Nikola Labs began four years ago in Columbus, Ohio as a spin-off of The Ohio State University’s ElectroScience Lab, a world-renowned establishment for the development of wireless power technology, but eventually evolved into a full-fledged company. Nikola has developed a proprietary way to harvest radio frequencies and convert these into energy.
The original build of Nikola involved radio frequency harvesting for use in the consumer world, but after strong pilot projects with its initial clients, the company made a shift to working exclusively with the industrial manufacturing sector, particularly toward predictive maintenance. Global Vice President Brian Pitzer says that Nikola aims to use wireless power to enable predictive maintenance within a client’s facility, and it has a bold way of making that happen.
Predictive maintenance involves predicting potential equipment failure and preventing the occurrence of said failure. It is predicated on the use of sensors. However, sensor technology is not strictly where Nikola stops and starts. Pitzer says that while sensors are used in their processes, the heart of the technology is the ability to take the sensor data collected and turn it into a visualization that allows the facilities using Nikola technology to act on that data. Sensors, transponders, and the like are only part of the solution, the crucial part being the wireless power that can allow the prediction of the actions a facility must take, without the need for reoccurring maintenance or battery replacement.
Nikola’s method of converting radio frequencies to energy is something that Pitzer likens to a wi-fi router, except this method broadcasts not just data, but power as well. By using this technology and its solutions, Nikola’s sensors provide maintenance-free, perpetual power for both tri-axial vibration and temperature monitoring on virtually any asset in any sector. Nikola’s team will find troublesome or process-critical assets and monitor them using the sensor and wireless power technology.
Pitzer says that most clients’ facilities are similar with moving pieces, motors, conveyors, turbines and the like. If any of these go down, it costs a facility time and even money, which is something that Nikola looks to prevent.
Pitzer admits that predictive maintenance services are not new, but the way in which the company provides them is what separates it from the pack. There are three traditional ways in which vibration measurements can be taken. Sensors can be hardwired to power and data, which is cumbersome and expensive; a probe device can be used, although this is costly in terms of sheer man-hours to probe every single device in a facility, not to mention the cost of going weeks or even months without comparison data, and the challenges that creates; or battery-powered sensors can be installed, and this too can be costly, as some facilities can have thousands of machines and depending on the data transfer rate, may need replaced within months or weeks of installation.
As Pitzer says, to use one of these solutions, a client would have to create a preventative maintenance program to service its predictive maintenance programs, which is hardly a good use of time or money. In using the sensor-based technology to bypass these ineffective methods of preventative maintenance, Nikola puts itself at the forefront of a growing movement within the workforce.
Nikola not only embraces the new ways of thinking in terms of industry but also in how it interacts with clients and marketing. The team at Nikola prefer face-to-face contact in their dealings with clients. A Solution Architect will personally enter a facility to evaluate its needs and critical assets, then install the solution after explicit client approval, at which point, the client is given a thirty-day trial period which can, in turn, lead to further expansion or be removed without any incurred costs.
Pitzer says that the personal touch of being on site to view the facility and shake hands with clients is a big part of what the company does, and that further follow-up from service technicians and customer service representatives is key to a lasting business relationship. Nikola operates its services on a subscription-based model, which is contrary to the industry standard capital expenditure model, in which projects are typically planned and installed over a series of years. He says that Nikola’s approach to pricing fits more into clients’ daily lives and how people today use services. Subscription pricing for Nikola means a client only pays for the company’s services for as long as it works for them.
Another perk of a month-to-month subscription is that the money can go toward making improvements in a facility, as opposed to being saved to deal with any unwanted downtime. The company has no problem treading into methods that others in its field may be hesitant to adopt, and the approach has continued to work in its favor.
Within the predictive maintenance industry, two hot terms that are often brought up are the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0, which Pitzer says are integral to Nikola’s identity. At the heart of these two terms, is the ability to listen to and maintain machines, something that Nikola looks to enable through the work it does.
Industry 4.0 models are based around working smarter instead of harder through networked, monitored equipment. Machines and facilities cannot simply be kept running until they fail and then have repairs; the upkeep on them must be constant. Twenty to thirty percent of the value of production can be lost due to downtime. To recoup these costs, industries have moved toward a model that can keep machines running and is predictive rather than reactive. However, IIoT and Industry 4.0 are still very new to some companies, and Pitzer says that a company must start small and simply when adopting the ideas. The key, he says, is not to over-complicate things. Predictive maintenance is predicated on action, so to benefit from it, you must take the leap and enact it for it to work as well as it can.
Given that the work Nikola Labs concerns itself with is focused on the future, it only makes sense that many tabs are kept on how what workforce trends will be seen in the coming years. Pitzer says that the workforce is entering a new era, particularly since maintenance people with over thirty years of experience in their field are becoming the exception rather than the rule, and a new generation is already being welcomed. A challenge with this is figuring out a way to replicate what these experts have done over the past thirty years and beyond and teach it.
With both opportunities and challenges on the horizon, Brian Pitzer and the Nikola Labs team are seeking to take the company’s technology more mainstream and are focusing on asking more companies to adopt the company’s model of predictive maintenance. It is a practice that the company believes in greatly. It is indeed the best way for a company of any size to save itself money, meet problems head-on, and stay on top in today’s market.