Transforming a business and breaking out of well-established processes sometimes seems like an insurmountable challenge – especially when it comes to big corporations with thousands of employees. Ralf Rapude knows this problem all too well. He is IT project lead at SMIGHT, a microbusiness unit at the German energy provider EnBW. Founded as part of an innovation initiative, SMIGHT creates connected products for smart cities and smart grids. In the process, it is also transforming EnBW.
Pioneer within a large organization
Rapude has been working for EnBW for ten years. Around three years ago, he moved to SMIGHT. What’s the key difference? “Like all big corporations, EnBW is a tanker that sometimes has difficulty changing course,” Rapude says. “Here at SMIGHT, we have a lot of freedom to move quickly, make our own decisions and, of course, make our own mistakes. This allows us to experiment with new ideas, which is something that can be difficult to do in large organizations.”
SMIGHT’s role at EnBW
SMIGHT is a microbusiness unit at EnBW. It was set up in 2014 on the EnBW Innovation Campus in Karlsruhe. SMIGHT develops smart city and smart grid solutions and is a driving force in creating new business opportunities for EnBW.
Although SMIGHT is still part of the larger EnBW organization, this flexible approach makes it a trailblazer for the whole corporation. For Rapude, it is also indicative of a major change that EnBW has pulled off in recent years. There are few corporate regulations imposed on SMIGHT, and he and his colleagues are granted a great deal of latitude in their operations. Nevertheless, SMIGHT is not in the game just for fun. “We need to have a business mindset,” Rapude insists. “When we look at a project, it isn’t because of some urge to play. Our primary goal is to establish a commercially viable solution.”
Over the last few years, a number of connected products have been realized. SMIGHT initially developed a smart city streetlight with Wi-Fi support and an integrated charging point for electric vehicles. Today, this is installed at various locations around the world, ranging from Australia to Brazil. More recently, SMIGHT added environmental a sensor-based parking solution, which allows municipalities to monitor the utilization of parking spaces.
From standalone solutions to an IoT platform
SMIGHT’s partnership with Bosch
SMIGHT built its IoT platform with the help of Bosch Software Innovations as technology partner. The platform uses the Bosch IoT Suite for device management and edge computing. Find out more about the project.Read the case study
As SMIGHT continued to develop different products and solutions, it became clear that a unified technical foundation was needed – in short, an IoT platform. “Creating this platform was indeed a challenge for us at first,” Rapude reveals. “We had to develop something without a clear idea of its required structure, its final purpose and the use cases we have to cover in the future. So we started developing a number of standalone solutions, but now we had to create a platform to combine all of them.”
SMIGHT was looking to create a single integrated platform that was based on open standards and could be easily extended. Scalability was a major consideration: “There’s a lot of data and a lot of devices involved, so we really had to think about what it would take to keep it all running.”
Learning along the way
Ralf Rapude is IT project lead at SMIGHT and responsible for data-driven IT.
While looking at the state of smart cities and connectivity, Rapude and his team soon realized that there was not a lot of concrete experience out there. “We saw that there were a lot of pure software solutions without any hardware integration. And there were hardware solutions available, but the software aspect was lacking. We work on both the hardware and the software side, but we’ve encountered little practical knowledge of how to bring the two together.”
For SMIGHT, this meant trying things out and learning along the way. Take, for example, the process of updating a large number of devices: errors might occur during an update and necessitate a rollback of the system; but if this rollback can’t be performed, the whole system might fail. “Software rollbacks are no big deal if you can drive out to the device and replace the SD card or if money is not an issue. However, it becomes a serious problem when you have devices all over the world and this process incurs major costs,” Rapude explains. “This was just one of the many key considerations that only became apparent to us in the course of the project. At SMIGHT, we had to consider the limitations of financial and human resources. We had to ask ourselves how this platform can be established without causing trouble for our business model.”
It took SMIGHT one and a half years of tinkering and testing to build its IoT platform. Now the business unit is at the point where the platform is going into production.
For Rapude and his team, the whole project was a valuable learning experience, not least because the knowledge they gained was not just limited to the project. Rapude happily recalls a recent encounter with power grid staff: “They came to us with a problem. Thanks to our experience, my colleagues and I were able to pull together various ideas and already existing tools to solve it. Within a very short time, we had developed what was essentially a completely new, complex product.”
Moments like these show Rapude that SMIGHT took the right approach to developing its IoT platform. Yes, there were challenges along the way, but ultimately all the various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle came together. “We now see that ultimately we made the right choices regarding the architecture, the hardware and also the software, which is deeply satisfying.”