Bright Wolf, which bills itself as an “industrial connected product solutions” company, happens to have its headquarters in the same building in downtown Durham as GrepBeat, the old SouthBank location. In an effort to be neighborly, we sat down with Bright Wolf’s Director of Marketing, Marc Phillips, to learn more about this growing IoT (Internet of Things) company. And for you developers: they’re hiring!
Q. In less than 75 words (and yes, we’re counting), what does Bright Wolf do?
MP: Bright Wolf helps industrial manufacturers optimize their operations, increase yields, and improve relationships with partners, customers, and suppliers. What’s often referred to as Industrial IoT is the process of integrating data from equipment, enterprise systems like CRMs (Customer Relationship Management) and ERPs (Enterprise Resource Planning), and external sources like weather and energy prices to produce actionable information for running your business better. Our open and flexible approach lets our customers iterate quickly to prove new business value at each stage. [Editor’s Note: He made the 75-word cut, but we added parentheticals to spell out the acronyms. You’re welcome.]
Q. What kinds of customers choose Bright Wolf, and why?
MP: Our customers tend to be Fortune1000 companies with global operations. Caterpillar is one of our oldest customers. That said, it’s not the size of the company that’s important to us – what matters is how much value is trapped inside the problem you’re trying to solve. If you’d just like to squeeze a little more efficiency out of an old production line, or add some basic remote monitoring to your equipment, there are plenty of other options out there. Our customers are looking for ways to revolutionize their industries, either through radical optimization of their own workflows or by becoming the most important system inside their customers’ operations.
It’s a bit of a buzzword, but “digital transformation” is really a thing. It’s the process whereby a traditional equipment manufacturer moves from just selling hardware to becoming a productivity provider for their customers. In some cases, they’ve stopped selling hardware entirely. For example, rather than continually battling competitors over transactional sales of new pumps and filters to factory owners, they instead include their machines with monthly subscriptions for guaranteed amounts of fluid to be pumped and cleaned. Rather than making a one-time sale, they provide an ongoing service. Their value becomes embedded inside their customer’s operations, creating a “sticky” relationship that’s much harder for competitors to disrupt.
To reliably (and profitably) deliver these services though, you first have to know everything about all your equipment, all the time, including the conditions in which they’re operating. Then you must combine that data with your enterprise IT systems and reporting tools, as well as the many systems used by each of your customers. You have to share this data, securely, with different types of users, each with their own assigned access levels, and integrate everything seamlessly with a continuously evolving set of business systems and visualization and analytics tools, all of which require different formats and flavors.
You have to stop being just a hardware company, and become an information company. That’s not an easy transformation to make. You need more than just a platform – you need an experienced partner to help you all the way through. We’re software people with connected product business experience. We start with your market strategy and bring in the right tools and technology to achieve both immediate and long-term results. We’re kind of like a secret weapon. There just aren’t many other teams out there with the same breadth of experience and track record of success. It’s pretty exciting.
Q. What’s been the quirkiest use case?
MP: It’s a tie between a system involving optimal tractor routing for dead pig collection and a project that featured semi-autonomous giant robot saws. Now that I think about it, they may have been for the same customer.
Q. IoT is used to describe a dizzying range of industries/companies. How specifically does Bright Wolf fit into the IoT spectrum?
MP: We focus exclusively on industrial IoT. One customer of ours makes waterjet tools used to slice through steel at SpaceX and Tesla. Another makes welding machines for putting together cars at GM. But “manufacturing” can also refer to making food, as in the case of an integrated solution for raising salmon, or creating a reliable supply chain with refrigerated transportation and storage solutions. It can also mean making healthier people (not for eating) in our work with healthcare equipment, as well as energy production, renewable and otherwise.
There’s a much stronger business case for IoT with industrial scenarios than for most consumer or retail applications. Manufacturers know exactly how much money they’re losing each month due to equipment failures. They also know how much new revenue they can generate from each additional car, rocket, fish, and satisfied patient they can produce. Smarter welding machines mean more cars per day and fewer recalls. Optimized temperature, oxygen, and nutrition levels create larger, more frequent harvests. Predictive maintenance and data analytics create machines running continuously at maximum efficiency. That means higher production levels — of everything. The potential returns are obvious and large, so industrial enterprises are ready to invest in connected solutions.
Q. Bright Wolf seems to have more mottos and catchphrases than the average college football coach. Give me your three favorite.
- Start faster. Go further.
- Buy your infrastructure. Build your value.
- IoT is not an engineering problem. But you can make it one…
Q. You described the company as primarily “sitting at the edge” of the cloud. What does that mean?
MP: A better way to put it would be to say that Bright Wolf helps deliver complete solutions. We start at “the edge” where the data is produced, with the machines and sensors themselves. This is where signals from the analog world first become digital inside the manufacturing facility, where machines communicate through industrial protocols that many applications and cloud services don’t understand. You have to collect, process, and translate this data into forms that your IT systems, analytics tools, and human beings can use to make better decisions. The more intelligence you can bring inside the facility, the faster you can turn this data into optimized actions. We provide software running on gateway computers on the shop floor, and inside the machines themselves, to do the heavy lifting for making this data available to factory workers via onboard displays as well as to local AI algorithms for controlling machine activity.
Additionally, manufacturing plants don’t always have reliable connectivity to the outside world. Even when your equipment can connect to the cloud, you still don’t want to send everything. It can be expensive, and bandwidth is often limited. You only want to send up data that can be turned into more value in the cloud than can be achieved on-premises. For example, if your machine is telling the local gateway everything about itself every 10 seconds, and everything is functioning correctly, there’s no need to send all those details up to the cloud. Reporting a simple “ok” message every 10 minutes is probably just fine.
A lot of “IoT” companies out there can only help customers make use of machine data that they already have in the cloud. This limits the ultimate value of the system and prevents many enterprises from getting started. Since we provide a continuous digital thread — from machine sensors to cloud analytics, from production line control systems to mobile dashboards — we’re able to ensure our customers have exactly the data they need for creating the most value for their enterprise.
Q. You talked about Bright Wolf building “the 80% product.” I’m no mathematician, but why is that better than building the 100% product?
MP: There’s no such thing as a 100% off-the-shelf product for industrial IoT. Every manufacturer has unique requirements, constraints, and goals they are trying to achieve. SaaS offerings are particularly terrible for industrial applications. To be fair, there are basic monitoring scenarios where these closed systems are just fine. If you’re just looking to gain some general visibility into your production line, there are services you can get running pretty quickly that may give you everything you need. The problem is when you need to integrate with systems that they don’t support, or want to combine and view data in ways that their drag and drop interfaces can’t handle. These proprietary platforms make many things easy, but they also make nearly everything else impossible. If your priorities don’t align with their roadmap, you’re out of luck. Worse, these services are shutting down at an increasing rate, which has been a great source of new business for us.
The bottom line is this – if you’re trying to differentiate yourself, to provide more value to your customers than your competitors, then you can’t confine yourself inside the same closed ecosystem with the same feature set and limitations. That’s madness.
What we provide on day one for our customers is the 80% of connected product functionality that has to “just work” but isn’t domain-specific. This shaves 12-18 months off traditional IoT development schedules and eliminates an ongoing support burden. Critically, it doesn’t restrict what you can do with your data. Your developers shouldn’t be building and maintaining basic infrastructure. They should be able to focus from the beginning on building features directly related to your unique business value, whatever those features and that value may be. The 100% product is what our customers ultimately deliver with our help, and is what gives them their own competitive advantage.
Q. There probably aren’t many companies that “turn down a lot of customers,” but Bright Wolf is one. Why?
MP: We’ve been profitable from the beginning, and we’re in this for the long game. By saying “no” to less ambitious projects, we’re able to focus our efforts on helping enterprises that are really trying to move the needle for their customers. These are the stories we want to be a part of. We’ve got a fantastic team with diverse backgrounds and skills. We’ve got some amazing software and tools. We push ourselves every day to find ways for delivering better results, so we choose to partner with organizations whose leaders are equally committed to making a difference.
Q. What is the company’s biggest challenge right now?
MP: That’s an easy one. It’s how to keep up with increasing demand for our services. We’ve got several customers right now with big ideas that they want to make real as quickly as possible. We’re incredibly focused on each customer’s long-term success in the marketplace, which means that most of our customers stay with us in some capacity for the entire life of their products. Historically we’ve scaled our operations through specialized technology and processes rather than growing the team. That’s worked out so far, but to continue to bring on new customers at an accelerating pace we’ve decided to bring in some more good people. And we want to hire local.
Q. I hear that you’re hiring. Where, how many, and what roles?
MP: It’s that time again. Our approach to everything involves starting with a vision, working backwards from there, and then moving ahead in iterative steps. We’ve got job descriptions right now for three types of roles – Senior Development Leads, Embedded Software Developers, and DevOps Engineers. We’re ramping up our delivery teams to serve more customers while we continue to expand our existing relationships.
Q. Now to the important questions. Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, or The Walking Dead?
MP: Stranger Things. Go Durham.
Q. What is your longest-held nickname, and what is the (printable) story behind it?
MP: “Turbo” – due to a tendency for jumping full steam ahead into new ideas, and figuring things out along the way. That’s led to some really bad experiences with train tunnels but also opened up a lot of great opportunities.
Q. How much do you love the GrepBeat Newsletter?
MP: On most days it fills a void normally reserved for puppies and chocolate.