Pi in the sky

Excelion Partners President Greg Oppermann guides the Neenah-based technology consulting company in its quest to craft cutting-edge solutions for customers around the world.

Posted on May 1, 2017 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Sometimes the most complex technological problems can be solved with a little Raspberry Pi. You might want to hold the ice cream, though. This Pi — the missing “e” is not a typo — is a credit card-sized, open-source computer allowing developers at Neenah-based Excelion Partners to rapidly, and cost effectively, prototype and test solutions to the perpetually evolving technology challenges facing businesses today.   

For Ryan Moore, it’s a powerful, low-cost tool enabling him to test ideas toward a solution without burdening the innovation process with lengthy buildouts or costly overhead.

“We probably have a dozen, maybe 16 of them around at any given time,” says Moore, Excelion’s director of application development. “These allow us to prototype quickly, test quickly and fail quickly so we can get to the minimum viable product quicker and move production forward.”

That bit of inspiration, with its parallels to Edison’s “I have not failed. I have determined what does not work,” keeps Excelion nimble in its approach to clients’ technology challenges. In particular, it helps the company act fast in the rapidly expanding Internet of Things universe, where manufacturers and others seek to capture data from multiple — and often disparate — sources to monitor and improve their business performance.

Nothing a little Pi can’t fix, or at least show the way.

“We don’t have to wait two months or spend $20,000 to get specific add-ons or boards,” Moore says. “It’s $45 and a couple of days, and we can get things into the office and work with it.”

Failing fast and failing forward are celebrated parts of the culture at Excelion Partners, a technology consulting firm founded in 2009 by Greg Oppermann, who grew up in the West Bend area and always had a penchant for business, particularly product development.

“My dad was in human resources for a small appliance manufacturer,” Oppermann recalls of his earliest business influences. “He was an idea guy. He also had an interest in product development. Even though it wasn’t his space, he always had an interest in making things better.”

It’s an approach Oppermann now applies to the IT space with Excelion.

Initially working from virtual offices based in key employees’ homes, the company recently consolidated its operations into renovated offices in the historic Equitable Reserve building in Neenah. About 40 employees now call the company home.

As demand for IT consulting and skills has escalated, Excelion has diligently built its client list and profile, emerging to the forefront and working with groups like Women in Technology and the Northeast Wisconsin IT taskforce.

While his initial vision was broad-based consulting, Oppermann and his team became more convinced the key to ongoing success and growth required a narrowing in the company’s focus. Oppermann had picked up on the bubbling interest in the Internet of Things, particularly its applications in the industrial and manufacturing sectors.

In late 2015, Oppermann made the decision to emphasize IoT and its related applications.

“I observed an important interest in building around IoT application,” Oppermann says. “Since this unveiling, we have focused on customer implementations of cloud- based IoT initiatives.”

With a dense population of manufacturers here, Moore sees a lot of room for growth.

“I think we saw a lot of opportunities for this region, the more we uncovered and peeled back the layers,” Moore says, referencing Northeast Wisconsin’s manufacturing base. “There are so many sensors and machines. We can help these companies improve their process, improve safety, run more efficiently and make more money.”

Something old, something new

Sensors on machines are nothing new.

As Moore points out, companies have been putting sensors on machines and having machines talk to the operator or one another since the 1950s. But unlike the wave of consumer technologies feasting on user-generated data to create better experiences, industrial and manufacturing data has remained confined to the production floor — at least until recently.

Now, Excelion is helping manufacturers extract that data from those sensors, pushing it to the cloud for processing, then making it available from everywhere and anywhere via web- or mobile-based apps so it can be used to make real-time decisions.

What’s new is the data extraction and real-time analysis.

“There are all sorts of opportunities that are available just by consuming information they already have,” Moore says. “We want to help them make sense of all that chatter and information those machines are gathering.”

Since they can access the data in real time from anywhere, operators, floor managers and company executives can make better decisions to improve efficiency, reduce waste, eliminate hazards and, in one of its earliest adaptations, predict maintenance needs and reduce machine downtime.

“What we are coming to them with is how we can leverage the technology to make them more efficient and make improvements in their process,” Oppermann says. “It’s a pretty detailed process we walk them through.”

Games and gadgets

It’s a creative one, as well.

At first blush, the old Atari 400 gaming system, along with an ancient version of Pac-Man, might seem out of place in the development center of a company creating the latest in IoT solutions. A scattering of Raspberry Pi computers and odd-looking prototypes add to the juxtaposition.

Consider it inspiration, as the games and gadgets all represent solutions in the innovation process that Excelion goes through as it works with a client. Sometimes, the solution lies with finding new ways to connect existing technologies. For other challenges, both the technologies and the combinations have yet to be defined.

This is where being adaptable, and ready to fail quickly, comes into play.

“We want to do quick prototypes of the IoT side of it, and we want to get them into the hands of business owners and customers as soon as possible to find out if they are going to fail,” Moore says. “We want to get to the MVP — minimum viable product — as quickly as possible. We want to fail fast and go to the second product, and maybe that one will be the home run.”

Designed to scale

Adaptability helped them secure a partnership with one of region’s early IoT adapters, Ripon-based Alliance Laundry Systems, which has been building IoT functionality into its equipment and processes for several years.

It’s a functionality that needed to scale from a few machines to thousands.

“We have IT resources all over the world, and what we like about Excelion is their ability to be flexible and adaptable,” says Scott Chiavetta, vice president for Customer One and chief information officer at Alliance. “They have great technical resources.” 

Some of the technology Excelion helped Alliance develop and deploy allows for the remote management of commercial washers and dryers so that operators do not have to be on site. This enables laundry operators to manage the machines through the cloud. 

The washers and dryers send information to operators, who can then make predictive decisions about maintenance or changing business patterns to reduce downtime, conduct timely maintenance and in the end, be more profitable.

Some of Alliance’s clients manage commercial laundry operations with thousands of machines, a feat made easier with IoT technology. 

“For the large operators, this technology allows them to keep up with the machines and manage much larger operations than they ever could before,” Chiavetta says. “But it also allows the smaller operators to offer that same level of service and management.”

Moore says Excelion’s role in the ongoing project has been to help develop architecture for pulling the information from the machines to the cloud, processing

it and then making it available in a meaningful way to the operator.

“It was IoT before people were calling it IoT,” he says.

Fateful connection

That experience with IoT helped seal the partnership with one of its latest clients.

Last October, Excelion was showing off its latest IoT solutions at the Manufacturing First Expo & Conference at the KI Center in Green Bay (co-hosted by Insight Publications). The company happened to have a booth located next to Doig Corp., a firm specializing in automation components such as robotics and sensor controls.

It didn’t take long for the two companies to recognize the compatibility.

“They were over at our booth the whole time,” Moore says. “They were showing us their robotics and the IoT applications, but they had no way of getting the data out of the cloud. They were excited to see what we were able to do for them.”

Less than a year later, Doig is helping to spread Excelion’s solutions to its clients across North America.

“We are pretty much marketing their design solutions to our customers,” says Jim Winistorfer, president of Doig Corp. “Most of our customers are at a point where they want to make all of their components much smarter.”

By working with Excelion, Winistorfer says Doig can now leverage a design partner that can assist clients in sending information from the factory floor to a gateway to the end-user, which helps build stronger relationships.

“We really like the way they approach IoT,” he says. “This helps our customers see what is possible and what more they can do.”

Talking with robots

Excelion will showcase its approach at a May 10 technology event in Neenah it is co-hosting with Doig. From talking to robots to pulling data from sensors, the event will feature a series of solutions Excelion has helped develop for manufacturers.

“Our goal is to usher companies into a new era of innovation,” Oppermann says.

It’s an era that has already dawned and is quickly picking up the pace of change, he says. By 2020, the latest estimates predict there will be more than 50 billion sensors and embedded devices connected to the internet and providing data.

That’s a lot of opportunity, though perhaps not as complex as it sounds, Moore says, adding that many solutions are accomplished by new combinations of proven ideas, rather than creating something new for each and every challenge.

He likens it to a Mark Twain quote from his autobiography:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

That’s what drives innovation at Excelion, Moore says.

“From an innovation perspective, a lot of the things we are doing in IoT are an amalgamation of different ideas all coming together and creating new combinations,” he says. “Great stuff comes from that.”