conXion 2020 - Nordex on their push towards real world IoT at scale, a Software AG use case

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 4, 2020
Software AG's global conXion event is underway this week. I seized the chance to dig into a customer story about real-world IoT. That's where we find out the true impact of the so-called Industrial IoT, and the challenges companies face along the way.

Software AG - Nordex wind turbine
(via conXion 2020)

Readers of my virtual event series know that I'm big on live event immediacy, and down on recorded sessions.

One exception is customer sessions. Some recorded customer sessions can bolster the overall event, giving attendees a chance to hone in on the use cases for their industry. 

This week's Software AG conXion event has a useful customer selection (conXion is a "rolling" regional event - Europe was November 3, North America November 4 and Asia Pacific November 5. You can still register and catch recorded sessions as well). One session that lured me in? Software AG customer Nordex's presentation on the impact of connected devices. Officially titled "Nordex: Connected Products - Decreasing Maintenance Costs and Improving Predictability," I was drawn to this one for several reasons:

  • Nordex CIO Stefan Ewald openly shared the project's lessons and challenges, without sugar-coating it.
  • Whether the IoT buzzword rolls off your tongue or not, modern wind turbines are sophisticated machines. Any tech that can help them stay up and running predictably is worth a hard look. That's real-world IoT, or, as some call it, the Industrial Internet of Things.
  • IoT projects should take place in a broader scope of organizational/business model change - that's the case here.

The Nordex IoT project - combining operational technology and IoT

Nordex SE, based in Rostock, Germany, is a leading global manufacturer for onshore wind turbines, in the 2.4 and five-megawatt class. Their worldwide install based is close to thirty gigawatts - the equivalent of powering about thirty million homes. But Nordex's business model isn't just manufacturing turbines. As Ewald said during his session:

We're more than just an OEM for wind turbines; we are part of the whole value chain of wind energy, from project development all the way through service.

Different climates require different products. Managing different wind speeds and climates is about "site topology" - optimally positioning the turbine, in order to yield the maximum energy output and the lowest cost of energy. Long before IoT became a buzzword, Nordex managed the 3,000+ sensors you can have on a single wind turbine. So if that was up and running, what's the need for this IoT project? Several key reasons. Start with a big increase in efficiency - and a common platform for information. Ewald again:

In the old world, all of this was was organized in a hierarchical fashion. IoT opens up the opportunity for us to flatten this automation pyramid, and reduce the communication levels for these many devices. Consequently, it provides a common basis of information and control at the wind farm level, and at the enterprise level. It combines the aspects of operational technology, OT, and IT.

But that makes projects more challenging also. Ewald explains:

Therefore, an IoT project requires a joint effort across multiple Nordex departments.

For Ewald, that challenge is worth it. They are making a push towards a platform for applications:

We are the first industry OEM using IoT from cloud to edge. Nordex has been developing an IoT platform since 2017. We're able to include data from the platforms of our complete existing fleet. The major advantage of the data standardization and the expansion of the platform will be to build additional applications on top of it.

Under the hood of the Nordex IoT project

Though Ewald's team still has plans ahead, he gave us an update of what the project can do now. Their "control center" interface gives Nordex's service organization real-time insights on the state of any wind turbine around the world. Ewald calls this the flattening of the information model:

All the values are real-time available and usable in applications, and therefore provide a technical dashboard that allows technicians a quick and focused overview of main components in operation. The platform also provides a higher degree of automation and real-time transparency allowing our team to focus on real customer incidents.

Eward ran through a series of sample dashboards during the presentation. They are too detailed for reproduction here, but are worth a look on replay. One screen showed an overview of all alarms coming in the control center from the field. An "advanced prioritization engine" helps to route incidents to the appropriate technicians. With 7,000 turbines in play globally, technicians simply couldn't manage this on their own:

In our 24/7 operation, tasks are automatically created. They allow for seamless handover between shifts in full transparency. It's accessible by all technicians, and it serves as a single source of truth.

Crucial data from back end systems is also pulled into the control center:

All the information is brought together, including commercial information from back-end systems like SAP. Our solution provides intuitive dashboards that provide quick reference information for service planning, and management interaction.

I talked about tying IoT to business model transformation - not just efficiency. Often, that means a better view for the end customer. Nordex aims to provide that:

Imagine customers, traders, technicians - they want to know, "What's wrong with my turbine?" These dashboards help to answer this question in a very intuitive way. Key information based on the alarm is provided.

In his session, Ewald said that giving customers access to such dashboards is on their roadmap. They are already using their data platform to get there:

Today, also catering to special customer requests, we're sending SMS to customers, informing them whether their turbine is spinning or not.

Here is one sample dashboard Ewald shared during the session:

Software AG - Nordex dashboard
(via conXion 2020)

Again, I recommend the session replay for more detailed screens.

I've watched a ton of online use cases this year. Not all of them good. What else worked about this one?

  • The tech/project was far enough along to speak to meaningful results, and live scale (performance-at-scale being a major enterprise criteria that can slow adoption. See: blockchain).
  • Ewald was able to put this project in the context of broader goals. His lessons were instructive.

The wrap - reflecting on IoT challenges and results

Proper transformation can help companies faced with tight margins, expectant customers and pandemic safety requirements. Doesn't mean it's easy. Ewald spoke to numerous challenges the project had to overcome, including:

  • Standardization of data models
  • Learning curve
  • Agile development
  • Supplier/partner management
  • Requirements exceeded platform capabilities
  • Approach to analytics
  • Project delays
  • Operational concept across multi-vendor landscape

Yep, that's a handful. And hardly atypical. So how do you overcome all that? Ewald's tips for success included:

  1. Good collaboration between stakeholders - Engineering, Service, and ITO
  2. Cross-functional management support
  3. Find the right partners

In terms of project context, this slide summed it up:

Nordex IoT project - lessons learned
(via conXions 2020)

Another way customer stories can go wrong: too much vendor moderation, and too much promotion of the vendor's products. Neither was an issue here. In fact, I don't think Ewald mentioned Software AG's Cumulocity IoT platform more than once in the entire session (you can see the initial 2018 press release on Nordex's use of Cumulocity IoT for more on that).

Obviously, in an on-the-ground show, I would have approached Ewald after his presentation and peppered him with probing questions, such as the apps he wants to build on their platform next. But I think his transparency in this session still leaves us with plenty. In particular: breaking down team silos and collaborating across lines of business. And: engage the entire organization in a creative way.  I'll close it out with his reflections:

Our project was a complete cross-functional effort, across engineering, service, and IT. It's important that you keep these alliances alive throughout the journey of the project, because you will experience some setbacks... And not everything will turn out the way you have planned at the beginning, obviously. Furthermore, you have to manage a lot of complexity.

It's a steep learning curve; you have to invest in your people. But it will also create the opportunities. Supplier management is critical. You will be dealing with an onset of many new suppliers that you've never dealt with before. So you have to have these capabilities in place... You have to communicate often and simple, which is not quite straightforward in a complex topic like this.

Try out innovative ways to engage the organization. We've conducted two hackathons that helped people understand the value of leveraging the data that we have at our disposal now. It was great. If you give people the headroom to think about this, it creates surprising results.

Buckle up, says Ewald - we're not there yet.

The journey continues. We have achieved many good outcomes but we're not at the finish line yet. Many of the outcomes we have achieved today we can build on;  they serve as a strong foundation.

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