Edge, meet Centre – Centre, meet Edge
If there’s one recurring theme that runs constantly throughout history – it’s the tension between the centre and the edge. When it comes to innovation, overcentralisation often stifles innovation, while too much freedom often dances with failure. The trick is to find a happy and appropriate medium between these two extremes.
In telecoms, the last two decades have seen similar shifts. The old, highly centralised infrastructure of the PSTN, characterised by dumb terminals and intelligent switches, has been replaced by architectures that largely rely instead on the amazing processing power that we’ve managed to fit into mobile handsets and tablets. As that power has grown, it’s driven the creation of entirely new services, applications, business models and, indeed, an entirely new economy already worth trillions of dollars.
Attention is now starting to shift to see how a similar evolution of devices at the edge of M2M/IoT networks can also drive innovation in original and profitable ways. Thanks to advances in hardware and software, many more functions beyond basic connectivity can now be engineered into those devices that sit at the edge of networks in our homes, cars, trucks, trains, factories, offices and cities. The question now is, how can we best exploit these developments to add value and increase efficiency in the wider businesses that they support?
It was with these thoughts in mind that M2M Now’s Alun Lewis recently sat down to speak with Jeff Smith PhD, chief innovation and technology officer at award-winning M2M/IoT specialist Numerex, focusing initially on how the company’s upcoming launch of its nx-1 portfolio of expandable device platforms and, more specifically, how the first of these – its nxLOCATE™ device – can support and protect assets and supply chains across a number of industries.
M2M Now: Jeff, Numerex used the CTIA show in the US last autumn to preview the nxLOCATE, a purpose-built device for the asset logistics, remote monitoring and asset ID and tracking markets. I understand that this initiative extends your reach by continuing to build your own portfolio and family of connected devices while continuing to support third-party devices as well. Can you talk us through how Numerex is able to support not only your own products, but those of other vendors as well?
JS: The introduction of our own family of connected devices is just a natural expansion of our portfolio. We value our relationships with our existing third-party suppliers but Numerex also has core competencies, not only in device manufacturing, but also in providing network support and applications development. Our thirdparty suppliers add adThe additional advantages of Numerex custombuilt solutions is that they are engineered and optimised for the very highly specialised and demanding environments that they need to perform in. This frequently involves situations where harsh operating conditions exist, battery replacement or device upgrades are difficult or expensive to carry out, and standard form factors are unsuited to a customer’s specific requirements.
The build-on-behalf-of (BOBO) model is one that Numerex has always embraced and offered as an alternative to the out of the box configurations that we provide. Numerex offers a wide range of solutions that conform to the needs of our clients. We recognise that some of our clients need access to a greater degree of intelligence, functionality and flexibility at the edge of the M2M networks that we build and operate for them. There is value in being able to easily and efficiently connect and integrate a growing range of sensors into devices. That need is only going to accelerate as new sensor technologies – such as nanotech – emerge, increasing the ability of devices to monitor the environment around themselves, and create new services and revenue streams. In order to do this effectively, we must work closely with the clients to understand their individual business demands to develop a customised solution for them.
The additional advantages of Numerex custombuilt solutions is that they are engineered and optimised for the very highly specialised and demanding environments that they need to perform in. This frequently involves situations where harsh operating conditions exist, battery replacement or device upgrades are difficult or expensive to carry out, and standard form factors are unsuited to a customer’s specific requirements.
Finally, some enterprise clients need to be able to see the whole M2M value chain as one single integrated entity. Very often when clients come to us with a particular operational issue that needs resolving, the reality is that the problem is actually only a symptom of something else that involves the overall systems, processes and structures that support the company. Having the ability to easily add functionality, more sensors, and new types of connectivity at the edge – and readily integrate these with our new iNSITETM cloud-based platform for rapid development and prototyping – brings transparency and dynamism to industries that have historically suffered from a silo approach.
M2M Now: So where specifically does the nxLOCATE device fit into this shift? Why did you focus on these particular markets first?
JS: While we’d been considering the implications of putting more intelligence out in the edge for a while, one particular catalyst came from a large international enterprise customer of ours who manufactured heavy equipment and was looking to identify blind spots in their supply chain.
Working together, we identified a number of specific requirements for a device platform able to resolve the issues that they were facing. They needed easy-to-replace batteries, an ‘adjust sensitivity’ feature that uses accelerometers to track movements in different directions, an ability for the device to enter sleep mode when not actively tracking the assets. They also wanted greatly enhanced flexibility in reporting parameters and options including frequency and triggers.
M2M Now: And has the nxLOCATE been deployed yet?
JS: We’re currently working with customers in the area of supply chain and logistics who are beta testing the product before the formal launch. Their increase in their visibility of goods and services was immediate. This in turn has lowered operational costs and maximised their ability to plan the use of the human and physical resources far more effectively. More specifically, the richness of the data now available to them gives them valuable insights into potential ‘holes’ within their overall supply chains. This allows them to specifically target gaps where intelligent investment or changes in operational tactics and strategy will provide the maximum benefit both to them and to their own end customers.
One critical – and often under-appreciated – aspect of this involves identifying the right metrics to be monitored. Just because you can measure something, this doesn’t mean that it’s actually important in terms of the overall business and the often difficult task of prioritising and streamlining operations.
M2M Now: So how does nxLOCATE help resolve this issue?
JS: If you look at the first generation of tracking devices, they were designed with a single and, in hindsight, overly simplistic aim in mind – that is, just knowing exactly where things were, which at the time, was a fairly revolutionary development. The new generation of tracking devices – exemplified by the nxLOCATE – sees location as only one of many possible data points that can and should be collected and transmitted by a device. Instead, this new generation of devices will enable the collection, delivery and analysis of multiple data points from a range of different sources and sensors, taking us from a basic ‘dotson-a-map’ perspective to one where dynamic, real-time data becomes immediately actionable.
This helps eliminate the friction and delay that often hinders decision-making where remote assets are concerned, while also providing a wide range of data for historic analysis that can help spot anomalies or emerging issues before they negatively impact customers.
M2M Now: The need to add more data points implies that more a more sophisticated way of gathering data is needed. How do developments in sensor technologies fit in with this?
JS: The ability to easily connect new sensors as they evolve has been a complementary factor in the development of the nx-1 technology, hence our approach of creating a universal wireless gateway to give our customers the freedom to buy the right technology for their needs. However, not all of these drivers are coming just from business-related requests, as regulatory forces from governments and industries are also playing their parts. Examples here include the US Food and Drug Administration’s legislation requiring temperature monitoring of some pharmaceuticals such as vaccines during their transport. There are legal issues also at stake here, especially when it becomes necessary to support some operations – such as the transport of chilled or frozen food – with a clear audit trail in the event that a forensic analysis of a failure becomes necessary. Advances in gas-sensing technologies here, for example, can track organic decay in fruit, vegetables and meat, providing advanced alerting to owners of possible risk. The nxLOCATE supports both wired and wireless sensor connectivity for an almost infinite range of business and product use cases. Humidity, light, shock, vibration, movement, acceleration and deceleration data can be assembled in different ways for a wide number of purposes. On one hand, shock and vibration measurements could be used to find the optimum transport medium or route for fragile products before any are actually shipped. Alternatively, light and movement sensors can be used to register if a shipment has been compromised by unauthorised penetration – and exactly where and at what time, helping identify and eliminate points of shrinkage and theft.
In the wider security context, it’s also important to note that Numerex was the first M2M service provider in North America to carry ISO 27001 information security certification.
M2M Now: The focus of our discussion so far has largely been on the supply chain and logistics sector. How do you see these developments from Numerex impacting other industries?
JS: Many companies either operate in remote areas, or have equipment installed in places that are difficult or even hazardous for engineers to access, or that would involve the expense and delay involved in temporarily shutting down production lines. In this kind of environment, simply adding sensors to motors or power supplies can give early warning signs of when equipment is behaving in abnormal ways – bearing degradation causing pre-failure vibration, motors running hotter than normal, or currents spiking. Here, this kind of advance warning can often translate into asset preservation as defective parts can be replaced as part of a standard preventive maintenance schedule rather than involve the expensive rates of an emergency technician call-out.
Additionally, a simple failure in one piece of plant can often escalate down the chain, wrecking other equipment and throwing a whole production line out of action. With detailed data – both real-time and historical – machine manufacturers, product designers, plant owners, and repair organisations can work together in intelligently coordinated ways to optimise production from individual elements upwards. Time and money are also freed for reinvestment elsewhere.
One important aspect here involves giving engineers and managers the ability to see and analyse problems holistically, making the whole really more than the sum of its constituent parts. This is where we see that added intelligence and capacity at the edge can really contribute to the business through a tighter integration with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and workflow management systems, as well as other supporting techniques such as Just-in-Time manufacturing, automated warehousing and the like.
The open API platform approach that we’ve taken with our nx-1 portfolio is mirrored by a similar approach to integration with these management systems. Customers can integrate things themselves using our own tools to build applications and experiment with them, we can direct them to the right third party vendor for their specific needs, or we can do it for them.