Staff writer 22 September 2016
While South Africa has not seen the large scale adoption of IoT connected devices, one company is poised to take advantage of the coming wave.
In an anonymous office park in Centurion, Gauteng, a company called iot.nxt say they’re slowly changing the enterprise world, one connected device at a time.
Earlier this year, the company launched the ‘Raptor’ gateway controller that connects devices such as sensors, cooling systems, cameras and industrial machines, to name a few.
CEO Nico Steyn told Brainstorm that the Internet of Things (IoT) was not just about connecting a device, but rather using connected devices to realise value in the business ecosystem.
He said that like all good inventions, the Raptor had evolved over time, and its genesis had come about when the department of correctional services came to them to integrate the clutch of technologies it was using to manage its prisons. The department had 16 sub-systems they wanted folded into a single platform that would be deployed at 27 facilities. These systems controlled access, cameras, fire systems and smoke generators, among other things.
“We had two challenges. First of all there was nothing available, either locally or internationally, that would help us bridge that integration and there was nothing out there that would have allowed us to integrate third party subsystems,” said Steyn. The company was also faced with propriety PLCs (programmable logic controllers) and Scada (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems and among existing companies ‘no one is really interested in talking to you’, said Steyn. In the longer term there would also be ‘dependency issues’ once a particular company’s technology or appliance was used.
iot.nxt consulted many of the large vendors, experimented with Raspberry Pi, but ‘none of it really worked’. In cases in which an appliance was suitable, Steyn said there were security concerns, which led them to develop the Raptor around a .Net micro framework. “We take all your existing analogue-type devices… humans, machines, etcetera, and bring them onto the IP platform. All of a sudden a dumb door sensor becomes more than just an open and close. It can activate and trigger cameras. It can do all kinds of things,” said Steyn.
He mentions that iot.nxt are working with a Cape wine farm to automate it’s wine making process, which should, in part, do away ‘people running around with clipboards checking sensors’. Sensors in the wine industry typically measure sugar, temperature and oxygen content, among other things, providing a real time view of what’s happening in the fermentation tanks.
Turning to a screen, Steyn points to another project the company has undertaken for a large coal mine in Mupumalanga. The dashboard shows a live view of metrics from one of the company’s open cast mines, measuring the volume and mass of coal as it’s mined, and how much is moving through the beneficiation process. Sensors measure density as trucks move onto the weighbridge, providing a real time correlation between density and mass.
Another dashboard flashes up on the screen, this time showing the inner workings of a giant meat processing plant in Cullinan, Gauteng. The facility is both a feedlot and an abattoir, after which the meat is processed on the site. ‘So literally the sheep are there in the morning, and tonight they’re chops,” says Steyn.
Steyn explains that while visibility into an operation was key, it went without saying that automation was also vital. In the abattoir, for instance, if there was a power failure and then a cooling unit ran out fuel, hundreds of thousands of rand worth of meat would be at risk of spoiling.
“Every single compressor, cooling unit and liquid pump is being reflected on one UI. All this used to be monitored by humans previously, and now all these business rules get monitored by the system.” There is also an array of cameras monitoring operations and Steyn brings up a view of employees — bundled up against the cold — feeding meat into a giant wors machine, which processes a tonne at a time.
There’s a wealth of information, just waiting to be tapped, but Steyn says it’s still ‘early days’ in the adoption of IoT in South Africa. As recently as a year ago, many CEOs were still trying to understand the concept.
One use case is predictive maintenance. Steyn recounts a scenario in which a technician in New York is monitoring a bearing in a conveyor belt in Dulstroom, South Africa. A higher temperature would indicate that the part was due for maintenance, and a replacement could be ordered ahead of time.
Steyn imagines a factory with one broken assembly line. It’s as though it exists in a vacuum and can’t communicate with the other assembly lines. Worse, the factory’s customer-facing IT solutions were typically not linked to internal manufacturing and when something went wrong on the factory floor, this ‘disconnect’ became apparent. Part of the solution is a merging of front and backend technologies, resulting in massive savings, and gains.
“IoT is not about tech. Connecting everything is cool, and people’s eyes light up, but in reality they’re not willing to pay for it unless it unlocks business value. Where does the customer want to take their business? What is their strategy?”
“We’ve created an ecosystem where we can interact at different levels with any site with any device.”
Oh, and why’s it called the Raptor? “It eats everything else it sees,” says Steyn.
- iot.nxt have been selected as one Gartner’s ‘Aspiring Innovators’ and will be present at this year’s Symposium/ITxpo in Cape Town. Selected by Gartner research analysts, the innovators are seen to have something unique to offer enterprise organisations. The goal of this programme is to both support the African startup technology scene, and provide delegates access to innovative local technology providers.