Jose Marcelino, an experienced electronics engineer, who works at Reece Innovation, gives us his background in engineering industry, his insights about IoT and reveals his passion outside of engineering.
– How did you start your career in engineering?
– A big influence was my grandfather; he was a machinist for the Portuguese Navy. My teens happened in Macau, China, where I was exposed to the insane pace of electronics and computer engineering culture, just when Shenzhen began taking over as the world’s epicentre for contract manufacturing. Later I came to the UK after selling my IT start-up in Portugal to formalize my training and study computer science at Newcastle University.
-As our resident expert on the Internet of Things (IoT) can you explain what it means?
-It means giving things, from buildings, ships, cars, sometimes individual screws, the ability to communicate useful information on their own status or that of the environment surrounding them and react intelligently. Essentially, it’s embedding a nervous system into material things.
-Where IoT can be applied and used?
-Anywhere really, nowadays we see IoT technology deployed within the biggest structures like a bridge all the way down to being integrated onto a single bolt and even on casino playing cards. Currently, it’s widely used in agriculture, retail, transportation, and industry.
-Where do you think IoT is heading?
-The automotive industry, through the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has this interesting notion of levels of self-driving automation, from 0 (driver does everything) to 5 (car does everything). Much of the current IoT is still at level 0, where sensors only inform a human who then takes the decision.
We’re now seeing more solutions akin to level 1, where the system can command an emergency stop or trigger a release valve, for example. But, the really interesting things will happen at level 2 where the sensors, actuators, and software combine to actually achieve the proposed goal without human interaction.
This comes not only with technical challenges but also cultural hurdles – for example, how to convince a farmer that he can let his irrigation system decide where and how much to water? But, just like in automotive where drivers are now learning that it’s actually OK to let go of the steering wheel, we’ll see the same happening in general applications.
-What benefits/opportunities can IoT bring to engineering?
-Many immediate opportunities are in supply chains – tracing individual items with accuracy and reacting quickly when they suffer issues – and also in preventive maintenance by reacting to problems before they become apparent.
-How do you think IoT will affect our lives in the future?
-We’ll experience more ‘magical’ moments – not just having self-driving cars, but also in smaller ways like when you bring in a car for repair, the garage will already have known and ordered the parts that you need or your favourite shops will also know to stock exactly the item you want.
-Could you tell us more about your latest innovation – the Solar Pod? What was the biggest challenge that you faced while working on the project?
-Many IoT projects consist of tens to hundreds of sensors sending data wireless to a gateway using radio technologies like LoRaWAN and Sigfox. The Solar Pod is a great product which meets the growing need to deploy these gateways in outdoor locations like a farm, industrial site or even a festival. This is something others were addressing either with expensive fixed solutions (permanent custom-built towers) or through homemade contraptions, which often fell over and failed. The Solar Pod aims at the middle of those extremes with a sturdy, tested and documented, easily deployable and portable structure, and doesn’t break the typical IoT project budget.
As with many projects often the challenge is managing competing requirements. In a portable solar project, this means balancing the size of the panel and energy storage solution to meet the energy demands of the gateway across a range of deployment locations, some quite tough.
On the other hand, you want to keep the unit as compact as possible for shipping and ease of installation.
After literally going back to the drawing board several times and working with the gateway manufacturer to squeeze the maximum performance we could with the least power budget we finally reached a solution we were happy to ship to our clients.
But maybe the biggest challenge for engineers is that in the back of our minds we know the compromises we took to achieve the solution. If we did Y instead of X maybe it could be lighter, more intelligent, better. We’re never truly satisfied – but that’s how innovation happens.
-What are the key features and possible applications of this device?
-The Solar Pod comes with everything you need and is designed so that you assemble – like putting together Ikea furniture – and it just works. Most of our sales have been to support farming applications like soil monitoring or cattle tracking, but there is no end to the applications. From water quality/river level to festivals deploying the gateway to monitor sound and waste fill levels across the venue.
-What do you enjoy the most about your job?
-Coming into Armstrong Works – a facility so deeply steeped in the history of UK Engineering – still brings a smile to my face every morning. I am also impressed by the team every day and their ability to translate very rough ideas into realistic designs and CAD models – often in under one hour.
-Tell us something about yourself that may surprise us.
-My other passion is cooking especially pastry techniques and basic chemistry of food, sometimes called molecular gastronomy. One of the few scientific endeavours where you get a delicious, tangible, gratification to enjoy and share at the end of your efforts!