Vendor to Watch: PsiKick Innovates in the Industrial IoT
The Industrial IoT (IIoT) claims the most installed IoT devices in the market, and the growth opportunities seem limitless. One issue slows that growth in many cases, though: power.
As the Internet of Things spreads to more and more corners of technology, a common detail links Fitbits, smart TVs, and Nest thermostats: They all need power of some kind. TVs and thermostats connect to a home’s electrical wiring. Fitbits use rechargeable batteries, just like your phone, tablet, and laptop.
IIoT sensors have the same power requirements. IIoT environments, like factories, often use thousands and thousands of such devices, some of which are in extremely awkward or hazardous locations. Running AC power or changing batteries every year or two on all that hardware is darn close to impossible.
A Self-Powered Breakthrough
PsiKick, with offices in Santa Clara, Calif., Ann Arbor, Mich., and Charlottesville, Va., received Series A funding from investors in November 2015. That underwrote the development of a new, low-power chip that has fundamentally changed energy consumption requirements, according to CEO Bob Nunn.
“Two professors worked to lower chip power consumption while they were at MIT,” says Nunn. Continuing research at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and at the University of Virginia (Charlottesville) led to a power chip designed in Silicon Valley (Santa Clara). “We developed an always-on radio that runs on 200 nanowatts.” A nanowatt is one-billionth of a watt.
What about technologies like ultra-low-power Bluetooth? “That needs a thousand times more power than our chip,” says Nunn.
Traditional networking protocols need lots of power comparatively too, so PsiKick developed its own wireless network called Psi-Fi. A Smart Sense Node (S2N) developed by PsiKick connects to temperature sensors (more sensor types will be added) and communicates to a Control Node (CN). CNs today communicate with hundreds of S2Ns but will manage thousands in the future. The CNs send data over any standard backhaul network in use at the factory, such as Wi-Fi, LTE, or Ethernet. And a PsiKick Cloud Dashboard monitors and analyzes the information for the customer.
Success with Steam Traps
Nunn says the company looked for a “tip of the spear” introduction to factory monitoring and settled on steam traps. When those traps blow open and vent steam, the lost energy adds up quickly. The pilot factory for their testing, one of many run by a huge American manufacturer, has 3,800 steam traps. Lost energy wastes about $5 million in that one plant when a steam trap fails, which happens every three to five years.
By placing a thermistor to measure temperature on both sides of a steam trap, PsiKick can see immediately when a failure occurs. The sensors connect to a Smart Sense Node powered by a Thermal Electro Generator (TEG) that’s attached to a steam pipe. A TEG is often called a Seebeck Generator after Thomas Johann Seebeck, who discovered in 1821 that temperature differences between two dissimilar conductors can create an electrical current.
PsiKick charges a flat fee of $285 for each monitored steam trap and supplies all the associated hardware, cloud-based analytics, and sub-gigahertz networking. When completely installed, the beta factory will pay about $1 million to monitor its steam traps and save about $5 million.
While the steam trap market alone is worth about $10 billion, says Nunn, that’s only the start. “Every prospect we meet with wants to expand and talk about monitoring heat exchangers, motors, and more.” PsiKick’s beta customer has a total of more than 27,000 steam traps in all its factories and refineries.
Other methods of generating the small amount of energy needed to run PsiKick hardware are in development as well. For example, vibrations and light, even indoors, can provide enough energy to power PsiKick’s S2N devices.
PsiKick’s revenues were about $2 million in 2017 and 2018, adds Nunn, who expects to exceed $5 million this year and $25 million the year after.
The enormous scale of the market PsiKick is targeting guarantees that it will need partners. Nunn talks with other industrial monitoring companies and integrators regularly and is looking for service organizations that can make things easier for his customers. “Some clients won’t let anyone else in their factory, so we try to help them out,” he says.
No matter what else happens, though, a line of batteryless IIoT sensors will likely hold a great deal of appeal to a great number of factories. That’s why the IIoT remains the hottest IoT market.
James E. Gaskin is the IoT content concierge for IoTPlaybook, and writes books, articles, and jokes about technology from the Dallas area.