Hexagon turns to Salesforce IoT Cloud to smarten up robots

Hexagon, a manufacturer that measures and monitors robot, and other, components is using the Salesforce IoT Cloud to better tune components to environmental factors

When Salesforce was looking for customers to pilot its internet of things (IoT) Cloud, unveiled by the software-as-a-service firm in September 2015, US-based Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence was happy to oblige.

Hexagon designs sensors and software that go into spaceships, aircraft and industrial robots. Sectors as diverse as construction, engineering, aerospace, automotive and medical rely on Hexagon to help ensure that parts for anything from medical devices to aircraft fit together accurately. Hexagon’s business is monitoring these sensors, making it a prime candidate for the IoT.

Hexagon initially took a cautious approach to the IoT phenomenon, because of the hype surounding it.

Milan Kocic, business development manager for user experience and innovation at Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence, says: “There is a truth behind the hype. Making sure you do the right things is more important than going headlong and trying to do everything at once. We looked at what is of particular importance to us.”

Before embarking on the IoT project, Hexagon carried out extensive user research, looking at how its customers were operating. An environmental issue was common among every customer.

“Our robots typically are highly susceptible to environmental changes. In the environments they operate in, it’s not so much the temperature, but the temperature changes over a certain time that affects accuracy. They’re also susceptible to vibration, and if someone crashes the robots we have to know about it because it could cause damage internally,” Kocic says.

“Today our customers use notebooks or temperature read-outs to monitor these changes, and technically speaking they’re meaningless because they just tell them the temperature at the time. We asked the customers: if we were to create a product that could improve this, what would you do? And they said they’d buy one.”

Raspberry robots

Emboldened, Hexagon bought a Raspberry Pi kit with sensors from technology start-ups site SparkFund. The firm rigged up some robots using the Pi kit and demonstrated their ability to collect environmental data. The IoT project was born out of that. This led to Kocic and his team thinking about what they could do with the data collected.

Hexagon was already a Salesforce customer, using Sales Cloud for its core customer relationship management and Pardot for marketing automation. At around the same time, Hexagon was rolling out field service management software from Salesforce partner ServiceMax; menawhile, Salesforce was taking early steps in the IoT arena with Lightning. By coincidence, Kocic happened to be related to somebody who works at Salesforce.

“He was one of the lead developers on the Lightning team, and we started talking. He was very into IoT stuff, so we started looking into whether is there any correlation,” Kocic adds.

This had led to Hexagon demoing one of its robots with integration into Salesforce at Dreamforce 2014, showing how it could run the machine via a mobile app and trigger events. IoT Cloud did not exist at the time, so Hexagon just used the Salesforce development platform and a couple of custom scripts to create the demo robot.

“Once we gather a lot of data, we can become more predictive in nature, but right now everything we do is very reactive”

Milan Kocic, Hexagon

Salesforce’s interest was based on wanting to get into manufacturing. During the show, Salesforce approached Hexagon and revealed the initial concept of the IoT Cloud, aimed at letting firms connect data from the IoT with customer information.

This sparked Kocic’s interest. “We have a device called MMS Pulse (pictured), which contains sensors for monitoring the environment. When an event happens it goes to the Salesforce cloud and essentially triggers and creates an internal alert in our Salesforce instance. Then we can either ignore it, react to it, keep it as a record, or send some sort of automation response to the customer.

“It is IFTT [if this then that]. We created several Salesforce orchestrations that allow us to create automated responses based on some kind of input from the field.”

Hexagon is currently running IoT Cloud in a test environment, using the MMS Pulse monitoring device that the firm released in late December 2015, connecting them back to the factory and monitoring the data.

“Right now we’re in the midst of integrating the whole IoT Cloud piece into the internal Salesforce. We’re developing into our own internal sandbox to make sure everything works. At some point, whenever anybody says IoT Cloud is live, we just flip the switch and then it goes into the actual instance of Salesforce,” Kocic says.

Hip and knee joints 

One of the first Hexagon customers to take up Pulse was Zimmer Biomet, a manufacturer of orthopedic hip and knee joints, which is also a Salesforce customer. Hexagon is working with Zimmer to identify the data it wants, to see if the firms could connect the two instances of Salesforce. However, Kocic maintains that most customers will not be joint Salesforce customers, and nor will they have to be.

“I’m sure Salesforce will hope that they are customers at some point, but for us, for our needs, that is not a necessity,” he says.

“Once we gather a lot of data, we can become more predictive in nature, but right now everything we do is very reactive. A machine works, a machine breaks, somebody calls us, they wait, we show up, we order a part. Most manufacturing companies would like to avoid this.”

One area where Kocic would like to see improvements specifically with IoT Cloud is in analytics. While Hexagon is not looking for anything too advanced, it would like to be able to extract more valuable information from the data collected.

“Take an OEM like Ford. It has hundreds of plants, and right now if we were connecting all those hundreds of plants I’m just getting a lump bunch of data and I have to figure out what the stuff is,” he says.

“We would like for them to allow us to say, ‘give me North America, give me Flint, give me Detroit’, wherever the plants are, ‘and let me zero in where the actual problems are occurring, versus getting the generic, global stuff’. Global stuff is not unimportant, but in our world we would like to get much more granular, to get where the actual problems are and where they're leading from.”

For more about the Salesforce IoT cloud

Salesforce is working on these analytics tools, says Kocic. “And everything else we’ve encountered has been relatively simple to implement. Usually when you do this kind of implementation, it requires 10 guys and six months. I have literally one guy who’s done most of the work, and it hasn’t taken us too long to integrate the data.”

Hexagon is not currently being charged for its use of IoT Cloud as it is a beta product. IoT Cloud is set to be launched later in 2016, with pricing to be announced at the time. Salesforce is using the project as a test case to help decide on charging models for its own customers.

Hexagon, meanwhile, plans to charge its customers a one-off fee for hardware and, once IoT Cloud is running, the firm will switch users to a subscription model charged at around $100 per month per machine for servicing and monitoring.

Although Hexagon is ploughing ahead with its IoT developments, Kocic advised other businesses to expect a slow process for any projects.

“Everything takes much, much longer than you think. It’s been my experience with development in general, but based on the hype of IoT, it seemed at the time that everybody was way ahead of where things actually are. As we’re getting deeper and deeper into it, we seem to be realising that we’re still at the infancy in many different ways.”

As a result of the disparity between IoT hype and reality, Hexagon lowered its expectations and adopted a slower rollout schedule.

“We’ve taken a slightly more cautious approach. I thought we would be further ahead than we are now,” Kocic adds.

He says this is partly down to manufacturers’ ingrained fears of connecting everything. Even once firms have accepted the need for widespread connection to obtain the real benefits of IoT technology, there is a lingering concern about security. For that reason, Hexagon is looking to expand and adapt its technical team to tackle security issues.

“I need somebody who knows how to secure data, how to secure connections, and your typical development resources are not of that kind,” Kocic says.

“So we are forced to go externally and find some expertise to help us with that. We have a whole development team in Switzerland that is working on a much larger, technical solution for us, which Pulse will be part of – those guys, together with us are trying to figure out some of these things we didn’t think about initially. We had a vague idea, but never really got into it as deeply as we are going to have to.”

This was last published in August 2016

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