about the early 90s. I was there for about 13 years.
In terms of their relevance to IoT, we were making smart connected devices back in the early to mid-90s with things wireless communications, data acquisition at what today we would call the acquisition at the edge. And the important decision points, we would have to make had to do with things we do deal with now, which is computing at the edge versus computing and doing analytics at the server in the back end. And in more recent years, this smart connected technology has moved mainstream and out broadly into consumer, commercial, and industrial medical spaces.
Erik: The market certainly matured in the past 30 years. I imagine even if on the face of it, the challenges were similar or the same buckets of activity that you had to do back in the 90s, right, now there's a lot of plug and play that probably makes this a bit easier, but a new set of challenges with higher ones today.
Mitch: Absolutely. As far as the technology in the early days, there was no plug and play, there were no modules. If you wanted wireless communications, you had to create wireless communications, and that was a big element of the early stage wireless devices we created.
Erik: You were with Symbol until 2014 when it was acquired, and then you…
Mitch: I was at Symbol until 2004. I left and for a couple of years, I did some consulting work with another firm. And then in 2008, my business partner and I Cofounded IPS.
Erik: And why 2008, was it anything around that particular time where there was a growth in the industry and maturity of technology? Or was it just more of a personal decision that you wanted to set up a business and this seemed like the right direction for you?
Mitch: And I think it's the latter. It was really more of a personal decision. After having done consulting for a couple of years for another company, my partner and I decided to go do it on our own. We felt then as we do now that there was a place in the world for a consulting firm, where all of the engineering and design skills existed under one roof at the time, and still to a large degree today for most companies in product development consulting are much more limited in terms of capabilities.
There are really many firms like ours that include both software and hardware designers, user interface, user experience designers, along with electrical engineering folks embedded systems people, system engineers, mechanical engineers, and software engineers at the application level. And there's very few firms with all of those capabilities existing under the one roof and that was a fundamental principle of what we want to offer when we founded IPS.
Erik: I've come across situations where even the big players, the Ernst and Young's, Accenture's will basically say, sorry, we can't help you. We can help you with the planning. But once it comes to execution, we're going to step away, and maybe we can help you find somebody else. Because even the larger players often don't have that same range of full tech stack skill sets in-house.
So I imagine you get into quite a few interesting projects then because you have this ability to build a product from the ground up, what does this look like for you? Are you typically working hand-in-hand with the companies that you're supporting? Or is it more that they'll say we want you to get this to the prototype phase, and then bring it to us and we'll test the market, what would a typical project look like?
Mitch: It's actually pretty diverse. And it's almost as if there's no two clients exactly the same. We have clients that come to us, and want us to do the full end-to-end product development. And in the IoT space, it's really more often than not a full system solution, including both hardware, and software, all integrated with the applications at the point of activity, whether that be the end user or some industrial user, or the machine.
So we have those products that are end-to-end. We have clients who call us in to help supplement their internal skills. A lot of times, clients of ours, whether they be small clients, or even large clients don't have the diversity of these skills in in-house. And because we have this deep expertise among our team, we can complement our client’s team.
In terms of the stage of where we get involved, I mentioned we do some end-to-end. But oftentimes, we get called in very early stage with some early stage clients and startup clients that might be helping them to create proof of concept systems or developing an architecture for their product to enable them to move to the next step in capitalization. Sometimes, we're working early stage in large companies with advanced development organizations where we're helping with technology development, and early phases of product development. And in some cases, there's a handoff to the more traditional internal teams within those companies. But it varies quite a bit from client to client.
Erik: And then I suppose due to the nature of your business, you could be fairly horizontal serving a number of verticals. But one of the challenges with taking that position in the IoT domain is there's such a long tail of potential solutions you could be working on. I suppose one day, you could be working on a smart home consumer device and the next day it could be integrated customized solution for a factory. Are there sweet spots that you focus on? Are there particular technology domains or industries? Or are you really quite diversified?
Mitch: We're really quite diversified. And if you really think about it, those of us in product development have often seen this through our career. We have this sort of set of skills that's quite diverse, which means you can abstract almost any engineering or design problem from its unique application. And the engineering capabilities required to develop those products is really quite common, and we have no trouble really in being able to work across a wide range of verticals.
So we have our clients who are in consumer. We have clients in commercial products. We do medical technology products. We have some industrial products that perhaps we could talk about a little bit later that we're doing with clients. Heck, we're even doing work with Steinway on smart, connected, and baby grand pianos. And it even extends as far as some of our clients who were in the face, and GOD which is a small segment of our business as well. So we're able to very effectively rage across numerous verticals.
Erik: And I'm curious how you work with these smaller companies, this is always a bit of a question for us. On the one hand, often startups are doing some of the most interesting work here. On the other hand, they can be unprofitable customers: it can be maybe difficult to make them into a profitable customer. Do you ever work on an equity basis or there are companies in the market where you've jointly developed something where you put in basically sweat equity, and then have a stake in the company, or is it always somehow a fee structure?
Mitch: It's almost always a fee structure, although we do have a few of our clients where we have an equity stake in the client. It's not our goal, generally, to take a stake in the client for equity. There's an interesting point there. I think there are unique challenges working with early stage clients, and startups, not the least of which is capitalization. So it's pretty hard for us to work in a very deep way with folks that are not yet capitalized.
A small number of us in the management team take some early stage clients under our wing and we help with some free consulting and guidance and review of their business plans, helping them with their product strategy, looking at their pitch material. Sometimes we'll do a little bit of paid engagement to help them improve the quality of their pitch decks. So we do work with early stage companies.
And I think one of the challenges, frankly, our customers have on their early stage is very few of them have the deep domain expertise that IPS has to be able to really realize a product as oftentimes, we find in early stage companies that they have some unique skills in one domain or another. But when it comes to the world of IoT, there's so diverse a need for capabilities that few of their early stage startup companies have real deep expertise to be able to go and execute a plan. So we work with them that in those ways.
I often personally help coach some of our early stage in pre-project discussions with clients to try to help coach them on making sure their proposed solution is going to provide value to the marketplace, but also then to define the value for the investors and for the founders of the business.
Erik: Yeah. How challenging will it be to bring a product to market with a pure software solution? You can have a team of a couple of smart people bring something, at least to version 1.0 with IoT much more challenging. And then when you talk about getting it production ready, that's just another level of challenge. Maybe that's a good point to transition into the meat of the topic today, which is actually doing a bit of a deep dive into the challenges or what the elements of putting together an IoT project together.
Before we get into the challenges in particular, maybe you could just walk us through your methodology or your perspective on what are the elements or the stages involved in bringing a concept maybe to the prototype phase or to the production phase?
Mitch: It varies. Again, as you can imagine, from project to project, some of our clients are purely, purely a software element of a solution, perhaps using a range of off the shelf hardware and IoT. But sometimes our clients are not even IoT. They're just software application type folks. In many cases like that where it's purely software, we more often than not use an agile software development process. I think, probably most of your listeners are familiar with that. But it breaks a project down into very small micro stages, micro phases, and then we execute through those.
And that provides a lot of flexibility and being able to peel off early stage dot releases and early stage production releases, and also allows you to be able to pivot very quickly, while minimizing costs for doing a pivot along the way. Most of our clients where we're doing an integrated solution, or certainly one that's more hardware centric, we typically follow a more common waterfall process where we go through typical stages of making sure we have good set of requirements, and architecture defined. If it's a very early stage or new technology that's being brought to market, we may have to go through a proof of concept just to show that the technology envisioned actually works.
Then there's development of concepts solution, a preliminary design, a final design, and classically some testing validation and production support phases. It varies. Also, when we get into some of the med tech solutions, where the FDA requirements dictate even further rigor in the process where we have to go through a much more stringent process of requirements definition, and testing and validating those requirements, and testing and validating the design against those requirements met earlier stages in the process.
Well, I should also point out when we work with large companies, typically, they have their own product realization processes. In many of those cases, it's not most of them. If it's a large company, and they have their own established process, we try to embed ourselves into that so that we can better collaborate and merge the data and engineering artifacts along with their standard processes.
Erik: Maybe for the focus point of our conversation can then be on the IoT solutions, certainly, software is a critical component there. Maybe we can identify a few of the key challenge areas here. I suppose there's different types of challenges. There's some challenges where that it's just going to take a lot of work and then the issue might there be is there sufficient budget allocated to this work? Are we running into timelines. But we know basically, that the problem can be solved. It's just a matter of allocating sufficient work. And then there's probably a separate group of challenges that fit into the bucket of unexpected failure points, or things that might really derail a project or require you to take a hard pivot. Would that be a reasonable way to think about it? Could we look at that as an approach? Or what would be the big buckets for you?
Mitch: Yeah, I think sticking to the technical side, and putting the business side aside for a moment, there's some variability depending on if what the IoT solution is. If the solution is bringing something new to the world in the sense that the technology for accomplishing the goal doesn't exist, you have to take a very different approach to that than you do when you're building an IoT solution that that's the amalgamation of technology down to the component level or even subsystem level, where you're able to use things that are off the shelf.
When we're dealing with early stage technology, and obviously, such cases can be very high risk, and no assuredness of success. You have to have much more flexible process to be able to respond to things that are discovered. I'll give you an example.
We're doing work for a client. But it's the development of a LIDAR sensor that is really all new to the world. It's very inexpensive, it's extremely fast, and extremely high resolution. It's all great. It's all what the world is looking for. But the means we're going to accomplish this have never been done before. And even though the lowest, lowest level manufacturer, most of these capabilities exist. There was no guarantee at the start of it that we were going to be able to develop a credible solution, or a critical solution that would make sense for the performance targets and the cost targets for the product.
So, we approached that in one way. Most of the IoT solution products were developing these days, if there's not such systems that we're putting together, there's oftentimes either processor boards we're already going to be using in development step systems we can use for development, or even getting to the chipsets that we need may exist and require us to integrate it at a lower level. But those things it becomes more a matter of the complexity of merging all of these technology pieces together than it is, quite frankly, risk of abject failure which you can have when you're doing a complete ground of technology development.
Erik: When you’re at more, so LIDAR is one case, is software often a case? If you talked about machine learning, are there problems there where you run into this issue of like AI-oriented solutions, if something is going to be feasible? Or are we at the point today where going in more or less whether that's something that's going to be feasible based on the frameworks that you have to work with and then maybe it's just a data acquisition issue?
Mitch: I can give you my sense that there's certain things that can be done in the AI and augmented reality, and AR space that leverage the rudimentary tools that are available today. And those things like they are with hardware, when it comes to building a solution with them, you can generally be pretty well as short of ultimate success. But there are things that push the envelope in terms of augmented reality and AI that, I think, I would not say they're fundamentally not achievable. The question is, how much is it going to cost, and how long is it going to take to achieve the goal you're looking for?
So for example, looking out into the future, one could assume that genetically, we can come up with the DNA sequencing and the means for ridding the society of any in all disease. It's not, fundamentally, I don't think impossible. The question is, how long is it going to take and how much money is it going to cost? There are AI augmented reality things that at the edge present more of a risk in terms of schedule and cost than they do feasibility.
Erik: Because you can imagine, I mean, taking that analogy, there's certain technologies around genetics anyways where you could see North Korea maybe making progress faster than the US despite the fact that we have more resources to throw at the problem simply because they wouldn't have the same cultural or organizational. And I guess with IoT, we're typically not running into these types of cultural challenges or questions. But we are running into business culture, and we're running into potential disruption of existing business units or ways of working or ways of selling a product that I think can also be challenging. What are some of the challenges that you typically try to foresee from more of a business or organizational alignment perspective?
Mitch: So a lot of the IoT things we're doing these days in the industrial and medtech spaces, and even in the commercial spaces, and even consumer for that matter, the basic product technology exists, but people want to make them smart and connected. And a business that it takes not just the product development resources, but the business acumen it takes to be able to do that may not exist in that company.
And to give you an example, a lot of smart connected IoT solutions to make financial sense, they are predicated on a subscription model. Well, if your company is organized around selling hardware with a one-time sales fee, and maybe a maintenance cost, you have a set of challenges there, and the whole organization may not know how to recognize revenue as based on a subscription basis.
In a very practical matter, you may be foregoing big ticket revenue in the upfront quarter in order to be able to have a sustained smaller revenue per quarter but sustained over a year's revenue stream and it affects the financials but it could even get into affecting how your sales force is organized. If your salesforce is organized on selling widgets, and they're compensated on selling X number of widgets per quarter, now you have a subscription model where they're not generating compensation on widgets, how do you compensate them for subscription-based revenue?
And frankly, some companies aren't really don't really have the infrastructure to support smart connected products. We have a company that is one of our clients, we can talk about a little later, that makes rotary seals that are used in industrial hydraulics, and piping. Those products typically would get sold once, and they generate a revenue around those sales. But now we're doing some smart connected technologies associated with them, which generates revenue around subscription. But on a support standpoint, you have to be able to support clients who are not necessarily used to supporting wireless infrastructure and software update maintenance. So, there's some real business challenges in bringing IoT into companies that are not used to selling products that are connected like that.
Erik: So sometimes we have clients they have an objective, which is clear, but we have the feeling that as IoT One is my firm, have the feeling that they don't have the right approach to successfully achieve that objective. Or maybe they have some misconceptions around what it's going to take to bring this to market. And then we have to have, of course, a conversation around what might need to change in their approach. And that can be challenging for a consultant.
Because on the one hand, we are motivated to say yes to a project, do you want to do this work for us? Yes, we want to do the work for you. And if you start putting challenges up and saying yeah, but we don't think you're going to be successful with your current approach, then they might take that project elsewhere. But of course, we also want our clients to succeed, and we want our projects to succeed. So sometimes that can be a little bit of a buy-in.
Maybe first, is this ever a challenge? And then if so, how do you have these tough conversations with your client where you might have to tell them that their approach is flawed in some way, and it might require to some extent painful choices. For example, we had a client who decided recently to basically fire one of their sales forces, so 30 people, and they allowed them to them apply for other positions in the organization, but probably a lot of them didn't end up. That was a painful organizational decision. But they did that because they were switching to solution sales and they felt like that was a necessary change. So they might, choose the easier path, which is just to say, let's build it and not worry about making these hard choices. How do you have conversations with clients when you feel like they might need to recalibrate their approach in order for the project to be successful?
Mitch: And I think just like you would do, we have to sort of, I believe very strongly that's unethical to take on a project where you know the client is doomed to fail. There's a couple of issues that we come across. And I'll give you a couple of examples. One is that there was a time a couple of clients come in late in the game on the wrist wearable device projects, the only competitive advantages they thought they were going to be able to bring is that they would be able to be less expensive than a Samsung, or an Apple or a Garmin, or Fitbit watch. Sometimes they had very, very small incremental functional improvements over those devices.
And I would basically have to coach them and say, look, if this is what you need, we can help you create it. Just realize that folks at Apple and Garmin and Fitbit and Samsung, the product you buy today are not the product they're working on right now. And just realize that you're only one step ahead of them with what you're trying to do. They're already working on products like that already.
So number one, you're going to end up coming in and competing with really big established and successful players with very strong brands. And you don't really have a big competitive advantage. And if you think that just by pricing, you're going to get an advantage, you end up in a really tough race to the bottom in terms of profitability. So I literally talked a couple of customers out of doing what they want to do. I know they were disappointed. But in the end of the day, if we help our client create a great product that is a day late and $1 short, I don't think we've done a service to them or their investors.
There's another example, where we had a client that had a product that basically was sold as a one-off. You basically never serviced and supported the product because it was a durable item that you used, and really, it was good enough for life, and you never had to really see that customer again, except for maybe one or two more times in a person's lifetime. And they wanted to make it into an IoT device.
And I had counsel them that we can help you do that, and we can get you the product you're looking for. But you have to realize that unlike the products you're selling now, people are going to need support for that product into the future for a long period of time, because it's smart, it's going to make a wireless connection to your mobile device, the mobile device operating systems are going to change, the communication standards are going to change, and the customer that buys your item in 2021, they're going to expect that that product still works in 2031 when you may not be able to at any assurance that the other devices in the world that it has to talk to are going to support that.
So again, that was one where I coach them on just making sure if you're going into the battle that you prepared for the long term implications of that, and the need for continuing innovation and new product development to stay competitive. And also, I mentioned to them that if you do get into this market and you are successful, and it was a new category, if they have any success, you're going to eventually be competing against Samsung and Apple, and just be prepared for that to happen. That was another case where we actually talked him out of what they're doing.
There are clients where they come in with similar kinds of scenarios, and they go forward and we help coach them and we help set up the backend support infrastructure so that they can get the product out there and be able to be set up to customer calls and support calls and sustain the operating system, sustain the wireless communication standards, sustain them in chip and component obsolescence.
And one example of that is one of our clients is called [inaudible 32:36]. It's a smart connected pill bottle. We put a cellular chipset down on a board, which is no mean feat, by the way. And there we've had to take the product in several iterations of cellular chip upgrades, and firmware updates and all kinds of other support for the product got bring it up to the present and into the future.
Erik: There's just one more topic I want to touch on that a bit more technical in nature, which is the topic of energy management. I think this is an interesting topic because there's been a fair amount of innovation in the past few years. But traditionally, I think it's been one of the topics that's one of the elements of the tech stack that's been lagging behind in terms of the pace of development. What is your feeling today for the choices that are available for energy management? Do you feel like is it still the laggard in terms of the tech stack or now that there's so much money being pumped into vehicles are we starting to catch up in terms of the innovation cycle and seeing this is less of a pain point in IoT device development?
Mitch: I've been involved with mobile battery operated devices, handheld and wearable small battery devices since the early 90s. And despite all of the stories that are in the media, battery technology is evolving, but there's no revolutions going on in terms of what you're really seeing in performance. They're evolving and they're incremental improvements of a few percentage points of improvement in energy density and cost over time. But there hasn't been a revolution. It's barely been an evolution. Nobody's had a breakthrough that is radically different from what was available in the year past. It’s not improving from a cost performance standpoint.
But energy density it remains a big a big issue. And it's an issue from small device IoT appliance framework as it is still in vehicles. So what does that mean? It means that you're often still going to be space and weight-constrained, and cost-constrained to some degree too. So it really depends on how you architect your system to operate so that you have the tools and techniques in place to manage the use of energy in that device.
I think you're still very dependent on trying to manage things like sleep modes, and waking the device up, controlling and managing things for that are the on-time for things that take a lot of energy. For example, depending on what the wireless communications modules you're using, there may be a huge penalty for keeping those devices on, or keeping them on frequently, or waking them up frequently.
So I think it's still really incumbent on the engineer in almost all cases to be really cognizant of how energy is managed at a system level. And that involves both the hardware design, the embedded systems that you have running underneath, and how the application software is designed to wake up and interact with the hardware. So it still remains a major challenge in doing IoT devices, especially when you get to really small, widely dispersed edge solutions which don't have an easy ability to be recharged or have battery replacement.
Erik: But last point, I'm curious your perspective on these wireless batteryless solution. So we interviewed somebody, it's a sensor manufacturer that has a batteryless, wireless solution. So uses I think paisa electric, so energy from passive lighting, it's called Ever Active. And they would deploy these in industrial environments where the cost of wiring and then the cost of maybe sending a technician into the space to replace the battery was quite significant.
So if you think about putting this up in the ceiling in an event or something to monitor the equipment up there. And that seemed to make sense. And it seemed like that they had the right connectivity solution that was able to send the required data with this very limited data source. And then I just had a friend reach out to me a couple of days ago with another solution which is a smart home switch, which uses a similar technology. So it's just on or off switch. But the value proposition is you don't have to do any wiring, you just kind of slap this on to the wall wherever you want it and you can turn the lights on and off. Have you seen many practical applications? Personally, I find this approach quite interesting, it is a little bit disruptive. But I haven't actually seen so many applications in the market of these technologies yet.
Mitch: Erik, it was not a physics problem. The question is how much energy can you harvest by whatever means you're going to use optically by moving air, by moving water, by moving anything? How much energy can you harvest? And how much energy does your system require? So it's not that there are no applications for it.
But I always go back to the physics to understand okay, well, how much energy can I scavenge from this source? What's the implication of scavenging energy from that source, if there is any? There's no perpetual motion machine. So if you go back to Newton's laws, you can't create energy at a nothing. So how much energy can you scavenge? And how much energy does your device need to operate?
So I would say there are cases where it can be made to work and it can be useful. I don't think it's going to be in the mainstream. It can work in situations where the data transmission needs are infrequent, they’re small when the radius can be very low energy, and the connectivity is available. I think such cases are limited. I know there's been some things that look maybe possible but I remain skeptical that they talk about body wearable clothing that can scavenge energy from the human body to power devices. And I say that's fine.
So I always go back to the physics. Where's the energy coming from? The energy is coming from the body. If you start pulling energy in the form of heat, or other from the human body, the body is a machine that's a heat pump. If you start pulling energy from the body, you're going to have to start putting more energy in because the body still likes to run at the same temperature.
So I think of it this way is you can pull energy that way, but I'd like to see how it works in a real world, in terms of comfort and operability. There may be situations where drawing energy from the body, for example, when somebody is exercising, maybe a good thing to keep the person comfortable. But I always go back to the energy balance and the physics to understand how much energy am I trying to recover? How much can I get from the system? And how much does my solution need?
Mitch: The use cases, thus far are quite limited. And I think there are some of these situations where you just need a sensor to say, it's wet, or it's not wet, and so forth. Mitch, I'd love to hear some of the more interesting projects that you've worked on lately and maybe also some of the challenges that you encountered and how you address them. Are there a couple top of mind that you'd be able to share with us?
Mitch: There's a couple, I think, that are interesting and different. We do work with Levitan, I think, most of your listeners would know of them from the consumer grade stuff that they may buy, like in one of the big box Home Goods hardware retailers, like Home Depot or Lowe's. They make light switches and outlets and things like this. But they also have a division that work those industrial interconnections, which is now imagine these small connectors and cables that instead that you would find in a home, and now that cable is three inches in diameter and is drawing huge current high voltage.
In some ways, those are mature products, they've been around for a while. And basically, one of those real good examples of something that never had much technology beyond the quality of the interconnect to worry about, but we've done something with them where we've made these smart connected switches. So for example, if you're putting a large industrial cable into a wall mounted connector, in collaborating with them, we developed these sensors that are in there that will detect things like bad contacts, welded contacts, blown fuses, missing phases, poor grounding conditions, water in their closure, over-temperature, things like that. And the switch it's an industrial product, so it's an environment generally where there's WiFi available.
So this is a WiFi connected switch, and basically, it every 30 minutes or so it kind of transmits data on the quality of the interconnection, and it gives talks to a back end from Amazon Web Services, and then it provides the plant managers with a lot of information about how things are going in terms of power management in the facility.
The nice thing about what they've done is that the systems designed with cognizance of the people who are going to do the installations. Typically, for a product like this to be successful, they want to be able to implement it with their existing facilities maintenance crews, which means they don't want to call in specialized electricians and wireless communications experts. So it's very easy to install. It doesn't take any specialized skills. I think it's called Inform. That's a new product, pretty interesting.
Another one of our clients that we're working with in the space is called Opti-Harvest. People don't think of this very often, but this company sells like concentrators for improving crop yield. And high value crops like grapes, and others they have some really dumb hardware, dumb meaning that not IoT that reflects light up from the bottom and it improves crop yield by eliminating the underside of the leaves of the crop.
But in deploying that system, there's also a monitoring system that we helped create for them, which is used in this agricultural application. And what we do is we measure visible light, infrared, temperature and humidity, then we have these devices all have long life batteries with powering up Alaura radio. In the crop field, it’s [inaudible 44:54] gateway cellular bridge that we use, and it's a very low cost, it's very low power, and they only transmit data four times a day.
And that's another of the interesting IoT applications we're doing in agriculture for a company called Opti-Harvest. The gateway is solar powered. That application kind of lends itself to it. There is a battery backup. And this client Opti-Harvest, they basically sell the data and the analysis to their clients on a subscription basis. And it's another example of a system that's very easy to provision and deploy.
And I think one last example I'd like to point to, and I spoke a bit earlier, it's called Chesterton, they make smart rotary seals for large industrial piping. We help them create a smart connected seal, called Chesterton Connect. What it does is it monitors temperature, pressure, and vibration at the seals and at the bearings. It magnetically mounts to the piping a two year battery life, it's Bluetooth-connected to mobile devices. And the way this one works is the farm facility people walk around the facility with a typical Bluetooth device.
It could be an industrial mobile computing device from somebody like Zebra, or it could be a smartphone or a tablet. The Bluetooth makes a connection, and the data is captured in that mobile device. They can then upload that to the cloud. Eventually, they are looking at the possibility of ending a gateway to the facility, so the Bluetooth devices will talk directly to the cloud, and do the data collection without the walk around. It's a very low data rate. It's very little bit of data, transfers every few seconds. Again, it's another case where it's very easy for the plant management folks to install and set it up. So those are some examples of industrial kinds of IoT things we've been doing.
Erik: I love these examples. I mean, wine farmers’ vineyards, these are cases where the practices might not have changed so much in the last 50 years, but then they're able to deploy a new technology without really much infrastructure, it's within one day, I guess you can deploy this and you can be accessing the data on your phone, right?
Mitch: Yeah, it's very lightweight, very easy to deploy. And I think that's what you're seeing now. I think to a large degree in IoT, a lot of the easy pickings have been done, or have been seen. But these outlying things that you just don't think of where technology hasn't existed, that's still very rich place for IoT development. The value propositions, they’re valuable as they are, but the value propositions into the future are even bigger.
I think if you think about Chesterton, and the data we're monitoring in Chesterton on the seals having to do with all the factors that lead seal failure or pipping failure, things like vibration, temperature, pressure, the analytics behind it to be able to anticipate when a failure might occur, that is sort of still at the edge of what's to be done. And similarly, without the harvest, when you think about we're doing there, it's one thing to be able to gather all this data. But how do you then take all that data aggregated from many, many farms, and how do you then provide useful preemptive information to the farmer or the vineyard to be able to help them manage crop yield in the right way? And that's an analytics problem.
Again, it started off earlier with discussions about AI. I think that's where data analytics where the edge of that right now, the first step is got to gather a lot of data. And that's kind of where we stand.
Erik: Even questions like, is a particular vintage likely to be 10 years from now considered a high value or low value, right? For me, I think there's still a fair amount of alchemy. Why is one vintage 2008 versus 2009, right? Because there was maybe different conditions that the grapes developed under, but it's still a bit of alchemy. But if you can basically say, yeah, this vintage appears to be high quality, then that's a very important data on the revenue side as well, not just on the cost side of the business.
Mitch: Can I add one more points to that because I think it's a very interesting one? When you talk about products, like the grapes aren't really the product, they're an ingredient in the product, which is the product is the wine. There's a bit of alchemy in terms of the quality of the wine. If you ask the vineyard, what are the key quantitative principles around good wine, they'd be hard pressed to do that to tell you what that is, yet you still want to be able to improve that. It's an interesting crossover between art and science.
Another one of our clients that I didn't mention recently here is the Steinway Piano work we've done. For Steinway, we've helped them create what's called the Spiro family of grand and baby grand pianos. And these are $90,000 plus pianos that have WiFi connectivity. And then where we have sensors and actuators in these pianos. And the quality of what you're trying to achieve in terms of recording and replication of the music it's never been quantified before. And we're in another one of these stages where this is, in essence, an IoT solution. But the engineered solution has to cross with the artistic side of it where it's aesthetic and the quality standards are more ambiguous.
Erik: There's the low hanging fruit, which is often did the simple business cases of deploying a technology and obtaining some cost reduction that you can calculate fairly transparently. And that's great, and that helps people to make their first investments. But then there's this more ambiguous potential improvement in the service in new revenue generation. And often that's reliant on integration of data across multiple devices, potentially, across multiple different data sets that exist in different systems, maybe even owned by different stakeholders and a tremendous amount of potential value there, but a lot of exploration required to realize what that might be.
Mitch: If you think about this too, and this is really a challenge for the future. When you think about health and wellness and medical technology, we have all kinds of sensors from different companies that are gathering different information on us as individuals. The question is can you determine trends? Can you define find leading indicators of problems, things like cancers or other diseases? Can you anticipate that by sensing a whole bunch of variant data on the human body? And that's a data analytics, it's a medical problem. And frankly, people would have privacy concerns about the sharing of all of this data about them. But I think it's an interesting place for the future where all of this aggregated data can be converted to information with the right analytics.
Erik: You should check out this company called the Turbine, they just came out of Alchemist accelerator recently. But they're building, they call it or kind of branded as Bloomberg for IoT data. So you can think of a big data warehouse where all the metadata has all been tagged and standardized. So you can get a subscription and you have access to whatever 30,000. I think mostly they're dealing with public transportation datasets right now because that's what they're able to get easily.
But the point is can we turn all of these datasets into something that can be traded like a commodity so you don't need to get the lawyers involved? You don't need to say, okay, our company wants access to your company's data, so let's go through a very lengthy process of signing NDAs and contracts and so forth so they actually have this exchange. You just sign up to a $200 a month subscription and job's done. And if we get there, there'll be a tremendous around innovation. But I think they're dealing with the easier data sets right now, some of these are going to be very challenging.
Mitch: I think that's why IoT it's not really at the end. I think we're getting to the end maybe of the data acquisition side, and data has been acquired, all kinds of data is being acquired in all kinds of ways, IoT and through other apps like Amazon and things like this, lots of data are being acquired. The question is how to do something and generate some useful information out of all of that data in new and different ways. And that's just the very beginning.
Erik: In the vast majority of cases, we don't have an internet of things right now. We have a lot of intranet. We have a lot of very subscribed intranets. But will we ever arrive at an internet of things? I don't know. Mitch, one last question from my side which is good more around the times that we're in right now. So I think this has been a very challenging past 12 months. If we just look at it from the perspective of the development of this technology, this conversation here, on the one hand, my perspective over here, IoT one, a lot of future looking projects were put on hold because people just didn't want to look at the future, they were firefighting. But on the other hand, in a lot of ways, this kind of catastrophe has forced people to adopt new technologies, and it's probably pushed forward awareness around some of these technologies by a number of years, I think in many cases, I mean, Zoom, okay, that's not really an IoT case…
Mitch: I think it's heard a lot of industries. Give you an example. I knew we were doing work for Royal Caribbean pre-COVID. But it's supposed to create opportunities, is classes of medical products that we're moving along at a certain pace in development in the past, but now becomes more on a fast track. It's the smart connected data acquisition. Why? Because what do you do in a situation where you don't want the patient to come to the doctor's office? How does a doctor get the information he needs to be able to do a prognosis on you? So that's one example.
I think, another is we do work with Google, originally was sort of conference room automation type equipment. So, think of things like smart boards, audio and video interfaces to simplify and improve the quality of the experience in conference rooms. But okay, so maybe not so many conference rooms right now. But now that's pushed into the home, so people working doing business-related work, not just FaceTiming their family, but actually trying to conduct business with their like home office being almost a mini conference room, that's moved some of their products forward. And this is not a client of ours.
But we're here on a Zoom call right now, obviously, it's been a huge windfall for them. But think of the scale that they've been able to learn at Zoom. I don't know what's going on inside there. But they went from having tens to hundreds of thousands of customers at any time to millions. And now the things they discover about web conferencing interface in web video conference interface, the things they've been able to learn in the last year might have taken him 10 years to learn pre-COVID.
So, there's been definitely winners and losers, and some things have really accelerated in the current environment. And I don't think it's done. But I think those of us like you and I, Erik, I'm guessing you've been largely working remotely as I have over the last year, I think we're really ready for something to improve the quality and experience. I don't know how, but I think Zoom has gone to a certain degree gotten better and help the experience. But what else can be done to make this dispersed workforce more efficient, more enjoyable, more human than what we have today?
But I think that there's probably still more that can be done to make this a better experience, where people work remotely as the standard and can still collaborate and have human interaction in ways that are richer than they are right now.
Erik: I'm sure we're not going to go back to the status quo of 2019. And so there will be a lot more resources invested in figuring out this problem. So Mitch, I'm actually here in the socialist utopia of China. So I've been working from the office since March, it's been absolutely calm here. But of course, we’ve also been using…
Mitch: You could imagine, Erik, it's been that my company around this time, maybe a couple of weeks from now, initially, it was encouraging people to mandating people to work from home to, and now we're back maybe soon, we'll be able to encourage people to go back to the office, but it isn't back to the old normal. I don't even know that we're going to go back to the old normal. There are some nice things about this working modality.
Erik: Yeah, and the reality is actually even for us, even though we can be in the office, we tend to have a lot more calls anyways. It's just we're not socialized to rely more on Zoom. Mitch, I think we've covered a ton of territory here already. Is there anything that we missed that you think is important to cover?
Mitch: No, I think we did cover a lot. I hope you found the information useful, hopefully interesting to your listeners. And I appreciate your giving me the chance to talk with you.
Erik: Yeah. Well, it's been a pleasure, Mitch. I mean, it's been super interesting for me. So I assume it's also a very useful conversation for our listeners. So thank you. I really appreciate your time.
Mitch: You're very welcome.
Erik: Thanks for tuning in to another edition of the industrial IoT spotlight. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter at IotoneHQ, and to check out our database of case studies on IoTONE.com. If you have unique insight or a project deployment story to share, we'd love to feature you on a future edition. Write us at erik.walenza@IoTone.com.