Interview #3: Smart power sockets by Netio
12 March 2021
I wish a wonderful day to all listeners of our Internet of Things channel. I invited Jan Řehák from Netio products and HW Group to today's interview.
Jan, could you tell us what your company deals with?
Hi Ivona. Our company manufactures something like smart sockets or IoT sockets or we can call it any other way. But basically, it's a box for 230 V, it has 1 to 8 outputs, in different versions. It could be a socket into a wall, or it could be a socket used for computers called C13. These sockets are measured and switched remotely. Most products are measured and switched via Ethernet, either via LAN (RJ-45 - classic Ethernet cable) or Wi-Fi, as we all know from our mobile phones and laptops today, and at the same time, among other things, we have one model that can be connected to an IQRF network.
It's something completely different. The LAN or Wi-Fi is understandable at first glance for the average user. The user knows what he is buying, he knows what he wants from it, and even a relatively ordinary, basically educated user is able to install it very quickly. The IQRF socket is more of a project matter at the moment, or for a more informed user who knows exactly what he is looking for and what he wants. But for him, thanks to the support of the IQRF Alliance, it works historically very well and very easily. In terms of applications, IQRF is very good when you need to install the socket somewhere and you don't want to solve range problems. Because let's face it, Wi-Fi doesn't work best in those industrial spaces. While currently, 868 MHz works very well, and in IQRF it works extremely well. There is clear feedback from those installations, we are surprised, that they do not have to use repeaters, it works well without them.
And in what areas, fields, is the IQRF socket variant often used?
So, for example, we have quite a large demand for a project in laboratories. We already have one project in laboratories implemented on Wi-Fi, but the point was that the integrator did not have the ability to integrate IQRF and he didn't even matter at the time. After some experience, another integrator is already very interested in IQRF, because he knows exactly that Wi-Fi has its limitations. Wi-Fi is a great technology in one room or in three or four rooms on one floor, but it's definitely not a good technology in a shopping mall, for example. Customer feedback is that if you have an installation where a lot of people use mobile phones, forget Wi-Fi and always use an Ethernet cable with RJ-45. And we tell those customers, OK, you're right, Wi-Fi isn't good for these apps, but we can offer you IQRF because it's good for it, and it'll work fine there. It depends on the customer and on his country if he wants to hear more about it.
To the simplicity of connection. I have to praise the IQRF here for the last 4 or 5 years, when there was a very beneficial standardization of the principle of what sensors are, that those sensors have some values, units, so from the initial phase around 2015, when you had a serial line here and you sent what you wanted, we got to the phase, where a standardized sensor with standardized units are available, we know clearly that the output is volts, watts or ampers, and we are able to detect it in some way and we are able to work with it in some standard way. And that's a big difference, which makes IQRF products more interesting for some larger projects.
Yes, the standard for interoperable devices simplifies everything. And by the way, your tutorials are perfectly understandable.
Do you plan to release more products with IQRF technology?
We have an expansion module ready, and we face three things. The first thing is certification because all our products work at 230 volts, so they must be certified, and those certifications need to be done in some final hardware form, so at the moment we have a module with wifi and ethernet, and we want to replace it, we need to do the certification again, so it's a bit problematic. So if we don't have it with IQRF at the time we certify our standard product, it's must be done later and it's a little expensive.
The second problem is insufficient memory in the IQRF modules because we use it almost to the last byte, but this will hopefully be solved by a new version of the IQRF module.
The third problem is the lack of customers who would come and say we need to measure electricity and we want to have a meter connected by IQRF. And I'm honestly very surprised because IQRF is an absolutely ingenious technology for the level of the home, property management or something like that. I, when I'm with a customer who says, well, such obscure technology, I always tell him: no, you haven't heard about EnOcean, etc., until someone did big projects with it, and in the beginning, it was also some kind of obscure technology. And the alliance is very similar, the principles are very similar. And every time I need to take that customer's breath away, I tell him: I saw their house in Jičín... Do you know how many sensors are there that work side by side in parallel? And now I will ask you, Ivona, do you know how many devices you have running in your house in Jičín?
Well, due to the constant development and testing, there will be hundreds of devices...
There are not hundreds, there are thousands! About two years ago I visited HQ in Jicin, and I counted 2,300 devices on different channels in the various networks, at one place. And the house is not that big, it's not a complex, it's not a block of flats. This is a house at maybe 1200 square meters?
That would be death on the wifi...
It would be a problem if there would be only 50 of those people.
Well, IQRF is a technology that is relatively slow, ie. it is not possible to pull some large volumes of data through it, the response is not always in the order of milliseconds, sometimes it takes a little longer, but for technological things, it is absolutely perfect. And for reading electricity meters and similar measurements in some real practice, in some areas, it's the best technology I know. Only the price of the module is a bit higher than on other frequencies, but we also know that it is 868 MHz. Anyone who has ever tried to get a signal from a drain on a different frequency by radio knows that it is difficult also for the 868. I saw some installations with IQRF, which were used to control the lights, and I was quite surprised that in the relatively large hall, which was metal, there were some mechanical machine tools, sometimes there were some sparks, and there worked about 50-60 lights in the hall in the whole, and without a single repeater. The mesh feature of that network makes it so robust and stable, and that's the second argument I use - if you have Bluetooth, every other sensor, device, causes it to not work rather than work. IQRF is the only technology I know in which every additional sensor causes things will work better. And property managers, people around the building management system think about this. Because this is their problem. Most radio technology systems, when there are too many products in one place, basically stop working.
Sure, congestion is a problem. In IQRF with its redundancy, you increase coverage with more devices and it all works more reliably.
I always say, look, in IQRF when you turn it on, it will work, and if it won't, you just take a Gateway, connect it there, or send it to a customer in a box and he puts it there, someone remotely scans the network and maybe he recommends to move the network to another channel and it will work better because on the current channel there your weather station or something similar broadcasts and interferes with it. But the vast majority of networks works, and if it doesn't, the first option is to put a repeater in there, which will help a lot. I haven't heard of a customer where the repeater wouldn't help. It is an extremely robust and extremely durable technology for buildings and very good for long-term use, even on the 868, which are today quite congested because every car key and every alarm and many other things which we do not know at all they broadcast on this frequency. And that's why you need to have something robust.
It is always an art to find the right technology for a given application, and then it can all work great.
Why do we have IQRF in only one product? The size of the chip, the small demand from customers, and in our case, we have to have a working version when we certify it because later there are problems with it.
Do you collaborate with any other companies on the development of products, applications, or even entire solutions?
Yes, for sure... Netio is a company that is literally obsessed with integration. After all, just look at the NETIO products website, click on the Support and third-party applications page. But we are really quite extreme in this field, we currently have about 63 systems we know Netio works with. We have a great connection to all other systems. We have IT customers who want to monitor the consumption of their servers, or measure whether they have lost a connection or something similar, this is one big area of applications. Then there is the second big area - food, refrigerator monitoring, consumption-based detection.
Now we are currently solving a project in which the customer has about 900 displays, for so-called digital signage. In this case, there are two displays in V-shape hanging in shopping malls in France, Spain, under a roof. There hang, for example, 30-40 screens with various advertisements for various products that you can buy, displays have android inside and a signal goes via HDMI. Those screens stop sometimes, and the customer detects this basically on a change in consumption. When this happens, an alert is sent somewhere to the headquarters, from where the screen is turned off and on remotely, thus correcting it. It usually takes 1-4 minutes, so the shopping customer usually doesn't notice the difference.
So these are, for example, applications where we detect the behavior of various things from consumption, turn on some multimedia things, or save energy of various stands or kiosks at night, etc.
These are quite typical applications for Netio.
Thanks to interoperability, we treat IQRF device as a native device, ie behind us, there is a Gateway, which collects data as an interoperable product... You can say something about the cooperation with other manufacturers...
I thought whether you are cooperating with any other partners in the field of IQRF Alliance, on joint projects. You have been in the alliance for more than two years, so you probably already have some experience...
I would recommend everyone to meet us at a meeting of the IQRF Alliance. It is such a technological trust of the Czech Republic. Sometimes it takes place abroad. I've been to one or two such events in London that weren't bad at all. There you can understand how others work with known things, or how the same things work completely differently. There are new companies, which is great. It's good to meet people across the IoT segment, and for companies that do different things and need some communication, it's extremely interesting. This definitely allows some connections in this field. Honestly, I don't remember a big project that we would implement with someone, but it certainly helps us to be in contact with people from the industry, and I can only personally recommend it to everyone.
An example can be me when I am willing to go for three hours to Hustopeče for a half-day event and back the next morning. Great event in the wine cellar...
There is an interesting difference between the community in Britain and in the Czech Republic. Things are done differently there than in the Czech Republic. Completely different things are important for integration. Our customer recently explained to me the approach to integrations. They are done in two ways, in way of Western Europe without Germany, and in Eastern Europe plus Germany. They do it in such a way that they want to have everything under 100% control and the company does it all by itself. With the British approach, I like that they are able to spend money on something that will greatly increase reliability and we will not talk about a cheap solution at all, because when someone has to go there, it is so terribly expensive that it doesn't matter what it costs. Mainly to make it reliable.
And speaking of the benefits, I must mention that we have learned NodeRed thanks to the IQRF Alliance. I would like to thank Vojta from JoTio for teaching us NodeRed. It's such a lego for IoT people. You can imagine it like bubbles connected with lines, as we knew from PLC, just that there is no 1/0 running after those lines, but JSON commands and each bubble does something. And it can be run both on a Raspberry and on various gateways that have IQRF inside. They are such universal data forks. For example, data from the IQRF gateway can be transferred via SNMP, Modbus, there are some conditions, switches, it can be visualized in a simple graph.
Thanks to the IQRF Alliance, which connects its members, perhaps the best exhibition I have experienced in the last four years was in London, an exhibition focused on building management systems. And I haven't experienced for a long time not to go for coffee for 4 or 5 hours on such an event. It was really great. So even the events attended by the IQRF Alliance are such a good pre-selection.
We try to choose optimal events and our members can then go with us, for some reasonable shared costs.
What are your expectations for further development in IoT? If the expected boom will come, as a huge number of devices was predicted years ago.
I haven't used the name IoT for a long time, because it means everything and nothing... Let's divide a few types of IoT or the Internet of Things. Let's divide the commercial world. B2C, like a T-shirt that tells me how much I've sweated, smartwatches, which are maybe IoT, maybe not, and more, let's just skip the consumer world at this point.
There used to be the acronym M2M, machine-to-machine, which when it didn't work, the marketing wizards called it IoT and inflated all the numbers 10 times and said - so M2M worked out for 1% we predicted, so now we'll call it IoT and everything will be 10 times bigger.
In the final, just 2 things were successful in M2M, namely vehicle tracking, guarding where each vehicle is, and remote readings from electricity meters and other product meters. It looks very similar in IoT today. What is a great benefit in IoT is that various open standards are starting, such as IQRF interoperability. Many people expect great results, but they will probably not be fulfilled. The unrealistic expectation that many have is that those boxes, those sensors, will cost $ 50. They certainly cost such somewhere, in a certain version, but the price does not include what the system integrator included in the old world, namely the analysis of the project, the analysis of needs. I work with IoT projects every day and it's always the same. A customer who doesn't know what he wants comes, wants to do something, can't define it clearly, and doesn't have the money in his budget for the analysis. If we don't do the analysis, then we have a lot of boxes for $ 50, but if we sum all costs, we find that one box costs $ 450, if we include all the additional costs, all the mistakes, and traveling.
IoT is a topic for a few big companies, in which we can manufacture thousands and tens of thousands of those pieces, that those ancillary costs will fall apart to the level of $ 5 per box for $ 50. Then it can work. For all those small customers, creating the system is expensive. It costs time and one must understand it. One thing is the technology itself. There is definitely great Sigfox technology, there is definitely great LoRa technology that is definitely suitable for something. But not for everything. There are applications where I need to know that data has been delivered and in these cases, it is not good to use these technologies. We can use LoRa within one house, it's a pretty usable application, why not. And now let's look at it from the point of view of customers who use it for readings of water meters, gas meters and similar. Within one area yes, great. But someone has to build the network, someone has to operate it, someone has to guarantee that the network will work, even if the water meter is in a basement or another inaccessible place, in a canal. Someone has to check it on the spot. Let's say we have a network. Then the water meters have to send data somewhere. The data must be backed up and displayed in some way. We need to know that the battery in the particular water meter is low. Then send someone there to exchange it. And when you finish it and sum all costs, you will find that the price of those water meters is about 20-30% of the total project costs. And when a customer thinks it's 80% of the project, is it realistic to finish the project with him? Then such projects fail when the customer does not know what he wants and after four iterations he no longer has the money to complete it. Project analysis is very important. This includes also repeated analysis after technology selection. IoT tempts to start creating something right away, and then you may not know where the data is going, how often they should be collected, that it doesn't have to be every second, but maybe only once an hour, which is quite a fundamental difference.
In the case of sockets, the customer often comes and says why I should pay CZK 5,000 for a socket here when I can buy a similar one here, a socket from China for half, it has a beautiful mobile application and it has a cloud for free, and you offer it paid. Yes, you can buy such a socket, it's not a problem. However, if you test a socket and try to turn it on twice, 3 times every second, plug it in empty, or with a simple LED light, you will find that most of the cheaper devices will die after 300, 400 pushes. Or it may happen that you turn on socket 1 and socket 2 and 3 will turn on. And it does not have to be the electric motor that is connected directly to it, and the relays will be damaged, it could be just the LED and the switching power supply. We at Netio deal with these things. We have zero switchings, thanks to which our relay lasts basically 10 times longer. We release firmware, so the devices can be updated, we also support the cloud for things that were produced by the previous company Koukám between 2013-2015, we also support old protocols. This is different from other Chinese products, where products must work here and now but no backward compatibility is addressed. Or that it should work the same over the entire temperature range, for example from -20 to + 60/70 ° C.
Do you want to turn on the lights on the Christmas tree at home? There I have a tree for 500, lights also for 500, so I probably won't buy a socket for 5000. But when I want to control some audio-video systems in a showroom, in a multimedia hall, if I want to switch on the audio system in the cinema, a simple wending machine for drinks, a massage chair, or other things that make money, I want to be sure that it is solved so that I do not have to go there to reset it.
I wish we can make personal meetups in IQRF, I wish new modules with more memory were available and there were more companies in the ecosystem so that we could connect other sensors from the partner portfolio.
Thanks for the interview.
The happy and successful year 2021.