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IoT Use Case Podcast #92 - grandcentrix + ALMiG

This podcast episode shows how ALMiG’s compressors became smart and grandcentrix launched a new product along the way. In grandcentrix, the idea increasingly matured to design a generic product that could be used to map many of the use cases that are always the same. Just then, contact was made with ALMiG via Vodafone. ALMiG became not only a customer, but an anchor customer, with whom the joint work and development on the new Modus Cloud Connect product started …

Episode 92 at a glance (and click):

  • [08:50] Challenges, potentials and status quo – This is what the use case looks like in practice
  • [14:18] Solutions, offerings and services – A look at the technologies used
  • [28:47] Results, Business Models and Best Practices – How Success is Measured

Podcast episode summary

Compressed air is a hidden form of energy that few will really be aware of. But modern everyday life does not function without it: Brewers use compressed air to fill beverages into bottles, compressed air makes dental instruments work, sets ship engines in motion and drives the machines on conveyor belts in industrial plants. A defective compressor can bring a factory to a standstill, and the effects are similar to those of a power outage. Therefore, it is important for the manufacturer and the customer to have an overview of the operating conditions and to be able to act at an early stage.

ALMiG Kompressoren GmbH is one of the leading system suppliers in compressed air technology and serves customers all over the world. grandcentrix is on the one hand a development service provider for a broad range of competencies from embedded hard software projects to backends, apps and frontends, and on the other hand also a product developer for the parent company. That means: grandcentrix develops IoT devices and IT systems that can eventually be bought as finished products from Vodafone. One of these products – the Modbus Cloud Connect – was developed together with the company ALMiG and is presented in this podcast episode.

Manufacturer ALMiG is now using Modbus Cloud Connect for IoT connectivity of its air compressors. By networking the compressors, extensive applications such as status monitoring and asset management or the visualization of machine usage and utilization are possible. ALMiG can offer its customers a new, digital service management and thus increase satisfaction.

In episode 92 of the IoT Use Case Podcast, Roland Hänel (CTO, grandcentrix) and Ralph Jeschabek (Head of Marketing, ALMiG) talk to Madeleine Mickeleit about this collaboration.

Podcast interview

Hi Roland and Ralph, it’s great to have you with us today. Roland, how are you and where are you right now?

Roland

Thank you Madeleine and hello! I am very happy to be able to join you today. In fact, you can reach me in beautiful Cologne in our Cologne office, in the city center, at Holzmarkt. The fifth season in Cologne has just come to an end and now it’s back to business as usual.

Then you’re in Cologne, right in the city center; that’s worth a trip, right?

Roland

Absolutely!

Then we’ll see you on site soon. And Ralph, how are you right now and where are you? Home working or in the office?

Ralph

Hello also from my side, thank you for the invitation! I am sitting in my office here in Köngen. That’s in the Esslingen district, very close to Stuttgart.

ALMiG is located directly with the company, right?

Ralph

We have been located in Köngen since the company was founded; always in the same spot, more or less. And that is where my office is located.

Let’s start with a brief introduction to grandcentrix: Many people know you as a subsidiary of Vodafone, you are even a wholly-owned subsidiary of Vodafone and ultimately an IoT solution provider for smart products, smart home, smart energy and very different segments. You are CTO at grandcentrix. I’m especially pleased that you’re joining us today as a representative.

What does your unit, in which you are active, and what do you do as CTO in the role at Vodafone? And which customers do you work with on a daily basis?

Roland

grandcentrix was originally founded in 2009 as a service provider for app development. This was a brand new and hot topic at the time. Over time, they then worked their way into the IoT field via the cloud. Always based on customer requirements and customer projects. We have supported various well-known customers in product development and since 2020 we have been a Vodafone company and today we operate our business in two main pillars.

On the one hand, we continue to be a development service provider for a relatively broad range of competencies from embedded hard software projects and backends to app and frontends.

On the other hand, we are product developers for our parent company Vodafone. This means that we develop IoT devices, IT systems, on which a Vodafone logo is emblazoned at the end and which you can buy as finished products from Vodafone. And one of these products we have developed together with the company ALMiG and want to present today in the podcast.

As CTO, I am mainly responsible for the areas of “Engineering, Sortification and Production” at grandcentrix.

How did you actually meet each other? How did this project come about?

Ralph

At ALMiG, we had been Vodafone customers in the mobile phone sector for many years and at that time we had not yet thought of Vodafone as an IoT solution provider. Instead, we had tried to get our compressors onto the Internet in other ways and had had to put up with one or two failures until we looked at our mobile phones and thought: “Why don’t we go to the mobile communications provider and ask if they have a solution? And so Vodafone made direct contact with grandcentrix.

You’re in on the project then too, right? Did that involve your team or what is the constellation?

Roland

Exactly and in fact it has been – as so often in life – a very positive coincidence in time. In fact, through various activities with different customers in our professional services area, we slowly matured the idea of designing a generic product that would be able to map many of the use cases that are always the same.

At that time it was still a thought construct and it was always about recording and transmitting operating states, parameters, alarms and more. Exactly at this point in time, when this idea was just beginning to mature, contact was made with ALMiG via Vodafone. Then we thought that we would like to win ALMiG not only as a customer, but as an anchor customer, for a joint work on this new product Modus Cloud Connect.

In retrospect, we are very happy about it. I think it was a good win-win for both partners in the product project.

Roland, again to you: Which use cases do you address in general and how should this generic product be classified?

Roland

We are also very excited to be included in your network. There are already a number of use cases that we have presented and will present in the future. There are things like a networked hospital bed, container trackers and also otherwise many different applications that transmit data via low-power wide-area technology from Vodafone. And today we want to look in detail at this use case together with ALMiG for Modbus Cloud Connect.

But what is very close to my heart is the distillate we found of recurring requirements, which we then mapped into a generic product together with ALMiG. Still, every use case ends up being special because we’re talking about compressed air, and that’s just a special thing. But that’s also what makes it so appealing, and we always find it very exciting, especially as technicians.

Absolutely! You on the part of grandcentrix, but also Ralph in the direction of ALMiG: You are open for questions. I would link these and other projects and use cases in the show notes, then you can read up on them again.

Can you briefly introduce ALMiG in your own words, what your core business is and then especially what the vision is for you regarding digitalization or also IoT.

Ralph

At ALMiG, we consider ourselves to be one of the leading system suppliers in compressed air technology and we are now 100 years – we are celebrating our centenary this year – so we have 100 years of experience in the compressed air industry. And this is naturally reflected in quality, innovation and energy efficiency. Everyone who has to do with compressed air and needs compressed air will also find what they are looking for.

Challenges, potentials and status quo – This is what the use case looks like in practice [08:50]

Can you tell us what a day at work is like for you, what relevance the topic of compressed air has and also what processes you have to deal with on a daily basis?

Ralph

Compressed air is a hidden form of energy that few people are really aware of; modern everyday life does not function without compressed air. This starts from the beverages, where the brewer needs compressed air to fill the beverages into the bottles. You may know it from the dentist: the dental drill, which is driven by compressed air. It goes on to more specialized areas such as also marine engines that are started by compressed air, we have conveyor belts that are driven by compressed air. We can clamp, grip and also suction workpieces with compressed air.

Due to this complexity, which emanates from the compressed air, a defective compressor can also shut down an entire factory, comparable to a power outage. That is why our scope of activity – not only mine – is broad. We can look behind many scenes with our solution, where we see the applications and products. We are a bit like “the show with the mouse”: we see how things are made when we go to our plant.

I’m a marketing manager and our marketing is split up in such a way that we have the area of classic marketing, i.e. self-marketing with a website, brochures and presentations. So everything that goes outwards, but also product marketing and product management, where we take care of the current products, but also much more about the products that need to be made fit for the future with new product launches.

For us, IoT is a key to the future and therefore the interface to construction and customer service is also given, which makes the whole thing simply exciting.

This joint project is primarily about the compressor as a smart product. It’s not about networking your works, it’s about the product of the compressor itself, so to speak.

Ralph

Exactly, it’s about the direct product.

I’d like to know more about the challenges you’ve seen and associated potential for the topic of “IoT” . Can you give us a glimpse into this world?

Ralph

The classic example, you know it also from the private sector: You buy something and have it with you in use. The situation is similar for compressors. They’re purchased, the compressed air is available, and as long as the compressed air is coming from the compressed air network, power is coming from the outlet and you don’t really worry about the equipment anymore.

Changing operating conditions may not be noticed, maintenance may be forgotten, and the compressor may eventually come to a standstill. We also want to cover this area with the IT solution so that we can monitor the operating states so that the compressor reports in good time and so that we can react.

That would be from the customer service side, but we want to move towards being able to be proactive as well, so that we can have a positive impact on the maximum customer experience at the plant. This will also increase efficiency and that would be the goal at the end of the journey.

What that means today is that a customer calls you and says that his plant is at a standstill. These are classic things that probably come in to you guys in service.

Ralph

Right, they need help quickly and ask if we need to come over. With IoT connectivity, we could connect to the plant and take action remotely.

Historical data will likely play a role here. What is data that is relevant to you for these projects?

Ralph

The pressure ranges are relevant because compressed air is all about pressure, but compressed air generation also generates a lot of heat and the compressor may only get warm to a limited extent during operation. If the temperature rises here, i.e. the cooling air flow is no longer given, the cooler has become clogged or there is too little oil in the system, then we receive warnings that occur in good time before the system comes to a standstill and would cause us to contact the customer here and point out that help would be necessary.

Solutions, offerings and services – A look at the technologies used [14:18]

You have chosen grandcentrix and together you have built a technological solution. What are requirements that you have set in order for this to be successful.

Ralph

The compressor generates waste heat and is also relatively loud. Every company tries to “conceal” it in the best possible way, so that colleagues and employees are not bothered by the noise.

This leads to compressors being in basements or stuck behind thick walls. Here we already have the difficulty that the connection to any network is relatively hard. One point was that we looked at whether we could use the new frequency bands via narrowband or similar, in order to have the advantage of not having to lay an antenna over further distances every time so that the system has coverage.

The other point that was important for us was that we didn’t want to redesign the plant because that would mean massive effort on our part. Here, too, it was a perfect coincidence that we now have a module that simply fits on the DIN rail without us having to adapt our systems.

Roland

And at the same time, did you guys already have a backend provider that you wanted to integrate, right?

Ralph

Exactly, we already had an asset management solution in the backend, which we use to manage the asset portfolio. There are operating instructions, spare parts lists, the entire digital machine file and what was still missing here was the digital plant data.

Who actually does what in the project? Ralph, you bring an insane know-how around the plant, know your compressors inside out, are the experts there and Roland, you do the whole part around connectivity and software. Who does precisely what here?

Roland

That’s also the exciting aspect of a project like this: ideally complementing each other well and not standing on each other’s feet in a project like this. That is exactly what was given here.

For us as an IoT service provider, these individual applications and individual use cases are always exciting on the one hand, but on the other hand we are often more like the viewers on “The show with the mouse” because we do not have the detailed knowledge of precise compressed air systems. For us, the requirements from the service provider’s perspective were generic requirements – that is, there are data transport requirements of a machine or data already exists in a known format.

In this case, it was a Modbus RTU interface that already existed in the machine. Our job as grandcentrix Vodafone was to provide data transport out of the machine to an existing cloud backend interface at ALMiG. In this area, we do everything that goes with it; that is, we build and supply the hardware, the module, which fits on the DIN rail and docks into Modbus.

We supply the connectivity in the Vodafone SIM card network, frequencies, NB-IoT and everything behind and to it. We implement the protocols, we manage these solutions and dock to the appropriate interfaces.

When it goes into the area of data processing, our area ends, and that’s where we get to the ALMiG side.

How does the data collection work from the hardware point of view? How does the hardware work, i.e. the data recording from the compressors at the point?

Roland

What was available before is a Modbus RTU interface. This is a very simple serial product over a two-wire RS485 bus. That was a given, and that’s where we dock with a DIN rail device – which is very narrow and the size of a typical circuit breaker, one division unit wide. This is simply plugged into the DIN rail, which is also already present in the compressor, and the device reads out data cyclically via the Modbus interface.

Modbus is organized in so-called registers and the registers have numbers. These registers with their numbers contain corresponding data that can only be interpreted if the register and register number are known. We read that out, send that over the narrowband interface, and then everything else.

Ralph, how was that for you? Was it always clear to you that you had a module interface because you had designed your machines accordingly?

Ralph

Modbus was always available for our controllers. In the past and also in current times, this was always the protocol that was used and therefore it was a given for us that we also want to make our IoT connection via this.

You have now also addressed NarrowBand IoT. You said they’re often in basements or behind walls. How exactly does this processing to the cloud work, so how does this device transmit, where, and through what technology?

Roland

Of course, it is not surprising that grandcentrix, as a subsidiary of Vodafone Germany, has installed mobile technology. That is, the device has a SIM card, a Vodafone machine SIM card permanently attached; that is soldered permanently to the device’s circuit board.

Mobile connectivity is thus present in the device as an integral component. Narrowband IoT, a narrowband technology that is below GHz frequencies and can thus penetrate very deep into the area, including basements, is used there. This is a fully built-out national network, with almost complete area coverage in Germany.

This makes it ideal for such use cases because the module then only needs power and can communicate instantly; this is the great promise of NB-IoT. You don’t have to rely on other networks that may or may not exist at that location.

Just plug in power and everything should work. The management system at our company then forwards the data to the customer’s IT system.

In this case, the customer’s IT system would be this asset management system, where spare parts and all the machine data would be stored.

Ralph

Right.

What was it like in practice for you guys, data processing? You probably had relatively little to do with that. You guys have probably had the hardware already or how do you have to imagine it?

Ralph

Our initial situation was that we had the compressor with the motor interface and our digital machine file, our compass solution, so Compass as a Service Solution, where everything was stored and then grandcentrix linked the two points together so that we had relatively little effort.

That was also the comfortable thing for us; in the past we had talked to different providers. Once we had the hardware side, the SIM card side and it didn’t always work entirely. Now getting everything from a single source was the interesting part for us and made it much easier and faster.

Exactly, it is of course easier to have everything from a single source than to have to put together the individual building blocks and manage them.

After all, you want to create a new customer experience for the customer, but you also want to bring changes to operating states. You want to provide the maintenance that is initiated, for example, with the information that oil is missing. This is the kind of indications you want to provide. How does this analysis work? How does it work?

Ralph

For us, it’s a really exciting field where we still have a lot of ideas and a lot of opportunities. I think we are only at the very beginning with our solution. We are also in contact with grandcentrix that we need to do more in visualization and also want to evaluate data that we collect. This is because the data enables us to identify trends, make recommendations via machine learning and thus also further help the customer to improve efficiency and increase plant availability.

Because in the end, this saves your customer money and also gives you the opportunity to provide improved customer service. Is data analysis part of the Modbus Cloud Connect product?

Roland

First of all, you have to think of this as two different building blocks. Data analysis itself is not a standard component of the product; the product deals with data transport. There is a small set of rules directly on the terminal device, which controls which data should be recorded how and in which frequency. Because you don’t want to transmit alarm conditions every second, there are simple alarm thresholds, hysteresis and things like that right in the product. I wouldn’t call that data analysis yet, but that is first of all the product, which records and transports data.

In any use case, like ALMiG, there are things that initially work without data analysis. There are also end users who may not even notice a low oil level because they have the compressor well locked away; that’s a simple threshold. There is an alarm here and only the right person needs to be alerted.

Of course, there are cases that we all know from the IoT environment where you want to unleash Big Data methods and certain data analytics, on this data that you can collect with such a product solution. These are solution modules that grandcentrix offers in our classic business as a service provider and that can be part of our solutions in such projects at ALMiG or in other projects as well.

The huge advantage is that we then have standardized interfaces based on such a data collection, on an existing asset management system, such as ALMiG, where this data is already available centrally. This is the absolute prerequisite for then approaching this data with standard methods.

Are there also cases where you have to react in real time? Is “real time” also an issue for you?

Ralph

Real time is also an issue; this is also becoming a bigger and bigger issue because many don’t have the time to actually go to the plant and see what the situation is? Instead, people are comfortable and want to be able to call up information directly on their computer, smartphone or tablet at any time and from anywhere. Here, too, it is possible to track the data live.

So from your point of view, a certain flexibility goes hand in hand with the product, also regarding the cloud, where you can say, depending on which use case you want to do either today or in the future, is still possible with the system.

Roland

Absolutely! There are these two building blocks and we make sure that they fit together.

That’s exactly where you bring the appropriate expertise on both sides, because otherwise you might think that Vodafone is just connectivity for now. Just that approach of saying you have both worlds and you as grandcentrix are handling both; that’s insanely great leverage for a lot of customers.

Roland

Especially since these things are intertwined. It’s often not the case that you can do data collection completely detached from the knowledge of the actual use case behind it. Otherwise, you quickly get into a situation where you say, “We’ll collect everything we can first!”

We were surprised again in this project when you see again the number of data points that such a compressor has to offer and that you can perhaps construct some case where you have to read out every five seconds. This is neither sensible, nor affordable, nor ultimately economical. So there is a flexible system where you collect certain things that you know you will need, but where you can still change such settings with a few simple steps.

You also have several other ideas that add value for your customer. It won’t stop there, but it will continue with many other ideas where you have a system that you can continue to use for the future.

Ralph

Exactly!

Results, Business Models and Best Practices – How Success is Measured [28:47]

It is always important to me to highlight the business case. With you guys, this one is relatively clear; you had said it’s clearly about customers. To add value, to improve service a bit. Can you summarize again what the business case is for you guys from the ALMiG side here?

Ralph

We always try to provide the customer with the most energy efficient compressor. Not every customer is the same and, above all, not every customer’s production situation is the same; this can be one with stronger and sometimes weaker capacity utilization. The quantity that is lost in the compressed air line can be larger and smaller. And through our connection of the compressors, we want to offer the customer real, most energy-efficient solutions at all times.

That’s where we come into the area where we don’t just want to act reactively in the area of customer service, but also continue to support the customer along the entire customer journey. So that we can also make recommendations on how they can adapt to their changed operating situation in order to continue to get the best possible energy efficiency out of it.

This is a very exciting field, where we now want to move towards installing the IoT or the module with grandcentrix as standard and then being able to offer this to the customer at any time.

Is there any kind of return analysis for the next 5 to 10 years? For you, this is certainly a major investment in the future, where the trend on the market is to create added value and then develop such products together with the customer. Have you looked at something like that for yourselves or is it too early for that?

Ralph

It is still too early for us at this point. We are sure that the customer benefit and product benefit can be maximized with this, so that the effort we make is also justified at all times and that is transparent to the customer in terms of the benefits, so that no decision is necessary.

For us, it is quite clear that we want to go down this path and that we want to take the customer with us in this area, because asset management, visualization and data analysis will simply offer absolute added value later on.

Absolutely, Roland, how do you see the business case?

Roland

We are very pleased that ALMiG has worked intensively with us on a product development of a generic product. In other words, it’s not just a simple customer relationship in a very specific project, but it’s actually the case that ALMiG has invested time, effort and expertise to help us get a product off the ground in the first place and to make it better in the process of development – better than it would have been without this assistance.

Now after the official product launch, it is a standard product at the grandcentrix and at the Vodafone. Other customers will be able to use this product without this exciting and beautiful, but just time-consuming and labor-intensive journey. This will allow others to implement such use cases very quickly and effectively.

That’s part of our business case where we invested on the part of grandcentrix Vodafone, where we said we’re going to make it bigger than it would have needed to be for this single case, because we’re covering a broader area.

That sounds like a very close collaboration you had there. Do you have any experiences from the project that you would like to share?

Ralph

Although our collaboration took place during the Corona period and personal meetings were unfortunately not possible – including on-site exchanges – the collaboration was nevertheless just as if we had really been sitting together at the table. It was exciting to get an insight into the world of mobile communications and also what is feasible in terms of transmission technology.

We really put an antenna out in the early cases to see what the reception was like. With the new module we had reception and that’s why it’s been a very exciting journey for us and I don’t think we’ve reached the end yet.

Roland

Maybe very generic: Often you see things differently at the end of a project than you saw them before. I remember initial discussions about what data points we need and at what frequency. Today we can laugh about it together, because everything has changed three times. This underlines the importance that flexibility must enjoy in order to revise such things once again.

I would add one personal anecdote: One of the best decisions made in the project is that the company provided us with one of their big blue compressors, which was located in our community space at our company headquarters, and thus in a place where all employees who were in the company after all, despite Corona, always walked past this device.

So everyone at the grandcentrix knows the name ALMiG; everyone knows the logo. I say Ralph, it wasn’t always on, because as I said, there is a certain amount of noise, but it was always a very nice visual and demonstration object.

Ralph

It was really very prominently placed.

That’s probably the only compressor that’s not in the basement, right?

Roland

It really was very prominently placed, you name it, even with a spotlight on it, yes.

That’s really a very nice anecdote to end on.

You keep thinking, this is just the beginning, as you had mentioned. What can we look forward to in the future from ALMiG? What’s coming from you in the next few years?

Ralph

We will continue to work on energy-efficient compressors, which means that we simply want to reduce the amount of energy used in compressed air generation and increase customer productivity here. Together with our solution, we want to create more transparency into the parameters, into the operating states and simply enhance the product experience even further, thereby increasing customer loyalty.

That’s also a huge sustainability issue, which goes into that notch.

Compressed air is one of the important issues that can also have an impact.

Ralph

That’s right, there is still a lot of potential for savings!

Roland

First of all, we are all excited about the standard product, which we now have available. The top priority is stability, which is what we stand for as Vodafone and grandcentrix, that you can buy as standard. This is not a flash in the pan, this will stay here for many years and thus form a stable and reliable solution.

Of course, there are further developments in the Modbus Cloud Connect product. There will be more features, there will be more and better documentation, where we are already quite well positioned. We have just released a comprehensive technical operation manual for the product.

Of course, we have some things on the roadmap, but just as important: the product is there, it’s still new. We work with new customers every day and there is a lot to learn. This feedback will be essential for our further roadmap, because that’s where we learn things that we didn’t know ourselves and also didn’t learn in the collaboration with our first anchor customer ALMiG, because these are aspects that others are still bringing into the ecosystem.

There’s potential for more pilot customers to help shape and grow it, very great!

All that remains for me to say at this point is thank you! Thank you Ralph and thank you Roland for your time.

A really really exciting project! We understood very precisely what data is relevant, what the business case is behind it, and also how it works.

Roland

From my side, once again many thanks to Ralph and ALMiG for accompanying us here in the product development. That was a lot of work and stress. There were sometimes exhausting discussions, because in this case the service provider not only wanted to realize a very specific customer project, but also wanted to think further and broader and still got caught up again. I think we made it a good win-win and I’m looking forward to everything to come.

Ralph

I can only agree! My sincere thanks to grandcentrix and to Vodafone. It was a small leap in technology, exaggerated from analog to digital; it didn’t feel complicated and certainly not cumbersome. That it was possible so easily, my thanks to you.

Until next time!

See you then!

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Questions? - Ing. Madeleine Mickeleit

Ing. Madeleine Mickeleit

Host & General Manager
IoT Use Case Podcast