Smart home solutions require customized setups, and industrial computing company NEXCOM believes its expertise is a good match to this market demand. The Internet of Things can be a natural extension of Industrial computing applications.
Founded in 1992, NEXCOM International Co. initially specializes in industrial computing, which the company has utilized to extend services in a variety of areas, including Internet of Things (IoT), automation solutions and intelligent platform & services.
Asked how NEXCOM entered the field of the IoT in the first place, company Chairman & CEO Clement Lin began his reply by saying “IoT is like a gift to us from God.”
The IoT and the industrial PC have many things in common. They are project-based, vertical and customized type of solutions. The industrial PC can be considered a gateway, linking to the cloud and endpoints. As such, “the IoT is a natural extension of the industrial PC.”
There are many challenges, however. It takes as long as one year to “cook” an IoT or industrial computing solution. Customer approval can take half a year, before mass production can kick off, the process of which could take another two years. The long development process is a signature characteristic of the industrial PC or the IoT industries.
Components in the IoT System
Asked what IoT products or services NEXCOM are offering, Lin said the company will start with Industry 4.0 related services. There will be “work stations” which automate processes before they ultimately turn into robots.
All the work stations, along with all the varied sensors – for temperature, humidity, air quality monitoring, etc. – need to be connected to the Internet. Connected altogether, the devices will form an IoT network.
The IoT network is an essential element in the implementation of Industry 4.0. But there are more. Among them is what NEXCOM calls a War Room, which acts like a central control center that performs real-time plant operation, data monitoring, equipment status checking, and even scenario forecast. Decisions and follow-on actions can be made quickly based on the situation on the floor.
There is also the Private Cloud and the IT components. While the former collects big data, the latter acts as an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.
Since the ERP system is so critical to a company’s operation, and due to its comprehensive business process coverage, some companies have outsourced their IoT implementation to their ERP providers such as SAP and Oracle. However, as ERP firms specialize in software development, they may lack the know-how in IoT related hardware deployment. This is why some ERP firms have turned to NEXCOM for assistance, Lin noted.
Managing all the various types of sensors is a difficult task, and NEXCOM has the needed knowledge to launch them on the floor.
Companies have also turned to their cloud providers like Amazon Web Services, which control all the big data, for their IoT deployment. Since the big data gathered by cloud providers comes from sensors on the floor, NEXCOM also has the edge in this aspect. The company is therefore sought after by cloud providers too.
NEXCOM IoT Studio as the De Facto Standard
Lin pointed out a main challenge in IoT development that is also agreed by many players in the industry – myriads of existing cloud and sensor protocols.
Moving up from the gateway in the middle, there are around 10 protocols for the cloud. Moving down from the gateway, there are also hundreds of communication protocols for the hardware. “This is like mission impossible,” Lin said. Considering all the different protocols, gateway setup will take tremendous amount of time even for most experienced engineers.
To meet this challenge, NEXCOM has rolled out the IoT Studio solution, which integrates the main protocols used for the cloud and endpoints. It saves engineers much development work, and in Lin’s words, allow companies to easily “ride on the cloud and things.” The solution is so easy to use that it almost lets users just “plug and play.” Even operators can do the setup, freeing professional engineers to do the more valuable development tasks. Many IoT applications have been quickly launched already using the solution, according to Lin.
Another challenge is the lack of platforms, which, according to Lin’s definition, consists of a CPU plus an OS. Take Intel for example, despite its business size, the company is still considered a small player in the IoT industry. Only when a standard platform is established can all upstream and downstream supply chains, and related software and hardware ecosystems be solidified, the chairman said.
The IoT has no standard, and NEXCOM’s IoT Studio aims to solve this problem by integrating well-known systems like Intel and Raspberry Pi as well as major protocols like Modbus, ZigBee and Bluetooth. This enables faster learning and quick deployments by students and start-up entrepreneurs alike. By integrating more and more protocols over time, hopefully IoT Studio can become the “de facto standard,” Lin added.
Smart Home, Part of the IoT Chain
Asked about the smart home development, Lin said the new industry is certainly part of the IoT chain. Possible applications include senior home care, real-time smart metering and utility management. To meet hospital demand, NEXCOM recently rolled out a 4-in-1 sensor which can monitor humidity, temperature, carbon dioxide levels in addition to medical care functionality.
The demand for smart home application is massive, Lin said, adding that Google did not purchase Nest without a reason. Nevertheless, it seems that the investment has not born fruits, and this is also true for other firms venturing in the smart home industry, which has met a bottleneck, according to Lin. Product costs cannot be lowered until they become commodities, or are created through mass production, Lin said, adding that customization is very expensive – three, five or even ten times more costly.
It appears that NEXCOM holds the edge. It makes tailor-made industrial computers and specializes in customization. IoT solutions need customization. It’s about “vertical application” and “system integration” which is very complex, Lin said. To make it work, costly investment and customer service are required. Smart home in this regard, despites its B2C nature, has B2B characteristics, Lin noted.
Smart home products will be expensive no matter how good they are. Their attractiveness level to consumers is therefore constrained. Lin believes that in the future, smart home will be implemented by average users more easily via turnkey solutions. Parameter setting is all that users have to do. Programming is not for everyday users. This is the job of enterprises that have plenty of resources. “This is not the task for housewives,” Lin said.
Lin said “household weather station” is a possible smart home application. Data collected from every home can congregate to form a “community weather map” that tells atmospheric pressure, air quality, precipitation, etc.
Lin also predicts that household service robots will be indispensable in the foreseeable future. The embedded system-on-chips will function like super computers. Technological evolution is what makes it possible. The robot will serve like a personal secretary that provides answers to user queries. The robot acquires new knowledge instantly after each app download. For example, apps that store human body knowledge can turn robots into experts in the subject.