Interview #9: ZAT in industry
28 July 2021
Source: More on Soundcloud
Hello to all listeners of our channel. In today's episode, I would like to welcome Petr Hasman, a representative of ZAT company. Hello Petr.
Hello, thank you for the invitation.
Can you introduce our listeners to what your company does? You seem to be one of the world's leading players in automation, focusing heavily on nuclear power plants.
That's right, I'll try to shortly introduce you to what's in ZAT's remit and what we're capable of because if I had to go into some bigger detail, we'd probably fill in the whole box, which isn't exactly the goal. But I'll try anyway, to at least give you an idea.
The company was founded in 1962 in Příbram, as part of a uranium industry development centre, which brings us a little far from the topic, which we will be discussing later. We are a company that develops, manufactures, and deploys a control system for industry. I deliberately say "for industry" when I'm explaining to someone for the first time what we are doing because our abilities range from the management of a wastewater treatment plant to 37 references in the management of a block of nuclear power plants around the world. More or less, we deal with everything that is in between.
That's a huge variance. How do you see energetics and Internet of Things relate to each other?
We discussed at our company 5-6 years ago, whether IoT, which began to be more known and conferences sprang up like mushrooms, is something that our company could be interested in. We started to ask around, listen and look for the experience that turned out to be the first at that time, and since we are a company that deals with management, whatever we manage, we can only manage as well as good and precise the information we have is. Therefore, IoT came to us as a good source of additional information over another channel and another way of wireless data collection.
Sure, it can have many names, Industry 4.0 or IoT, but basically, automation and smart management have been addressed by companies years before, before these terms even came up.
It's true, we can't forget some GSM transmissions, which are equal to wireless ones and are here for about as long as we're able to make a phone call, an estimated 30 years. Of course, there are undeniable advantages to IoT options, which you certainly talked about with the guests before me, but some speed of deployment, affordability are indisputable factors for me, because it is a technology that has found its place in the world and will make it for itself more and more.
Will you acquaint listeners with some interesting IoT projects that you are solving in ZAT?
When we started gaining competence around IoT, we said that for us it is a technology that we are definitely going to use in the industry because our customer is 99% in the industry, so we did not need to look for a new one elsewhere.
Of course, the number of places that need measurement, eg any heating plant or power plant, is plentiful, not only in their area. One typical example is from the source (power plant, heating plant) to the pipeline route, we supply energy to consumers with, there are a lot of technologies that are either measured and transmitted because there are some serious technologies that deserve monitoring and then there are a lot of technologies, which are not transmitted and but are used to make control measurements. Of course, these technologies offer to communicate and somehow transfer through a suitable transmission layer and thus get better information about the distribution route, whether it is electricity, gas, petroleum or hot water. Then there are several transfer points, the factoring ones, which perhaps we can all imagine a little better, like electricity meters, gas meters, or calorimetric meters. Not all of these meters are capable of communication, and once a month, or once a year, people from the appropriate energy units have to visit to get the information themselves, there is great potential to create a transmission layer to prevent this from happening, and for this information to be online.
To be immediately available and without the need for human physical involvement.
That's right, and we see potential in that. Of course, we are probably not the only ones, but we now have the answer to all types of technologies, so we are able to enhance meters that communicate in some way by a module that transmits all information at a preset interval to the control room or to those eyes that need to see it.
And do you make, let's say, the electronics for meters yourself or do you use partners?
We struggled with this question 4-5 years ago, given that we have our own production capacities and we manufacture our own control system electronics, we are able to make a lot of things, but we do not want to invent a bicycle. If there is a partner in Europe or here in the Czech Republic (we are not exactly looking for a partnership with China) and has a product that suits us, we will be happy to use his services.
We met at the IQRF Alliance, you may have already met some partners there.
Certainly, if I should mention specifically, we are in contact with Mr Žáček from Protronix, because we use his products and implement them in our solutions. There are way more than that, I would not like to forget someone, but this is one of the first representatives that comes to mind.
When I imagine a house that has a lot of water meters, for example, these smart water meters are now equipped with some wireless technology, but a technician with a receiver still has to come to the house and collect data from them. Isn't there a solution based on IQRF topology, where there would be a gateway in the house that would automatically communicate with the water meters and send data through the uplink to the headquarters?
Actually, you're right, maybe before I answer your question, I'll go back a bit to the time when our beginnings with IoT were such that we said to ourselves: „Let's find the most ideal transmission layer, learn it perfectly, use it and we will offer it to our customers." So apart from IQRF, we went through all the other similar wireless layers and found that such a layer simply doesn't exist. The IQRF layer that we use, just as you say, is used at times when the customer needs to obtain information at short distances in the premises or building and there are more, for example, water meters or gas meters.
What we are currently working on and have with colleagues on the table, is possible to optimally solve via IQRF technology and if we then need to transfer the data to a central control room, which is miles away, we can follow up with Narrowband or some other technology that more easily overcomes large distances. So we combine transmission layers, but typically when we collect locally, we use IQRF.
And don't you need to find a partner to solve the gas and water meters, or are you able to solve this yourself?
We have already found our partners, we still don't get into the big tens of thousands of realizations, where it would be worthwhile for us to enter with our own hardware manufacturer. What can I say, the purchase prices of modules that we can produce, or that our partners are able to produce, is enough for us for the needs of implementations. We have some of our own products that we made, but we made them only because we simply did not find a suitable product that would be on the market in the Czech Republic or the European Union.
And do you have a wireless platform into which is that data somehow centrally collected?
We launched the SimONet product, which is a shortcut for "Simply online", for a long time we were looking for a platform that could process various types of inputs. We tried Grafan, like everyone else, we tried Azure and IBM Watson, and none of these products were bad. They did what we needed to some extent, but we came across one problem there, at least in our eyes, that if we offered a project, a solution and wanted to carry it out at the customer's site, we were not able to arrange a sufficient price policy. Pricing policy and the fact that we were able to pilot a solution and sell it, so it was very difficult for us to calculate how much the operation would cost in three or five years.
We thought for so long until (with the help of our colleagues from Benešov, our subsidiary, which is now part of ZAT) we made the SimONet platform, which has unlimited inputs from below. We are able to process information from IQRF networks, from Narrowband, in short from any source, whether IoT or not. We can connect to different databases and then visualize the data in a meaningful way for the customer.
So then, in fact, the products communicate with each other, regardless of the platform.
Exactly. It is not just a visualization platform, as we often mistakenly talk about it, it is a platform that can analyze data, do some calculations on it, look for connections and at the same time use it for what we do best in ZAT, and that is management.
Sure, so it is two-way traffic.
In other words, it's your own cloud solution.
It is a cloud solution, we did some research among our senior customers, because coming up with the offer of a cloud solution was a heroic act a few years ago, which was not always, especially among our customers, met with a positive response. With some enlightenment and some discussion about this issue, we have chosen one code provider and we now run this solution above him.
Above who exactly?
In the end, it probably won't come as a surprise, it's Google. We offered other options too, but in short, this one came to us and our customers as the most acceptable.
So the reliability, the distribution of servers around the world...
Mainly the migrability, not everywhere is easy, if I choose a provider, to transfer the data somewhere else after a while. What will happen in a year, in three or in five is difficult to predict.
So your customers aren't worried that they'll lose their data or that someone would access it illegally?
That's right, I think those fears are still here and will be for a while, but it's important to talk about it, ask questions and get answers. I think a cloud solution, not always, but I argue that in most cases, it's the right solution.
Given that we are still in the industry, I can't imagine my colleagues who are currently dealing with nuclear energy switching to a cloud solution in the case of critical infrastructure, but I still claim that IoT technologies are used even in Dukovany... For example, not for the control and operation of fuel rods in the reactor, but for the secondary collection of data and information that is worth transferring, visualizing and processing, there is simply still a lot and it is not critical data.
Now we are using the cloud with SimONet, but if I have up-to-date information, by the end of this year we could have an "on-premise" solution, ie for deployment directly at the customer. And if the customer is so demanding, and they are, then we are ready to be able to deploy this solution directly to the customer and the data will remain directly under the roof.
What is your idea of further developments in the field of intelligent monitoring and case management?
Again, I will be talking mainly about industrial matters. With the experience we have gained, we also entered the commercial sphere and there we may find a slightly better answer. Even thanks to IQRF, we are now getting to the buildings, where we can offer some data collection and monitoring with IoT, that was at least the beginning. Not that the field is unploughed, but just as a lot of companies focus on single-family homes and offer a connection to Google Assistant and voice control, we feel the potential at the level of companies, businesses, schools and authorities.
Only in this quick list, I can already imagine that there are thousands of these buildings in our republic. It's not solved everywhere in these buildings, we think that there is still room for improvement and just from the places where we got to ourselves, we know that there is general use for wireless technology.
None of us wants to pull strips into the company to find out what the temperature is in this or that room, or what the humidity or CO2 is, as I've said in connection with Mr Žáček.
There are surely a lot of products that you can use.
That's right, and why we actually do the measurement and why we are often in demand is because we offer our product in levels. The first level is that we find out the real state, which of course sounds good to the client's ears, that we do not offer a solution to the problem offhand, but we find out if there even is a problem at all. So far, what I have encountered and what buildings I have been in, has usually always confirmed to us that there really is some kind of a problem. Usually, we found out just by starting to measure, for example, temperature, humidity, or CO2.
Since we are first able to quickly deploy measurements, we also quickly know the actual condition of the building. Then it is in consultation with the operator or owner of the object when they find out what temperatures their people work in and are often even more surprised what temperatures are there at night or on the weekends.
Which is a task for us that we can fulfill thanks to SimONet, where we not only show the real state, but we can configure the technologies that are in the building to start behaving differently. To behave differently is in most cases equal to save. The saving spell always works in these places.
Certainly. I think this is probably one of the first triggers of this innovative thinking. I'll save money because I don't have too much water leaking from a cracked pipe or energy won't burn through for heating or lighting when no one is there.
The word saving works for the owners and operators, but the word quality can work just as well when we sometimes spend 70 – 80% of the time in various spaces. For example in school, a significant number of parents are not even interested in how much their school is able to save, but they are interested in whether their children sit in adequate conditions.
Usually, when we start measuring the temperature with the intention of saving, we get to the fact that the jointly measured humidity is 15 – 18% when it should be 30 – 65%. Sometimes when we go start a project, we learn information we didn't even intend to. I meet with differing views on this subject, when we talked about the possibility of measuring CO2 with one principal, she exclaimed enthusiastically that this is great information that they will be able to put on their websites to declare that in classes where children spend time, is everything okay. It's one point of view, but as I say, there are several.
And have you already tried it at that school?
We have, it's all measured, we even have regulated schools, it depends on what technologies are in the particular object. If there is a ventilation system, then of course the measured data can be connected to it and I can then influence it. By monitoring, I communicate with the ventilation system and when needed I can ventilate.
If there is air conditioning in the summer months, then I can communicate with the air conditioning, in the winter months it is most often the regulation of heating, which of course proves to be the most significant in matters of saving. It is not always appropriate to connect to the boiler room or the base heat source, but it has proved successful to control the thermal heads of the radiators with wireless technology. With one layer I can find out the current state and more or less on the same layer I can tell the thermocouple to tighten or loosen, depending on whether there is a desired temperature or not.
We can complicate or simplify it, depends on the point of view, for example by starting to monitor open windows. As soon as someone in the class, usually a teacher, evaluates that it is necessary to ventilate, then there is no need to heat the room at that moment. It all goes hand in hand, it is a living organism that needs to be understood to manage it meaningfully.
Another experience from the last measurement and coincidentally, also from the school environment, when we find that the humidity is not completely optimal, then we can offer the principal a suitable humidifier, which is placed in the classroom, but it's an investment. Humidifying a class is not always easy with a standard humidifier, but we have agreed on a solution and with the investment of a few hundred crowns they have those ceramic humidifiers that hang on a radiator. In one class it can be an investment of 300 or up to 500 crowns. Immediately from the next measured hour, it's already apparent that the humidity increases, so it's not always just about complicated measurement, monitoring, and technology, but sometimes just common sense is enough and the moisture is simply allowed to get into the classroom with water hanging on a radiator.
It is necessary to talk about it, and especially to educate society. How is the use of technology and smart measurement in - and not only - buildings influenced by the covid pandemic?
As a company with approximately 350 employees, although we are divided into several buildings in Pilsen, Příbram, and Benešov, we are also dealing with it. Just as the government has its own PES, so we have our own in ZAT, it is subject to some rules on how to meet and not meet with people. Thanks to this, we have come up with a device that lets us know how many people are in ZAT and how many are in each meeting room, so it's just about measuring and measuring. I think the covid pandemic helps these technologies a little, but it's not like we're happy to have covid around us. No way.
That's for sure. What device are you measuring it with?
It is a module that does not use any camera system, due to GDPR. GDPR is a big spell, but it's a module that monitors the thermals of a room and uses it to evaluate whether two people or eight are sitting in a room for ten.
How do customers in the industrial sector react to new technologies if you look at it from a vantage point of several years?
By having a comparison for 4-5 years of being comfortable with the topic and visiting our customers in the industry, I think it is better. I will not rejoice here that everyone is already satisfied and understands these technologies, but both with the mentioned power plants, heating plants, and with other, higher customers, we are incomparably further today than where we were 3 years ago. If it goes on like that, it won't take even a year or two and the technology will not be just „tolerated" anymore.
In short, the advantage, the speed of deployment, the price, and the fact that I can get even more information from the control room than I currently have, is definitely a plus. I just don't see the disadvantages there, so yes, it's better.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Thank you for the invitation and I look forward to our next meeting.