Co-Founder and Head of Sales of aconno, Thomas Hollwedel, joins the podcast this week to discuss hardware’s role in IoT. The podcast begins with a background on aconno and areas the company puts its focus on. Thomas then discusses the role of hardware and whether he suggests custom or off-the-shelf solutions. He also discusses how hardware fits with in-house software and challenges he’s seen in the space. Ryan and Thomas wrap up the podcast with a discussion on how to approach IoT education and whether companies need internal technical employees to integrate IoT.
Thomas Hollwedel is a founder, investor, consultant, trainer, and senior manager in the industry sector. He has experience in various industries (telecommunications, automotive, real estate, media) and companies of different sizes (startups, mid-sized companies, corporates). As a digital expert, his particular strength is his ability to mediate between the technology and marketing worlds to find the best, most pragmatic solution.
Interested in connecting with Thomas? Reach out on Linkedin!
Aconno was founded in 2015 in Düsseldorf by Miroslav Šimudvarac and Thomas Hollwedel. We offer a product portfolio of different sensor and beacon solutions for various IoT and Industry 4.0 applications and the development of customized hardware products. We work with multiple partners for end-to-end solutions such as indoor navigation, asset tracking, condition monitoring, etc.
Key Questions and Topics from this Episode:
(01:39) Introduction of Thomas
(02:36) Background of aconno
(04:10) Areas of focus for aconno
(05:15) Role of hardware in solutions
(07:10) Custom vs off-the-shelf solutions
(09:58) In-house software?
(11:00) Challenges in the hardware space
(13:14) Approaching the education aspect
(14:55) Challenges companies are facing
(16:39) Does a client need internal technical employees?
– [Narrator] You are listening to The IoT for All Media Network.
– [Ryan] Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of The IoT for All Podcast, I’m your host, Ryan Chacon, and on today’s episode, we have Thomas Hollwedel, the Co-fFunder and Head of Sales and Marketing at aconno. They are a company that was founded in 2015 with a product portfolio of different sensors, and beacon solutions for various IoT and Industry 4.0 applications, as well as development of customized hardware products. They work with various different partners to build end-to-end solutions such as indoor application, asset tracking, condition monitoring, and many more, a fantastic company, great people there too. Thomas and many of the other people I spoke with were wonderful. On this episode, we cover a lot about different topics. We talk about challenges in the IoT space, challenges with hardware, talking about the standards in IoT, and kinda how they play a role. We also talk about the role hardware companies play in IoT in general, sensor types process for building, versus buying off-the-shelf kinda how to approach that decision making process, how to approach that buying process, and also partnering versus building everything in house yourself, and kinda the pros and cons to both of those. It’s a great episode, you’ll get a lot of value out of it. But before we get into this episode, I want you to take what you know about IoT and expand it by a factor of 1000. That’s what our sponsor for this episode Impinj is doing. With the Impinj platform, everything can be connected; from strawberries, to supply chains, from IV bags to inventory, Impinj is creating the internet of every little thing. To learn more go to impinj.com/ifa, that’s Impinj with a J, I-M-P-I-N-J.com/ifa to learn more. And without further ado, please enjoy this episode of The IoT for All Podcast. Welcome Thomas to The IoT for All Podcast. Thanks for being here this week.
– [Thomas] Hey, thanks for having me and glad to be here.
– [Ryan] Yeah, it’s fantastic to have you on as a guest. I wanted to start off by having you give a quick introduction about yourself to our audience.
– [Thomas] Yes, thank you, so I’m Thomas 47 years old by tomorrow and–
– [Ryan] Oh, nice.
– [Thomas] I have a long background actually in telecommunications and in consulting. And at one point, you know, we’re fiddling with hardware, and experimenting, and I was so curious about IoT, and how mobile actually conquers the world that we found at aconno, and that’s where I am today. And I’m more on the marketing side, so I’d like to understand more the business challenges, and see how we can match them with technology to find solutions. So more in the area where innovation happens, you could say.
– [Ryan] Well, first off, happy early birthday, and I wanted to ask,
– [Thomas] Thank you.
– [Ryan] So tell us a little bit more about aconno and kinda what you all focus on, the role you all play in IoT, and things like that.
– [Thomas] Yeah, so aconno is six year olds. So, we still sometimes say, startup because hardware tends to have longer cycles, but we’re actually quite established by now. Originally, we founded aconno with the idea to help companies having better tools to create IoT showcases and use cases. So, we had a development board, a programmer, the fitting communication modules, a big pile of codes for that, and it was quite a position between an Arduino and the Raspberry Pie. And that was how we started and then it came differently.
– [Ryan] And when you were starting the company, what opportunity do you really see in the market? Tell us a little bit more about that founding story, I always think that’s super fascinating to talk about
– [Thomas] Actually, I was at a big telco company, and we were doing a lot of things for both smart home, but also smart manufacturing and industry for that now. And it was early days, and you could see how the ideas were there, to use sensors, to measure operations, to go to predictive maintenance, but doing that was so difficult. You know, you started fiddling with Arduino, and then you you build a tower of things, and that was so far away from products. And then we had the idea to create this platform that would fit in the middle.
– [Ryan] And where you are now, talk about some of the use cases, or areas that you focus on as, from a kinda vertical standpoint.
– [Thomas] Right, so, what we’ve come to actually, when we started with this development board and things, the industry actually has quickly asked us whether we could also produce, and deliver full sensor systems. And that’s the two things we do today, we have a platform on tools and hardware, like from battery all the way up to different sensors, the computing, and how we can manufacture systems for our customers. But we also have a range of own sensor beacons that we produce hidden in scale. And these are then used in all sorts of different industries. There’s not this one, one thing, but we are in healthcare, but we’re also logistics. We have use cases in automotive and in heavy industry.
– [Ryan] And, when you’re working with organizations on the kinda the hardware process for them, how would how do you kinda describe to them the role that hardware, and just generally hardware companies are playing in the development of their solution and the success of their deployments?
– [Thomas] Well, sometimes it’s very easy. You know, people tend to come more to us with an idea. So, very recently we had an agricultural company with an idea for predictive maintenance sensor. And they normally are very far away from electronics and IoT in that sense, but they had a very good understanding of what they what wanted to have. So they wanted to understand how the product is used, and how long it is used, and in what conditions. And we would then turn to them and say like, “How can we help designing a system, designing the hardware to measure what they need to find out.” So, operating times, operating speeds, vibrations, vibration peaks, so we’re not only doing the hardware, that we’re actually creating the system, so it’s the hardware, but also the firmware that runs on the chip. So, we can look into the magnetic field and understand how that is spinning. and from that, we can calculate your rotational speed, for example.
– [Ryan] And when you’re in these conversations, is this all the data that you’re collecting, the focus is really to help kinda pair them with the right type of sensor for their deployment?
– [Thomas] Yeah, in most cases, the customers have a very specific idea on business, and what they want to find out, but then it’s a question of, “Can it be done? And how accurate can it be done?” So we typically start with experiments, and later end with the full design, and customer design product.
– [Ryan] And when you’re having that conversation, I know a lot of times a big point when it comes to selecting the correct hardware is being able to buy off-the-shelf versus kinda going that custom route, like building something from scratch, how is that conversation usually handled? And how do you kinda advise companies that are maybe listening to this, to kinda be thinking about that decision?
– [Thomas] That’s a very good one. You know, everything is custom, custom, custom at time it tends to be expensive. Expensive in design and making and maintaining, and it’s simply not a route we recommend to go. When we talk about custom designs, what we actually have is we have something that we would call the aconno base, which is like our toolkit. So, we know a variety of sensors, we have all the code, the drivers, and things with us ready. And with every design we do, this platform actually grows. So, we can recombine our standard products, and turn them into more custom products. So, this is then more economically effective. It scales with the other products, and it’s not a full custom design, but it’s, let’s say, adapting to your needs more in terms of really having full custom design.
– [Ryan] Gotcha, gotcha, yeah, it’s always interesting when I talk to companies, because there are many different viewpoints when it comes to customization versus off-the-shelf. Obviously, off-the-shelf, if you get into market faster it’s going to be most likely cheaper, but there are pieces to some unique use cases and applications that do require certain components to be included in the hardware, in order for it to even be plausible for them to deploy. So, the right connectivity, the form factor of it, how does it handle certain elements, things like that.
– [Thomas] And that’s exactly it, like the typical use case for example is to measure vibration. So, a system that measures vibrations we have, that’s kinda off-the-shelf. And we know how to set different thresholds, so do you want to react on low impulse, on high impulse, we can wake up when something happens and sleep, and optimize battery, but then the customer may want to have that over long distance. So, you would include LoRa or Narrowband IoT. Sometimes people want to have a higher sample rate, but on proximity. So that is kind of the customization we then redo around these things. That can be from housing, from battery, but it’s normally starts with something we have, and that’s where we feel like we can help companies. We don’t want to go into full redesign, or equation of something, where we cannot leverage the space we have, because that would not be effective for the customer.
– [Ryan] And when we’re talking kinda end-to-end solutions where the hardware kinda fits in are the other pieces as far as the software side, the user interface side, are those things you all are doing in-house, or is those things you’re partnering with companies in order to kinda deploy?
– [Thomas] Well, we are very steady and it’s driven. So, our vision and our mission is to deliver you that data you need. And that data sometimes can be a bit pre-processed. But the idea is you turn the data into information, you have your cloud, whether you run it AWS, in Azure, or or whatever you use, we are getting the data to you. So, from generating to delivery. And yes, it can be pre-processed, so we have on our system the opportunity to do some edge computing. Because maybe you don’t want to have all the data, but only specific values, so we can also do that.
– [Ryan] Yep. Okay, that makes perfect sense. I wanted to transition here a second and talk a little bit about the challenges that you all see in the space, and probably connect us a little bit more, obviously, to the hardware side. When you’re talking with customers what are some of the biggest challenges that either they are coming to the table with, that you all have encountered, and kinda talk us through what those challenges look like.
– [Thomas] Well, what often this time, you know, people want everything now and immediately. And the other challenge often is, cannot be done. A lot of the questions we receive are first time solving, or first time problem solving. So what we try to do together with the customers to focus on the key issue, on the key problem, and try to make experiments where we can really say like, “We can get you that data.” And only once we can really prove you we can generate that data, then we would go into the development of the full system.” That may sometimes take a bit longer, but, you know, you don’t have avoid it, how do I say, you don’t waste your money, because it’s nice when you have a full system, but if it later doesn’t really do what you wanted to do it will be silly, so, that that’s one key aspect. The other thing that is a pain for us is, as much as we like standards, there are not standards for all the things. So, for example, how do we communicate a temperature value, how do you communicate the vibration value? So, there are no standards on how these things are being communicated between different systems. So, we try to have at least our way of communicating open, that we can integrate with others, but I think, there’s a lot of more standard work needed on the overall IoT world.
– [Ryan] Yeah, it’s interesting, ’cause when we’re thinking about the hardware piece of the process for IoT deployments, it usually is much harder than people expect. I think, most people think they’re gonna come into this, it’s gonna be super cheap, super easy, and they’re gonna be able to be up and running in a day or so. So, I think, how do you all approach those conversations, like the educational component of this, when companies come in with maybe misaligned expectations, how do you handle that kinda conversation, and what do you kinda advise companies to be thinking about going into that?
– [Thomas] Well, we try to be very transparent in terms of how we design products. And, we typically work on on time material base when we design for customers. And, we try to well make a very strong plan upfront, in terms of what efforts we think are needed. And, yeah, that’s always a discussion, later you have certification and these things where you feel like they don’t add much value, but they cost a lot. Those are often then really debated with us whether we really need that. But yeah, this is really a conversational process because you’re right, a lot of people, you know, hardware and so many issues is so cheap or vastly available when it comes to standard things that people never experience how much effort really it is to design hardware, you know, you first build a small PCB, you want it fast, just that small PCB can cost you a lot of money, and then you assemble it by hand, and test it, and it’s later, you don’t want it… You’re in mass production that really scales. But designing often is underestimated in terms of effort and costs I think.
– [Ryan] Absolutely.
– [Thomas] And then, the more specific you need it, the more expensive it can should be.
– [Ryan] And if we were to pull ourselves out of just the hardware component here for a second, where else are you seeing kinda the biggest need for, or I guess, the biggest challenges that companies come across, or are facing in the IoT space when it comes to adoption, when it comes to deployments, getting through pilot stage, where do you all kind of either run into ’em either yourself, or just kinda seen from, from an onlooker standpoint some of the bigger challenges in the space.
– [Thomas] Well, sometimes I really think, people have a lot of ideas, and there’s a lot of drive for innovation in companies. But some people are not having the belief in their self to really bring products to market, and to change. As an example, we are working with a German company that is very high-end specialized in fabrication of tank systems. So they have double solid, welded, extra thick tank walls. So, that’s super, but now they go into IoT, and we are developing smart fueling system. And the developers they have are `eventually from the cobalt days. it’s almost like they they’re so far away from anything that’s web, or software as a service or so. And all that digitalization in the wider fields, you know, thinking about what is the next digital level for your product, that thinking that needs to develop much more, and we need to have many, many more skilled people to help all these companies getting there.
– [Ryan] Totally, and when it comes to, when you’re talking about the skilled people that are needed to kind of help get companies to this stage, what do you loo for when you’re working with companies, as far as their internal team makeup from a technical perspective. Are you kinda really hoping companies have people inside that understand the technology, or can learn the technology in order to be able to support the deployment once it’s kinda out there, or is that something that you kinda just assume they’re gonna be relying on you and maybe your partners to handle?
– [Thomas] Yeah, well, our engineers love it when you have skilled people on the other side. And that’s totally awesome, but we try to keep technology a bit away from the people, and think about what is the use case they want to solve with us, how can we help them with technology, but not making technology the subject. So, we want to make sure we develop for them, and we explain what we do in technology, but we try to keep all the jargon, and these things a bit away, because our customers are pretty good at their use case. So we don’t understand the industry necessarily they’re in, I’m not an expert in healthcare, nor in agriculture, so I need to have their expertise on the use case, and we would then try to bring it together with our expertise on technology, and work as an agile team together. So we integrate customers in our development process. But, I said more from the use case sides, we try to avoid them needing to think about, what APIs are and how devices communicate.
– [Ryan] Yep, now, that makes a ton of sense. I think, that definitely helps speed up the process, and not having to rely on them to have a team to support it internally, which I definitely could see being a roadblock. So, as we wrap up here, let me ask you, as our audience is listening to this, and has questions, and wants to learn more about aconno, and everything you have going on, what’s the best way for them to do that, and kinda stay in touch.
– [Thomas] We’d love to get in touch to any questions, we’re always open to 24/7 on social media, whether it’s LinkedIn, Facebook, we have a lot of videos on YouTube, where we explain use cases and also share details. And there’s always email and phone. So, never hesitate to just reach out, we try to be available.
– [Ryan] Fantastic, and anything new or, or exciting, kinda coming out that you’re looking forward to this year, whether it’s from the company, from the industry in general, that our audience can kinda be lookout for.
– [Thomas] Yeah, a couple of things, but one thing that actually makes us quite quite proud, and we are supporting an initiative for accessibility and mobility of people with needs in mobility. So, we are working on an elevator project that gives you an open map, together with the user chair, and others that you can plan your journey. For example, when you’re in a wheelchair or in other means, to really know your roots, and whether you can easily get to the train by use of sensors,
– [Ryan] That’s awesome.
– [Thomas] That’s something we find really cool, because technology is cool, but if you can combine technology, and it helps people in the daily life, that’s a very joyful thing.
– [Ryan] Fantastic, that sounds very exciting. We’ll have to definitely stay in touch, and have you back here when that kinda gets out there to have you talk more about it, ’cause I think that’s super fascinating.
– [Thomas] Super, super, we’d love to be back with you guys.
– [Ryan] Fantastic, well, Thomas, thanks so much for taking the time and again, happy early birthday, it’s great to have you on, I look forward to doing some more content with you and the company. I think, you have a lot of fascinating things going on, and would be exciting to kinda work together.
– [Thomas] Thank you again for having us, and we’d love to be more present with you guys, because we’re seeing, it’s awesome to see this platform with IoT for All and the work you do.
– [Ryan] Thank you, all right, we’ll talk soon.
– [Thomas] Thank you.
– [Ryan] Bye.
– [Thomas] Bye.
– [Ryan] All right, everyone, thanks again for watching that episode of The IoT for All Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please click the thumbs up button, subscribe to our channel, and be sure to hit the bell notifications, so you get the latest episodes as soon as it becomes available. Other than that, thanks again for watching, and we’ll see you next time.