Gary Mintchell on Industrial IoT and Wireless Power

25 May 2020

Gary Mintchell is an analyst focusing on industrial manufacturing and industrial technologies and business processes. We discuss the growth areas of IoT, and particularly given the current pandemic, and how wireless power can solve significant problems for enterprises deploying IoT sensors to tighten their supply chain and improve manufacturing operations. This episode was recorded in May 2020.

Yuval Boger: (Chief Marketing Officer, Wi-Charge, @TheChargeGuy):  Hello Gary and thanks for joining me today.

Gary Mintchell: Hi, glad to be here.

Yuval: So, who are you and what do you do?

Gary: My name is Gary Mintchell and I did a career in manufacturing and then, started a second career. I got a job in the publishing business as a senior editor for a magazine and then, founded a magazine with another couple of people, and was editor and chief of that for 10 years. Now, I’m out on my own as a blogger analyst, thought provoker kind of person, focusing on industrial manufacturing and industrial technologies and business processes involved in that same thing. So, mostly I think and write and I have a lot of time.

Yuval: Excellent. So I saw a number of analysts, in quite a few articles, talking about how IoT is gonna be impacted by COVID, and actually how it’s gonna be impacted in a positive way. They see an opportunity for growth, or people want to tighten their supply chains, or just get more information about what’s going on in their enterprise. What areas or applications do you see as having the biggest IoT growth?

Gary: Well, remembering that I’m industrial and manufacturing-focused, and I don’t get very much into consumer things other than as a consumer. But in my business, I’m getting a lot of press releases for companies talking about the COVID thing and so remote working, remote kinds of stuff, there’s a lot of ideas of remote service. Where an expert can call in and not have to go visit the plant, which in these days somewhat difficult.

So there’s a lot in that, but that assumes that there’s infrastructure already there. And I go back to a mentor of mine in a process tutorial, who once talked about things like refineries, chemical plants, mostly was his expertise. And he said can you imagine how we can manage, not just the process, but the entire plant much better if we just have more information, but it’s so darn hard to get sensors scattered around and get all that information that we could use. And so in my business, the growth has been happening and will continue to happen in bidding more data from processes and machines and so on. And there’s still a lot of room for growth in all of that.

Think offshore platforms, think refineries, think machines. All kinds of things like that still could be instrumented, still could be sources of more data. And that’s wherein our business, what’s loosely called IoT, internet of things because its IP, internet protocol by communication is the internet of things. So that’s kind of what I see in the area that I’m at. There’s still a lot of room for growth and in manufacturing, the other big area of growth is involved in logistics and warehousing and work in process and material things and asset things moving around. The Internet of things is perfect for that, as we can get more wireless ways of communicating sensor data. So there’s a lot actually going on. It’s very interesting, right now.

Yuval: Diving into the first part of your answer about getting more data from the manufacturing plants. Does that happen because there are just gonna be more and more sensors or does that happen because each sensor is going to want to report more frequently about what’s going on?

Gary: Most likely, for the most part, the sensors are already pretty smart and they can actually churn out more data then can be used. The idea isn’t so much per each sensor as it is the number of sensors you could put out into a facility, for example. It is really where the growth is. So there’s a whole ecosystem that goes into the thing. Some people just think sensors connected together magically, somewhere, but there’s a whole ecosystem that has to go into this whole idea of the internet of things broadly speaking.

So that’s great that we generate all this data and we’re gonna generate more data because we’ll have more sensors and, especially, wireless technologies, as we get more wireless sensor networks going and so on. And robust information at work and all that geeky talk right there. So the development of gateways, a lot of people are doing gateways as their way to get all the data to come to one place before it’s sent off somewhere else because you could choke a network with bandwidth because of all the data coming from the center.

So how do we manage that? So that’s a network problem. How do we manage all that data comes in, that gets to be a data science problem and the hardware that goes on all that. So there’s a whole ecosystem of things that go with the internet of things. And it all starts with more sensors. So from what I write and where I’m talking to people, they’re worried about the whole system, but it all starts with the data and the data’s gold. Or people called data, the new oil, but these days, with the price of oil, like I think I’d stick with gold.

Yuval: Absolutely and so with so much data, do you think that sensors will want to be more intelligent to do some more local processing and send aggregate data, send analyzed data or are they still going to be sending lots of raw data?

Gary: You’re going to see two different things going on here. One is in many places, we just need cheaper sensors that we could scatter out a bunch of them and then, you only need to pick up a few points and send it back. So on the one hand, you’re going to see more robust and cheaper sensors, but you’re going to see more of them.

So there’ll be a numerical growth in those kinds of sensors. But on the other hand, we’re seeing some sophisticated sensors and instrumentation going out that can do processing in the field. And that gets to be very interesting too, because of the bandwidth problem of can I filter some of this and just send the anomalies or can I just send an exceptional thing or can I just send some kind of a batch? So I see two ways going.

There’s plenty of room for development and innovation in this area, which people probably thought was dead a few years ago, quite frankly. How can we sensor one more thing, but there’s a lot of ingenuity left to go in there.

Yuval: I’d like to think that there’s a battery problem. I mean, when sensors become wireless and when there’s an increasing number of sensors, then batteries run out, they need to be replaced or recharged and with an increasing number of sensors, you’re gonna have a whole army of maintenance people running around replacing batteries.

Do you agree that battery is becoming an issue or battery life is becoming an issue with the sensors?

Gary: Batteries, actually, have been the issue. I was going to look it up, but I forgot. I can’t think if it’s been farther than 10 years ago or not. When in our issue of the world, we started developing wireless sensor networks because, in an awful lot of places where I reported on, it’s very expensive to add a sensor. If you’re in a refinery, think of hiring the electrician and running the conduit and everything’s got to be explosion-proof, just to run one sensor is just way too expensive.

So if I could do it wirelessly, so people have been taking that challenge on for a long time and the battery has always been a problem. And for the very reasons you said, what do I do? Do I send a maintenance person around, every year, to just replace batteries? And some of them are inaccessible. So there’s just so many problems with batteries. So a number of proposed solutions have come up. I’ve seen energy harvesting thing, where you put a vibration thing on a motor and it harvests electricity off of the vibration to help charge the battery.

People are like “how can I do that?”. So batteries are an acknowledged problem. As soon as you put out wireless sensors that are wireless, not only do they send their data wirelessly, but there is no wire running to it, even for power. So it’s wireless two ways and it’s an acknowledged problem and then people have been trying to solve it and right now, I think the only solution is to run a maintenance person around with a pocket full of batteries and whatever like that. So yeah, you’re right, that is a problem.

Yuval: And that’s wireless power, the ability to deliver power wirelessly could solve that problem and perhaps even give sensors the ability to do more than they do today if they’re battery limited if they’re power limited.

Gary: Wireless power is intriguing. It does offer a lot of possibilities because, for one thing, it’s the problem of sending maintenance people around. For another reason, if I’m having to manage battery power, then maybe I’m limited to how much data I can send, how often I can send something and batching the data and that sort of thing.

So if I had a source where I could get power more easily and recharge those batteries, then perhaps, I could use the battery sensor more often. Maybe I wouldn’t have to batch so much. Maybe I could get a more continuous stream of analog data or something like that. There’s a lot of good things that would come to it.

Or think remote things or even I mentioned logistics and that sort of stuff on the other side of my world. And so a sensor could be on a piece of moving equipment and run past the charger every once in a while and you wouldn’t even have to stop and do the old plugin thing every night and people forget to do that and all that kind of stuff. So yeah, there’s a lot of potential for wireless charging. I’ve been intrigued by different approaches to solving that particular problem.

Yuval: Absolutely, so you have a little bit of familiarity with the white chart solution, using infrared light for what we believe is safe and efficient delivery of power. If you were setting the work plan for our engineering team for the next 18 months, good luck with that, but if you were, what would you have them work on?

Gary: You know, that’s interesting, I was just introduced to you all what, just a couple of weeks ago I think. And I’m thinking of lights, how in the world do you do that? It’s an elegant solution. It’s almost like Einstein’s famous quote about simple, but not too simple and that sort of stuff. But yeah, I liked that solution.

And so yeah, if I put my old product development hat on, I start laying out plans and for me, the idea was how can I make the distance? Physical distance is a problem. Could I be closer, could I be farther away? In some of the plants, you might need to be farther away.

And how do you do that? I didn’t really digest the physics of everything you’re doing, but I thought huh, yeah that distance thing is our problem. And if you could solve that or maybe you already have and I just don’t know about it, but that, to me, is one of the biggest things.

Yuval: Absolutely, well, I think we actually have. The nice thing about light, think about a laser pointer, you could stand in one side of a room and draw a thin dot, a really tiny dot on the other wall, opposite wall. Light can travel in a thin beam and does not meaningfully expand or become wider over distance and therefore, the energy that we can deliver to a given sensor actually does not depend on the distance. The energy that you can get at three meters is the same energy that you can get at 10 meters. What kind of distances are would be useful? Is 10 meters enough, do we need to be at 50 meters? I mean, what, what do you feel is a good target?

Gary: I would imagine there are many applications for 50 meters, but yeah, you’re right about the distance thing. I had a green laser pointer for a while when you used to do PowerPoint presentations, you’d have that remote pointer.

And TSA wasn’t going to let me go through with it one time. They said, “You know, this is the one people stand at the end of the runway and bounce it off pilots’ glasses when they’re trying to land.” And I looked at the guy and I said, “Oh really, well I’m going to be in the plane.” So he didn’t like that, but yeah.

That light is concentrated. They’ve bounced lasers off the moon, so I think distances is a new thing. Distance isn’t the problem, the problem is how do you manage the actual product and do it, but that’s always a challenge. That’s why you hire engineers. Without a problem, why would you need an engineer?

Yuval: Sure, if engineering was simple, we’d have marketing do it, right? Very good, so Gary, how can people get in touch with you to learn more about the work that you’re doing?

Gary: Well I have a website called themanufacturingconnection.com.

You build a business around what you can get for a domain name and that was available and it’s all about connections to me. I’m on Twitter @garymintchell. If you Google Gary Mintchell, you will only get me. I’m the only one in the world on Google, so I’m easily found if you spell me correctly.

Yuval: Very good, well thanks so much for joining me today.

Gary: Hey, you’re welcome, glad to be here.

We will review your message and get in touch with you as soon as possible