Interview with mcThings and the Internet of Things

In the realm of the Internet of Things, companies like the one I had the pleasure of interviewing today are making major waves. mcThings (pronounced emm-see things) is a small company that makes it easy for people like you and me to bring the Internet of Things to our house. Literally.

Using the software and circuitry they’ve developed at their facility in Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, they managed to wire up an entire house with a smart monitoring system. They keep track of everything from how warm the living room is to whether the plants have been watered or not.

They can even see how many times the fridge has been opened.

All of mcThings boards communicate wirelessly using their very own communication protocol. I spoke with Thomas Edworthy, a sales specialist at mcThings, and asked him a little about his company. Check out our awesome interview here.

The Interview

Can you give a brief description of what mcThings does so my readers can hear it firsthand?

mcThings develops electronics and the firmware platforms to help companies to create and maintain IoT solutions. Our platform is a powerful measurement and control platform allowing users to develop and deploy large scale Internet-of-Things solutions rapidly and cost effectively. Essentially, we connect ‘things’ to the internet that don’t have a plug! Using our platform, you can connect almost anything to the internet to be able to control or measure different variables. Our platform can be used in practically any industry for almost any purpose. We work with our own communication protocol (mcAir) and also work with SIGFOX which is an up and coming IoT communication network (LPWAN).

Some examples of using our platform:

  • Smart cities — example — measure the weight or load of a garbage bin and then report its status. Now, instead of picking up every bin every day, only those bins that are full can be picked up and emptied saving time, gas, congestion, etc.
  • Smart agriculture — Easily measure critical variables (such as temperature, humidity, light levels, soil moisture, etc.) and relay that information back for analysis and alerts. Start to be very efficient with resources and possibly increase yields by having increased real-time information
  • Industrial IoT — measure variables and control equipment in industrial settings
  • Inexpensive asset tracking — using SIGFOX, asset tracking is now feasible enough to track almost any asset. (IE — City construction signs, waste bins, beehives (yes, beehives) livestock tracking, etc.

Some really cool examples that people are exploring:

  • mcThings modules into the base of beer pint glasses — With a sensor, you could alert the wait staff when that beer is getting empty and also temperature.
  • Embedding mcThings modules into seats at an arena which could then relay how many ‘butts’ are in the seats at any given moment, are there any trends that can be identified, can advertising be billed differently in certain sections during different periods/quarters in a sports game based on trend data, etc.
  • – There are many more (I could go on for hours) as the hardware and the platform is so versatile, you can practically turn anything into an IoT device!

Photo credit: www.mcThings.com

This kit is everything you need to get started with the Internet of Things

What are the backgrounds of some of the engineers you have on board that help to design your products?

We have multiple engineers working in different areas within our company. We have a couple of Software engineers which includes our CTO. Combined, they have over 35 years of software experience and have created our IDE (mcStudio). We also have two senior firmware engineers who have spent countless hours writing and testing the mcOS operating system as well as the specific firmware that each device/module requires. This is also an advantage to our platform as we have written the firmware already for our devices so those who are working with our platform don’t need to write the firmware, they just need to program the devices to whatever their use-case is.

We also employ a full-time hardware engineer who’s main focus is to design and modify all existing and new modules/devices that we are working on. All of our engineers have come from backgrounds doing similar things but never with creating brand-new technology like we have done here at mcThings.

Can you describe what a general day looks like for an engineer at mcThings?

Every day is different! We have multiple projects that are ongoing and new ones all the time. Our engineers spend their days writing programming, firmware and hardware design. Some days we are designing custom devices for clients, some are fixing bugs that have been identified within our system and testing. Some days are doing client meetings and working out requirements and others are prototyping and testing different sensors and working closely with our cloud partners to test capabilities. It’s a great work environment and everyone works together as one team — Everyone has the chance/ability to give input on all projects and other happenings at the office and we encourage that! The more views on what we do and suggestions just help us to make our platform better! The only thing that is the same every day is our required minimum of 1 foosball game per engineer/day! J

What software do you use for your designs?

Hardware — Altium designer

Software and firmware — Visual studio, Eclipse, GCC compiler, etc.

Check out this LIVE data of a smart house!

Can you tell me about a failure you encountered that you had to work through to get a project up and running? I tend to see students get discouraged when they fail but I try to enforce that failure is an important part of learning. How did a failure wind up teaching you a valuable lesson or work to your benefit in the long run?

We’ve had our fair share of failures and road blocks during the creation of our platform. This was not unexpected and some were worse than others! When creating new technology you can do your best to work out the issues that you will need to deal with but there will always be things that come up that you don’t expect! Some examples would be designed hardware that does not work the first time and needed to be redesigned. This can be discouraging as you work really hard to design everything to suit your needs (cost, design and functionality considerations) and when you run into issues, it’s not fun! However, taking the time to figure out where we went wrong, fixing that and learning from those mistakes make the next design that much easier. Finding/designing solutions to problems is the core of our business and we reflect that in our work ethic. Some of the greatest days we’ve had at the office are when you finally track that one bug down in software or realize that a small change on a PCB design will solve our problems! Finding the solution to a problem and fixing it is quite gratifying and it allows us to face the next challenge knowing that there is a solution to every problem, you just have to find it!

Your team has accomplished some amazing things, from completely wireless communication to your own scripting language. What advice would you give to a young engineer that is about to graduate college and is looking to accomplish such ambitious goals in engineering?

Believe in yourself and don’t give up! Some of the greatest inventions and innovations in human history were marred with unbelievable roadblocks yet, with some gumption and hard-work, those inventions and innovations still came to life! Yes, you will face problems and issues, but part of being an engineer is solving those issues and designing/implementing the solution.

I try to enforce how important it is to self-educate and learn things that are not just for a grade but because you genuinely want to know them. What kind of things do you do outside of work that contribute to your engineering knowledge?

All of our team (engineers and other departments) spend considerable time learning outside of the office. For example, our senior hardware engineer is currently enrolled in programming language courses as is our sales and marketing team. We all keep an eye out on emerging technology to be informed and to see if there is anything that we can incorporate into our platform. While this is a daunting task to continue to learn outside of our workplace, we genuinely enjoy learning about new technology and other disciplines as we have seen these learnings help us in the past and they will no doubt help us in the future

Thanks for your answers!

Thanks again and talk to you soon!

Takeaways

If there’s one thing you walk away from reading this interview with, I hope it’s that you don’t ever think something is too big to accomplish again. Not only does mcThings provide the circuitry to develop smart technology, they developed their own communication protocol, development environment, and operating system!

If this isn’t an inspiration, I don’t know what is.

I also love what Tom said about learning outside of work.

“All of our team (engineers and other departments) spend considerable time learning outside of the office.”

If you’ve been around this blog for any length of time, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of self-education and learning outside of the classroom. Even with a homemade operating system under their belt, engineers at mcThings are still spending their free time improving their skills.

This little quote about not giving up was another great piece of advice to take away from this interview.

“Yes, you will face problems and issues, but part of being an engineer is solving those issues and designing/implementing the solution.”

I believe failure is such an amazing teaching tool and should be used as such. A lot of people give up when things don’t go as planned but that is the exact point that you need to keep carrying on. You come out of every experience, good or bad, a little wiser and more experienced than you entered it with.

If you’d like to learn more about mcThings, check out https://www.mcthings.com/ and get working on the Internet of Things!