The Short Story
It is often said that “amid every crisis lies great opportunity.” Based upon their most recent project, this statement resonates even more strongly with the team Hellpower Energy, a small niche company based in Hausleiten, Austria, that since 2004 has been providing customer-specific lithium battery designs and management solutions mainly to heavy goods vehicle automotive companies. Throughout 2021 in true IoT fashion, Hellpower’s team of engineers had been working with one of their customers to develop a prototype solution that used the Profinet and CANopen industrial communication protocols to transfer information about the battery state to a programmable logic controller (PLC).
Initially, the team had intended to implement the network protocol gateway using a conventional hardware communication module. But shortly before the company began building the forty prototypes for their customer, they were to discover that the gateway module supplier had no stock and, even worse, would be unable to provide any for the foreseeable future. Faced with this challenge, they were forced to think about different ways to implement the now essential communication protocols without causing any undue delay for their customer or, the unthinkable, the project’s cancellation.
The most straightforward answer was to source alternative hardware, and initially, Hellpower identified another hardware module supplier, but they, too, did not have any stock available. At this stage, the team decided to get creative, think outside the box and investigate whether using a software solution would be possible. A short internet search led him to the website of RT-Labs, a Swedish company specializing in implementing industrial communications protocols through software. Could this work? It would undoubtedly mitigate the need for the elusive hardware modules. Establishing that RT-Labs supply embedded software stacks that could be uploaded to most microcontrollers, Hellpower made contact with them and explained their requirements. His first conversation was with Jonas Berg (Software Engineer), who he now describes as his “hero,” such was the exceptional level of customer support provided to him from that point onwards. RT-Labs quickly understood Hellpower’s requirements as the manager of a small company. They advised him on selecting a microcontroller for his solution and how to implement the small hardware changes required for his PCB layout. Then, Jonas set to work implementing Profinet. Thankfully, the development was rapid, and the new solution was ready after only one month. The CANopen solution followed just three weeks later, much to the relief of everyone at Hellpower.
But what about the price? The initial development costs estimated using this software approach were similar to those they would have incurred if they had used hardware modules. However, given the small number in his initial batch of prototypes (40), it will deliver significant cost savings as he ramps up production. Equally crucial for Hellpower is that its ability to provide products to its customers no longer depends on external hardware from suppliers. So in that respect, it is now in complete control of its own supply chain.
Hellpower has not only turned a supply change crisis around but also created a great opportunity.