June 24, 2015

Colorado startup plans to accelerate supply chain computing

Smart chips could deliver real-time decisions in any location.

By Ben Ames

Supply chain transactions could run with blistering speed and nearly error-free performance if a technology startup called N.io Innovation Limited has its way.

Pronounced "Neo," the year-old Broomfield, Colo.-based company recently unveiled an ambitious plan to automate logistics, retail, and manufacturing operations by installing inexpensive microprocessors in and at strategic nodes such as sensors, scanners, and docks. Because each chip uses N.io's software framework to monitor the stream of data generated at its node, the technology enables any electronic device to make nearly instant decisions based on programmable rules.

Applied to a manufacturing facility, that means a N.io node hooked up to a flame sensor could detect a fire, then quickly send instructions to other nodes that cooperate by shutting off liquid propane burners, triggering a fire alarm, or instructing cranes to lift flammable materials out of the danger zone.

In another example, a retailer could install a N.io node in each UPC scanner at its checkout counters, and instantly compress inventory status updates from weekly batch processing into split-second intervals.

N.io's biggest challenge was to design a software platform that could be interoperable with any type of sensor, checkout scanner, AutoID reader, or other information source, says Doug Standley, the company's CEO and co-founder. Designers also had to maintain a delicate balancing act of loading the program onto nodes with enough just processing power to be intelligent, but not too expensive to install throughout a large facility.

Finding that balance was crucial for avoiding what Standley sees as a fatal flaw in the design of current technologies such as RFID tags and cloud computing: That they rely on uploading vast amounts of data to distant servers before algorithms can begin to analyze the information and generate reactions.

The company's solution is to use its inexpensive, smart nodes to process all that raw data "on the edge" of the network, where the information originates, and only transmit small batches of data in response.

"The velocity of the supply chain relies on a plethora of piece-parts of information; most proprietary, most latent," Standley said. In contrast, the ideal application of N.io would provide interoperable, real time logic, he said.

N.io's approach would supercharge the Internet of Things (IoT) by providing applied intelligence and automation to any business asset, according to a report by Glen Allmendinger, CEO of Harbor Research, a technology consulting firm in Boulder, Colo. The company's core innovation is an adaptive, real-time, signal-processing platform that can deliver distributed intelligence, control, and automation, Allmendinger said.

Founded in 2014, N.io plans to announce its first public customer later this summer, after running limited rollouts with a number of beta users, and soon apply its "pervasive computing" model to other business sectors struggling to solve the challenge of handling the vast amount of data produced by the proliferation of sensors in the expansion of the industrial internet.

Note: This article was updated on June, 29, 2015.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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