IoT workshops as a crowbar

IoT design agency Dent is firmly rooted in the maker movement. With low-threshold workshops and rapid prototyping they introduce potential clients with the possibilities the internet of things has to offer. ‘Companies find it hard to start working with new technology, let alone to advice their customers about it.’

Marvin

The location where Dent, a Rotterdam start-up, holds office is impressive. A huge and old industrial RDM-hall filled with robotic arms, 3D printers and CNC milling machines. Small greenhouses serve as meeting rooms. In between disused crane tracks a floating floor is suspended eight meter above the ground. It’s a place where start-ups – most of them active in the maker movement – experiment with new techniques and production methods.

Dent emerged two years ago after a successful Kickstarter campaign, through which the founders launched plug-and-play IoT developer board Marvin. Marvin is a tool especially designed for people who want to experiment and play with the internet of things (IoT) concept. To use it, no technical background is needed. Marvin primarily functions as a conversation starter with potential clients, says CEO and product designer Niels Stamhuis (27). ‘It’s our sales device.’

Despite the fact that the general concept of smart city is promising, the total number of use cases still is low. ‘It isn’t clear to companies why IoT is so relevant. That’s why it is so difficult to market’, he continues. Dent ran into this problem, because of its initial positioning as a design agency for IoT-services. It turned out to be a too broad of a focus to begin with. Potential clients just didn’t get it. That’s why the company recently decided to focus on one of its solutions, namely, to reduce the maintenance costs of companies.

Niels Stamhuis

Google mentality

This dive into an efficiency trajectory is an adjustment to their business model. The start-up’s initial goal was to make IoT widely applicable. ‘Nowadays you have to adopt the Google mentality’, Stamhuis explains. ‘What does a potential customer look for online? What does he need? We decided we want to grow our business first, gain some strength.’ Maintenance now is their ‘money maker’. In the future, Dent’s planning to invest part of the company’s revenue in broader R&D-activities to ultimately launch several Dent branded products.

KPN provided the actual impetus for this close focus. The Dutch telecom company had previously rolled out the LoRa network (sending small amounts of data over long distances) for its internet of things. In search of a way to reach customers, KPN turned to RDM Makerspace. As part of a collaboration they founded the IoT Academy. Stamhuis became one of the people who provided workshops to companies about the possibilities of the new technology.

Not long after, the first real use case emerged. Throughout the Netherlands, KPN has tens of thousands of street side cabinets. These are the primary connection points for telephone and internet traffic. Damage – intentional or not – could cause a total neighborhood blackout. KPN wanted to be able to remotely monitor these: to save costs and to gain valuable data insights. The first ten devices have been made. They monitor among other things, whether a cabinet is up right, if a door is open (which could indicate possible copper theft) and the moisture and humidity level. A pilot in Utrecht proved successful.

The start-up wants to further develop this device into a general IoT maintenance solution. That’s because their technology primarily adds value to what is already there, Stamhuis believes. The entrepreneur points out that by focusing on an existing market, it isn’t necessary to create a completely new infrastructure. He sees plenty of possibilities. KPN – seller of connectivity – has several big customers who have thousands of comparable street side cabinets. ‘They carry out their maintenance in a very old-fashioned way. You’ll be surprised to learn how often it’s done by a guy with a pen and paper.’

IoT workshops

Organizing workshops turned out to be an effective sales method for Dent. It’s now an integral part of their business strategy. During a workshop a participating company learns what IoT means, which applications are available and what it can do for their organisation. ‘There’s always a practical element. You put some components together, measure stuff and get immediate results on your phone. Then we ask the question: what would you ideally want to know and thus measure?’

At the moment the five-person start-up runs ten parallel development trajectories. The collaboration with US-based MachineQ, a subsidiary of juggernaut cable company Comcast, is particularly promising. MachineQ is going to roll out the LoRa network in the ten biggest North-American cities, such as New York and Chicago. To create buzz among potential clients, the company organized several workshops and hackathons with independent makerspaces. Dent acted as technical support partner with their plug-and-play Marvin. As a result, MachineQ asked Dent to develop a white label IoT-starter kit based on the developer board. The first order includes a thousand devices, containing a Marvin, a power bank and multiple sensors. Soon they’ll be distributed among MachineQ’s clients. At the moment Dent is integrating its IoT software with the American’s online platform. Ultimately, the goal is to hand MachineQ’s customers a tool to play around with IoT technology and start developing solutions.

Niels Stamhuis

Rapid prototyping

As for Dent, Stamhuis strongly believes in offering customizability as a service. That’s why he attributes so much value to his company’s maker movement origins. ‘After the first conversation a customer can receive a working prototype within a week’, he says. ‘For this we use all manufacturing machines that are at our disposal. After this a process of quick iterations starts. The customer can comment on everything we came up with.’ That’s meant to really shake things up, according to the CEO. This process is part of every new acquisition.

At the start-up company, there certainly is no lack of ambition. ‘Due to the exponentially growing calculation power, we are ever more able to let machines do exactly what we want. It’s the main advantage of the maker movement and the so called industry 4.0.’ This offers Dent a unique opportunity to serve a wide variety of customers and needs, according to Stamhuis. He sees a future in which his IoT solutions fuel technologies such as machine learning and augmented reality.