From tinkering to next level IoT
R&D agency TWTG operates at the forefront of connected hardware and is growing fast. Already several multinationals use its internet of things-solutions, mostly to increase efficiency.
Over the past five years TWTG has developed rapidly. It’s an important reason why the entire team moved to a larger building on the outskirts of Rotterdam at the end of 2017. The new office, overlooking the river Nieuwe Maas and the iconic Van Brienenoordbrug, is five times as large as their previous office. Their name change also shows foresight. The company – formerly known as Tweetonig – dropped the vowels for a better international pronunciation.
Currently they’re with a staff of 35, mostly hardcore software and hardware engineers. Nick Kiran, marketing lead, and designer Daan Lips predict the company’s growth will continue for the time being, both in personnel and customer size.
No more batteries
A Light Energy powered asset tracker lies on the meeting room table. It’s an IoT-solution TWTG developed for PostNL, the Dutch national postal service. The tracker can be attached to roll cages and – as a smaller version – on or even in parcels. Ideal for real-time tracking of valuable goods and loads. According to Kiran, logistics is the field where many future developments will take place. Other focus areas are industry 4.0, utilities, smart city and office.
The tracker’s design is typical for TWTG’s approach. ‘We make all of our products as smart and efficient as possible. This often means reducing the energy consumption, so that a device can run on our Light Energy module’, Kiran continues. This means the tracker runs completely without batteries or an external power supply. Instead, it harvests energy out of minimal light through a small and highly efficient solar panel plus power management. The sensory technology, with which customers can monitor crucial business processes, is designed to only perform only one specific task.
Lips, who is responsible for the hardware design, adds that it’s always possible to install new features on the tracker, such as a temperature gauge. It suits the idea that every device is created as durable as possible. ‘Replacing an entire product within, let’s say, three years isn’t necessary’, he says. Just like the regular and expensive replacement of a huge amount of batteries. PostNL started off with a pilot in one of their Dutch distribution centers. Now, the postal service is taking steps to further implement the technology.
The parking garage sensor is another example of how TWTG is making cities smarter while reducing inefficiency. Sending less data is an important starting point. So, their parking sensor only communicates with the computer server when there’s car movement. This being in contrast with parking garages where traditional sensors constantly check whether a spot is available or occupied.
‘This means fewer connectivity requests, sending less data and is therefore cheaper’, says Kiran. Instead of thousands of messages per day, the server only receives a few to process. ‘This is technically very challenging, because the product needs to go into a deep sleep mode and again awake at just the right time.’ To detect if a car is leaving, the company uses a smart algorithm, infrared sensors and a magnetic field. Data can be sent using different wireless network protocols, such as Bluetooth Low Energy and Lora WAN. Here, Light Energy can also be used to power the sensory technology.
Today, several large companies are amongst TWTG’s client base. Besides PostNL there’s Vopak, Eneco, Eriks, ABB and T-Mobile. A lot has changed in a short period of time, Kiran recalls. ‘Up until two years ago we were widely involved in creating proofs of concept. Companies came to us with an idea, we developed something really cool, they said “thank you” and the result ended up somewhere on top of a shelf’, he says with some exaggeration.
Nowadays these companies call on the R&D agency for getting real insights in crucial business processes. For instance, TWTG developed a sensory technology which can be placed in a service pipe to gather data about possible malfunctions. A partner then developed the algorithms to actually predict such an event. ‘It’s a completely different way of thinking’, Kiran states. ‘The perspective is tilted from passive to active monitoring. That’s what makes IoT so damn interesting.’
Another consequence is that customers increasingly want to deploy what TWTG comes up with on a large scale. ‘Our software and hardware engineers must therefore think in fully functioning products, ready for mass production. This means working together with partners who are capable of producing many thousands of trackers and sensors. Not just a few.’ It also means a stronger focus on the end product, right from the start, Lips adds. ‘No more proof of concepts. We now only accept projects under the promise that a product will hit the market. We’ve proven ourselves.’
Lips and Kiran don’t want to call it a downside, but the success of the company means less playfull projects during office hours. ‘Inventing a special DJ-button for the iPad and selling it on Kickstarter is something we don’t do anymore’, says the latter. It’s the direct result of a clearer focus, larger customers and less time available. On the other hand, they can go deeper now.
Different also is that the challenges the company faces often come from clear problem owners, such as Vopak or Pipelife. Demanding customers, for whom TWTG’s developers have to give everything they’ve got. Kiran: ‘This allows them to work on cutting edge innovations and technology.’ In some cases it will be at the expense of open source development, which TWTG has made name for in recent years. From a competition perspective, multinationals are less inclined to share innovations with the public.
Recently, TWTG took its first steps abroad. The R&D company participated in different trade missions, organized by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO). This organization, part of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate, gives them advice on how to grow. The United States is one of the countries where TWTG wants to gain a foothold. ‘We traveled in the wake of our King Willem-Alexander. For us “the way to go”’, Kiran says. Not coincidentally this is the company’s unofficial name and, of course, a declension of TWTG.