Chiz Chikwendu, CTO of Cumulus Digital Systems, joins Ryan Chacon on the IoT For All Podcast to discuss bringing Bluetooth and digital tools to industrial sites. They talk about IIoT adoption, Bluetooth vs Wi-Fi for the industrial sector, the remaining challenges in digital tool adoption, the need for a standard for communication, getting field workers to use new tools, and how security is handled for industrial solutions.
About Chiz Chikwendu
Chiz Chikwendu is the Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder at Cumulus Digital Systems, leading a talented product development team. Prior to co-founding Cumulus, he was the Manager of the Electrical Engineering team at Shell TechWorks, Shell’s technology center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, focused on developing and deploying new technologies for Shell’s capital projects and operating facilities.
Before joining Shell, Chiz held various technical roles in the medical device and aerospace industries. Chiz earned his BS from Yale University and MS in Electrical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Interested in connecting with Chiz? Reach out on LinkedIn!
About Cumulus Digital Systems
Cumulus digitizes mission-critical construction and maintenance activities to ensure that work is done right the first time, every time. By integrating sensors, digital tools, and other IoT devices, their connected worker platform improves the productivity and quality of safety-critical workflows, such as bolt tightening, welding, and pressure testing.
To date, Cumulus has been used to manage over 7,000,0000 work completions across industries such as energy, construction, manufacturing, semiconductors, data centers, transportation, chemicals, renewables, and more. In addition to improving safety and sustainability, their technology also has been proven to reduce costs for quality control and data review by over 60%. Cumulus is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with additional offices in Houston, Texas and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and serves customers across the globe.
Key Questions and Topics from this Episode:
(01:35) Industrial IoT adoption
(15:14) How is security handled?
(21:30) Learn more and follow up
– [Ryan] Welcome Chiz to the IoT For All Podcast. Thanks for being here this week.
– [Chiz] Yeah, thanks for having me.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. Before we get into the conversation, I’d love it if you could give our audience a little background, kind of introduction about yourself and maybe introduction to the company as well.
– [Chiz] Sure. My name is Chiz Chikwendu, and I am the CTO at Cumulus Digital Systems. What Cumulus actually does is we develop platform software, which is consisted of a web application and mobile application. And it helps workers basically collect information that they need to do work on site in any sort of industrial setting.
So you can think of an oil facility like a refinery or chemical plant, or maybe even another construction facility like a data center, things like that. The application basically collects information and aggregates the data, sends it to cloud hosted platform, which essentially sanitizes the data, allows people to see it in real time in dashboards that are configured for let’s just say specific applications and types of users who consume the data.
So in a nutshell, that’s what Cumulus does. I’m sure we’ll get into that in a little bit. But did you want to hear more about me or is that good enough?
– [Ryan] Oh, that works, man. I appreciate it. That’s a good kind of context for our audience. So let me, let’s dive into some of the kind of talking points we wanted to cover today. Talk to me about, so let’s talk about a few industries, especially I know ones that you all are involved in, and let’s say industrial, construction, those kinds of things.
What has adopt, what has adoption been like when it comes to IoT solutions, Bluetooth technologies, other types of connectivity in that world? Just as a starting point for us.
– [Chiz] Just to frame that a little bit, our background is actually in oil and gas. So Cumulus got started as a startup from Shell. So we got spun out about four years ago. And to that point, what the project was tasked with doing was to figure out how to solve specific work quality issues but by applying digitalization and new sorts of technologies to improve the processes, efficiencies, et cetera.
When you come into an oil and gas framework, it’s regulated, but it’s not the kind of regulated industry that the FAA is, or even maybe the FDA because in those sort of environments, the regulated processes are known. If you want to fly an airplane, you know exactly what sorts of documentations and certifications you have to go through to demonstrate the efficacy of your system.
But here, we were breaking new ground. And we were discovering so to speak the comfort level of not only our customers but the industry with new types of technology. So oil and gas, we’re making money, right? Oil and gas, they do pretty good in terms of making money. So the impetus for change is, doesn’t come really from an economic standpoint because you have a lot of profit that you’re already making, so it’s really driven by things like efficiencies or the need to have efficiencies.
So to that end when we were introducing the new product to customers in oil and gas, there’s a bit of a hesitation to bring in IoT stuff because what you’re doing is you’re suggesting new infrastructure and inherently you’re suggesting new ways of doing certain things. And when you’re like coming up against the mantra, where if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you meet resistance.
So typically you’d have to find a way to not necessarily cut through that resistance but help people see the efficacy of what you’re bringing to them and how it’s going to make their jobs better. And in this case, it’s not so much so about selling the technology, but selling the benefits of what they get to have with the technology.
– [Ryan] From your experience on the kind of technology or the connectivity side in a lot of these use cases you’re involved in, is Bluetooth dominating? Is Wi-Fi? And if so, why one or the other? What kind of leads the way in most of these situations?
– [Chiz] It’s hard. It’s hard to figure out any one of them, really, because if you’re in a site like that, industrial site, whether it’s construction or just an oil refinery, think about going out to site. There’s really not a lot of connectivity, Wi-Fi based or even Bluetooth, none.
It just doesn’t exist. And not only that, because there’s a concern about things like intrinsic safety, I don’t want you to be carrying hardware that may cause an explosion in a building somewhere, there’s usually resistance to people carrying electronics around, right, that is not certified for that kind of thing.
So you wouldn’t see a lot of a lot of communication protocols, IoT platforms, Wi-Fi, or things like that. What you might see, you might see LTE connected devices, or you might see something like LoRa. Long range radio type applications if they have it. But we get into places where sites again is smarter.
Data is a new oil. It matters what kind of data I have today because it’s going to inform how efficient I am tomorrow. I want to know what people did today because I need to plan my work tomorrow. So all of those things are beginning to shift mindsets. And now you’re seeing people thinking about data infrastructure as part of setting up their sites and plants and things like that. While it’s still hard to get Wi-Fi going, it’s easier to sell Bluetooth for many reasons And the reasons include things like, well, safety, right? Security. Wi-Fi, people are worried that you can hack into it from anywhere. But with Bluetooth, there’s also a range, there’s a range limitation. And with BLE, there are also some sort of type protocols that you can include with your protocol, things like encryption, etc. That allows you to allay some of those security concerns that people may have. And then the other part of it is you don’t have a big infrastructure cost because you don’t have to pay somebody to come and get your whole site, which may be how many square miles big, get them full coverage for Wi-Fi.
No, you only have point to point Bluetooth coverage. And if that’s sufficient for you to aggregate data at the end of the day and then come back to your office where you have Wi-Fi and upload all that stuff or even use LTE devices, then that makes sense for people.
– [Ryan] So let me ask then from, even in how far we’ve come in this space and the adoption we’ve seen across different industries, what are you seeing as some of the gaps that remain in terms of adopting IoT technologies and solutions, other digital tools and stuff into the industries that you’re connected to?
– [Chiz] The one is infrastructure, right? The cost of infrastructure. Like if somebody were to go retrofit an existing refinery today, you want to get the whole site covered. It’s going to take a lot of money, to, and a lot of time to try to retrofit an entire site. So people are looking at things like, hey, can I retrofit lighting?
So for instance, if you’re in a site, lighting is everywhere. So could you convert your light fixtures and your light equipment into, let’s say, Wi-Fi routers or Wi-Fi extenders and things like that. And as you retrofit them, you can extend coverage in your sites, right? Things like that may help in the future, but one of the biggest hindrances you’re going to find is infrastructure, right?
Now, assuming you can get the infrastructure costs, then you have to answer the security questions. So most sites, enterprise sites, have concerns about the security operations of all of their data because by, by default, everything’s considered sensitive. So if things are sensitive, so you have to manage data flows and you have to manage access control, who has access to what, and then you now need to care about MDM because it’s oh, now I have, I own the sort of concerns about MDM management of all the devices that are out there, how can I track it?
And how do I know that nothing’s leaking out? So those three things, for instance, are really like huge hindrances when it comes to coming on site and trying to bring IoT devices on site to people. Now, it doesn’t mean that the need for these things aren’t recognized.
People are slowly recognizing the needs and the question becomes how do you lower the cost, the bar, the entry level bar for all of these sites to get to a place where they begin to adopt, measures to have connectivity on site.
– [Ryan] What are your thoughts on kind of the need for kind of a standard for communication in any kind of these environments and things that you’ve come across?
– [Chiz] Yeah, you’re definitely singing my song. There are need for standards, obviously. Wi-Fi itself is a standard that in terms of how you communicate, there’s nothing that needs to be changed. You just need to get people going. But if we want to talk about Bluetooth where I have a lot of vested interest when it comes to using tools that are connected, right?
Tools that do work, tools that can give you information and also form some sort of a third party slash independent assurance of the kind of work that you did because data is collected from your tools, then it becomes important to define data standards. In terms of how do I communicate the kind of data that this tool is getting in such a way that if a new vendor or let’s say a new third party person is coming on site and is doing work for your customer, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel and try to figure out exactly, how do I talk to this device? Or how do I talk to that tool? I need to know that there’s already a standard framework that is defined, and I don’t have to essentially develop new drivers and things like that. So I’ll give you another example, right? So one of the tools we use is a digital Bluetooth torque wrench made by one of the major manufacturers.
But they came up with a protocol. It’s a gap protocol that is specific to their tool, right? And it’s great because, okay, yeah, you can, you use the gap profile, which if everybody knows how to implement gap profiles on the Bluetooth device, they can do it. Only problem is, if I, if my customer decides I want to use a different torque range, it’s Bluetooth.
Why don’t you hook up to it? It’s not that simple because they have a completely different profile with the gap protocol. And now I have to write code and have my developers reinterpret that protocol and that data in terms of how the control parameters are and handshaking parameters, getting data, sending it up, doing the things that I needed to do.
From our usage standpoint or utility standpoint, the torque range is a torque range. So you should be able to have standard interfaces that you can define to communicate with it.
– [Ryan] It’s an interesting challenge to have to solve. There’s a lot of things going on there. What do you, what about your experience getting the end user, which is something we talk a lot about. We try to talk, there’s obviously the buyers and those who see the value of the tool but then there’s those who are actually gonna be using this on day to day.
So let’s talk about like more of the field workers in the sense of, they’re not maybe used to working with connected products, connected tools, connections, solutions, right? So how do you overcome that challenge or how can companies listening to this maybe approach that problem when that kind of arises?
– [Chiz] It’s a great question. Because in our field, we run into different different types of users with different levels of let’s say qualifications or comfort with smart devices. So one of the things we do is we try to design our application from a UI perspective with an eye to keeping the same sorts of standards that you use with cell phones or mobile devices, right?
In the world, you know that we have about 70% Android usage, and there are usually common UI factors and UX factors when it comes to design for both Android and iOS applications. So we target our mobile platform, A, to Android and iOS applications, things that people are usually familiar with.
Then to help them overcome some of those sorts of initial hesitation to using our tool, we tried to, again, demonstrate what they can gain from using the application. So for instance, right, some of these workers have to fill out paperwork at the end of the day about all the work that they’ve done.
So they have to document it. They have to jot it down. Pardon me. And they have to really try to remember some of these things that they’ve done to ensure that they have clear transparency. Now, the moment you say to them you don’t have to do any documentation, all you have to do is have this device, scan this, scan that, all the things that you used to handle by like handwriting at the end of the day, you don’t need to do that.
As soon as you’re done with your work, you’re actually truly done. And the device collects all the information that you need. So that usually helps get the message across. And then, early stages, we used to go out with the workers in the field as part of our usability studies, and we would talk to the workers, would say, okay, what do you need? How do we improve the software for you? One of the things they’ll tell us is, I don’t want to type too many times. So we try to eliminate as much as possible the need to type and enter data with manual typing and things like that.
So lots of uses for QR codes and cameras and things like that, right? So we’ve taken into account some of the concerns people typically have when it comes to having to learn something new. Try to make it as easy to learn but have a lot of material to train, but at the same time, give them a carrot.
And the carrot is, hey, you don’t have to do this at the end of the day because this helps you solve that problem.
– [Ryan] I guess it’s important for people to understand that because oftentimes the buyer is different from the end user, but these solutions are built for the end user, right? They’re the ones who are going to hopefully benefit from this. So the company overall benefits in whatever area they’re bringing the solution in to solve some problem.
So yeah, balancing and communicating that and having the buy in from each side because if you don’t have the buy in from both sides, you’re not going to get, you know, it’s not going to be adopted, people aren’t going to use, it’s going to be a wasted investment. So yeah, super good or super happy we were able to talk about that.
One other thing I wanted to ask you because obviously in the environments in which you all work, security is unique at times. Each company I’m assuming has different security practices, and you need to be able to communicate, bring in a technology and a solution like this or a tool like this that there are going to be new risks, there are going to be new vulnerabilities that could come up.
How is that communicated? And how is that handled to ensure that everyone understands how to properly not just implement but then use the implemented solution without further exposing the company to any risks or vulnerabilities outside of themselves.
– [Chiz] Typically, when we start talking to new vendors, one of the first questions they want to know is, hey, do you have any sort of third party attestation to your security posture or how your organization manages security? And so very early on, one of the things we did was we did an SOC assessment. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with SOC, yeah, exactly. So we did an SOC assessment, and we decided to get a type 2 certification. And so every year, we have an audit that basically audits our controls and that’s available for our customers. We do a host of things associated with standard security practices like penetration testing, vulnerability testing, and even having a lot of the protocols in place and customers at the end of the day still want us to fill questionnaires basically describing our security infrastructure and our program.
And we do that. So that’s upfront in terms of how we address concerns and how we demonstrate that as an organization, that we are following the best practices. Now, when it actually comes down to the nitty gritty in terms of how we implement things, we actually sit with the security teams, typically the IT folks at the forefront of this, and we try to address their concerns and say, okay, here are the things that you need, right? We want to make sure that when you’re using our system, you’re still compliant with your own security practices. So what are we going to do to help you? So in some cases we’ve done, made changes to our systems to accommodate that.
One of the things we’ve done recently is enable SSO on a mobile application. So now organizations can do SSO as a way of just onboarding users and preventing inadvertent accesses to the systems, any way or the other. And as you may know, our application is entirely cloud hosted.
So we are, we’ve also had conversations with AWS where they’ve, I think I can share that, AWS is our cloud hosted platform, but they’ve also assessed our platform and we’re following the best security practices. So we provide all of these things as a way to assure our customers that we’re doing the best we can to protect their information, their data, and to also allow them to continue their own security practices while using our system. And the last thing we do is we make sure that they own their devices. We don’t supply any devices. So all their devices are MDM managed by them, completely under their control with their own security platforms, security infrastructure, and security protocols. And so all they have to do is basically whitelist our URL and allow it to pass it back and forth.
– [Ryan] Last thing I want to ask you before I let you go here is just what do you, given where we are in the market right now and the space that you’re all in, what are you most excited for? What are you looking forward to, I guess, over the next, let’s say six, 12 months kind of timeframe.
– [Chiz] Honestly, I’m looking forward to seeing smarter and smarter tools. So when we started this journey, a lot of tools weren’t smart, but I could count on one hand how many torque wrenches actually boasted any sort of smart interface, particularly BLE interface. Now they are just coming out of the woodworks slowly.
And what I would really love to see is to have an organization like Blue Sake begin to help corral the spread of these tools by helping define GAC standards. And I’m actually interested in working with them to help manage that because it benefits everybody in the industry. It benefits our customers because then they can be tool agnostic.
They can use any tool and not worry that it will not interface with systems like ours. It benefits the manufacturers because once they have these standards, then they can, they can trust like chip manufacturers, who make SOCs and let’s say Bluetooth SDKs, they’ll come up with those gap profiles that are already supported out of the box.
So it’s easy for them to just build applications with these SDKs and things like that. And then it’s also good for the tool manufacturers themselves because they get themselves out there into more different, to different environments that they didn’t anticipate that they could get into.
So it’s a win for everybody. So I’m looking forward to things like that. I’m also looking forward to opportunities for, that 5G may present in terms of allowing more sites to be more data aware in terms of real time perspective, having greater bandwidth, having just the ability to have devices talking with much, much more efficiency and the ability to transmit a whole load of data, so I’m looking forward to that.
– [Ryan] Yeah, I think, I’m in agreement with you, just across the industry, seeing the adoption continue to grow and seeing not just the physical, the tools you’re talking about, but just solutions being implemented, more companies seeing the value and success of these connected technologies and what they can do for not only their business but the end users, just general ability to do their job well and enjoy their job. I think that’s something that people often overlook. And the better we can marry those two together, the better these solutions are going to be, and the more success companies are going to see with IoT, which I think that benefits everyone here that, in the industry.
So for our audience out there who wants to learn more, follow up, stay in touch, anything like that, what’s the best way they can do that?
– [Chiz] So, they can look us up at cumulusds.com. That’s our website. DS is Digital Systems. cumulusds.com. We have all the data available. We have brochures. We have contact information. It’s all there.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. Well Chiz, thank you so much, man. I really appreciate your time. Great to have you on, and we’re excited to get this out to our audience.
– [Chiz] Thank you.