- CTS needed an IoT platform to manage IoT-enabled monitoring devices for electricity and water management applications
- The company is running its monitoring and control systems on the AWS IoT platform
- Able to utilize and offer customers simpler, less costly devices
- Enjoys enhanced security in the IoT environment
- Eliminated time and effort of managing servers, as well as extensive coding
- Increased productivity of field technicians by 50 percent
- Reduced training time from six hours to one
Founded in 2009, Centratech Systems (CTS) launched in a challenging economic time to address some ongoing challenges in Australia: a persistent water shortage and rising electricity costs. Initially, its business centered on water management—primarily irrigation. CTS has since expanded its solutions to include monitoring and control of pumping systems, field lighting, and other areas. For CTS, what started as an operation with one field technician and one truck has since grown to a team of nearly 20, with specialized contractors from around the globe.
CTS develops products and services in direct response to customer requests. Its primary customer base comprises local governments (councils) throughout Australia seeking ways to save time, money, and energy in the field, where technicians spend their days driving around to physically maintain devices such as water pumps and electricity meters. As the business grew, CTS’s vision—as well as customer demands—were frequently several steps ahead of the technology and skill set available through its legacy hardware and manufacturer partner.
Until recently there were few to no competitors for CTS’s services, but more IT-oriented companies are now entering the market. According to CTS Managing Director Richard Freedman, “CTS’s competitive edge is that we didn’t start as IT experts trying to disrupt an existing market, like 95 percent of our competitors. We come from the field and understand how things happen out there; we are taking our customers on the journey with us rather than convincing them they need our services.” Still, the company was facing pressure to modernize the devices and systems it offered local councils. A recurring request was for a more convenient way for field technicians to monitor devices across a broad territory from their trucks, without physically visiting each device or having specialized equipment on hand.
The onboarding process for its legacy devices was grueling, requiring a six-hour, one-on-one training session for every technician who would interact with the pumps, meters, sensors, and filters installed in their areas. Furthermore, these first-generation smart devices, designed to communicate with centralized systems at council offices, were often too expensive for small local councils. This restricted CTS’s business partners to larger entities such as the City of Melbourne, and constrained its time to market due to training demands. The company’s ability to innovate and perfect the devices and systems customers need is key to its success and market proposition. The millions of messages being exchanged between devices and their corresponding control panels required extensive coding and management of servers, further limiting labor resources. CTS needed a way to remove the heavy lifting required to maintain an increasingly complex network of devices.
CTS started with its own physical servers, but quickly outgrew the setup and began searching for a cloud provider. Customers also expressed the need for a hosted service where they could control irrigation systems via cloud networking, using Internet-enabled devices such as smartphones or tablets. After evaluating other providers, the startup approached Amazon Web Services (AWS) in 2011 with its needs. CTS started by using Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) to host its monitoring and control software. It was able to continue operating with a lean staffing model, outsourcing much of the backend coding and server management abroad.
In late 2016, the AWS account manager assigned to CTS noticed a change in the company’s usage pattern and re-engaged with CTS management to learn more about their pain points and aspirations. Realizing that CTS’s core business is essentially the Internet of Things (IoT), the account manager introduced the company to the AWS IoT platform and brought an AWS solutions architect with a strong IoT background into conversations. With guidance from AWS, CTS began purchasing and installing new types of IoT-enabled monitoring devices for electricity and water management applications, which are smaller and lighter than their first-generation predecessors. These modernized smart devices do less in the field and more in the cloud environment, and are thus simpler to operate. They also require less physical maintenance and are easier to switch out if a fault occurs. What’s more, there is no limit to the number of users who can concurrently access the system, an issue in which the legacy device systems struggled with.
The account manager also introduced PolarSeven, an AWS Partner Network (APN) Advanced Consulting Partner that had recently hired an IoT specialist, to help provide CTS engineers with a more cost-effective and time-saving solution for remotely controlling in-field devices. “PolarSeven, as well as our AWS solutions architect, have been very good at speaking our language and explaining things, though we don’t quite have the level of technical understanding they do,” says Freedman. “This has given our team a lot more confidence to come up with new ideas using the technology they can now access.”
With the newer devices, Freedman explains that “all the thinking is done in the cloud, very little in the field.” CTS technicians spend far less time driving around visiting physical devices, and can now service more devices remotely from their IoT-enabled smartphones. This allows them to serve more customers in a given day. The team is 50 percent more productive than it was just two years ago, before IoT. “This is a huge bonus to a small business like ours, especially in Australia, where wages are high by world standards,” says Freedman.
Shifting to the IoT serverless environment and the new smart devices has triggered a critical change in CTS’s cost structure, as the IoT-enabled devices are much less expensive than their predecessors. Because the capital expense of hardware typically limits a customer’s ability to engage with CTS, using devices that are two-thirds as expensive as their predecessors has really expanded CTS’s reach. With the less costly, simpler systems in place, management can now confidently approach smaller councils and agricultural customers, who were previously hesitant to consider CTS’s services due to time and budget constraints.
AWS IoT is a managed service, which means CTS can focus on innovation instead of managing servers or infrastructure. Less than a year ago, the company released what it envisions as its future flagship product—Field Mouse. When it first launched, Field Mouse’s purpose was to allow multiple users to concurrently control field lighting systems. It has since been expanded to water-management applications and operation of security gates, and it is also being used to enable overarching control of legacy hardware from different manufacturers.
Training time has gone from six hours to one, because the devices and their controls are “simply more intuitive,” Freedman says. This improved efficiency and speed have finally given Freedman and his team the opportunity to promote their business. They are currently in talks with commercial parties interested in using their technology for large-scale property developments.
Enhanced security features in the IoT environment have been a major selling point in discussions with new clients. The extra encryption and mutual authentication associated with each connected IoT device give CTS’s public-sector customers confidence in the solutions they purchase. Security is particularly important to the local councils, as the monitoring and control systems access aspects of city and state infrastructure that could be vulnerable to outside threats. The Australian government also strictly oversees local agencies to ensure proper security protocols are in place.
“Working with AWS has changed our business,” Freedman says. “It shines a light on new technology and ways of working that we may have eventually discovered on our own, but we would have been so far behind the competition that we would be struggling to keep up.”
Learn more about AWS IoT.