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The IoT possibility for traditional IPCs: Q&A with Artila director of IoT Division Mike Kao
Joseph Tsai, DIGITIMES, Taipei

Artila Electronics is a long-term player in the IPC industry, but unlike most others that focus on developing x86 applications, Artila has chosen ARM-based systems as the main direction for its IPC road trip. Although its products are considered niche devices, the company has still managed to grow rapidly in the solar and power management sectors and are gradually expanding into some emerging sectors such as electric vehicles and charging stations.

Mike Kao, director of Artila's IoT Division, talked about the company's businesses during a recent interview by Digitimes.

Q: What products and business does Artila do?

A: Artila is a developer of ARM-based industrial PC (IPC) products and the company's founders are all from IPC-related industries.

When we started the business, the combination of x86 architecture hardware and Microsoft's operation system was the most commonly seen IPC configuration that companies were offering. To differentiate, we put our focus on ARM-based processors - which by then were used mostly in handsets products - to design and develop IPCs.

ARM-based processer's low-power-consumption advantage allowed us to create IPCs in a rather small form factor. Our main product line: the intelligent Internet of Things (IoT) gateway consisted of IPCs with sizes of a cigarette box and they were also the first device we developed when we were founded.

The IPCs are designed specifically to handle headless applications including data collection and industrial protocol conversion, that do not require a user's interaction and therefore they do not feature any display port for graphic output. After gathering the data, the IPCs then transmit it to a back-end server system for further processing, making the products suitable for device networking purposes.

We started developing the IPCs 12 years ago and by then the concept of Internet of Things (IoT) still did not exist and many traditional industrial devices still could connect to Internet. To connect these traditional devices - that can only output data via conventional serial ports - to the Internet, we have developed our computers to act as a bridge for the two, as Internet has gradually become a standard for data transmission.

Our computers use Linux operating system. With its open platform and powerful functionality, our clients are able to quickly start the application development without hassle. The built-in web server and Internet utility also make remote control of traditional industrial devices an easy task like managing regular office PCs.

For clients that are capable of designing customized networking boards for their traditional devices or wish to integrate the function into their hardware instead of adopting an add-on, Artila is also able to supply only the system on module (SoM) to the clients. The clients only need to place a paired socket for the SoM on their customized boards in order for our SoM to function.

In addition to the intelligent IoT gateway product line, we also have remote I/O products, which are similar to programmable logic controller (PLC) and can be used for auto switch or simple logic control applications such as sensor, data collection or power control.

Q: What applications can the intelligent IoT gateway be used in?

A: One of the major applications for our IPCs is solar power systems. Our device is able to calculate how much power has been generated by the system and sold to the power company.

Another major application is the energy management system. We have seen our shopping mall clients adopt our IPCs to measure each store's power consumption instead of the traditional method of having the power company put a meter for each one of them. The advantage of using our solution is that the shopping mall's management team is able to negotiate better terms with the power company as the team is the one managing the power system.

Q: What are Artila's main target regions? Does Artila have plan for expansion?

A: Currently, Europe is our main market and demand is primarily from the solar and power industries.

For Asia Pacific, our business is mainly from the solar and power industries. Since many of the countries in Asia Pacific, especially those in Southeast Asia, have been aggressively building new power-related infrastructures, demand has been gradually picking up. We are also seeing rising demand from Australia.

North America is another region where we have been expanding our presence. However, instead of the solar and power industries, which have already reached saturation, we are seeing increasing orders from the unmanned device management segment. For example, we have seen clients purchase our solutions to set up IP cameras in sightseeing attractions and sell the videos or photos the device captured to visitors.

Since our solution is based on an ARM processor, its low power consumption and low heat generation are giving it advantages in some niche sectors such as 24-hour surveillance in the wilderness.

Our products are also being adopted in emerging applications such as electric vehicles and their charging stations for measuring power and handling payment.

Q: What is the IPC market's current status based on Artila's observation?

A: We are actually not seeing many players doing solutions like ours and our products so far still have not yet become a solid market that can attract enterprises to form an ecosystem. Although we do not see much of a competition, finding clients is also not an easy task for us.

Simply put, instead of finding clients, our business model is more relying on having clients find us.

Q: What advantages do Artila's products have in competition?

Artila's specialty is actually its firmware customization services. For x86-based IPCs, companies need help from Microsoft to assist them in software, but for ARM-based IPCs, companies need a service provider that is able to write firmware to control the devices for them to perform the functions they need. Atrila's team is able to assist its clients to customize their firmware to best suit their demand.

With IoT gradually becoming a major part of the IPC industry, Artila has been devoted to developing cloud transmission technologies and standards. In the past, we simply added networking functionality to traditional IPCs for them to transmit data to a server system, but now we are also offering support on multiple cloud protocols to our devices for them to build databases in any of the third-party cloud computing platforms from players such as Amazon, Microsoft and IBM.

Compared to x86-based systems that could easily crash after a few power outages, Artila's system features a power outage-proof measure that can prevent system crash and prolong the devices' product life.

Artila director of IoT Division Mike Kao

Artila director of IoT Division Mike Kao
Photo: Joseph Tsai, Digitimes, December 2017

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