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As a technical consultant at KPN, there’s always something that can be connected
 10 October 2022
As a technical consultant at KPN, there’s always something that can be connected 

This article is an advertorial, brought to you by KPN and Tweakers Partners.

Can a meadow ‘talk’? And what about a coffee machine, can that ‘talk’ too? If you ask Arjen van der Knijff (KPN), the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. His job is all about connecting devices. As a technical consultant at KPN Internet of Things, his day-to-day work involves exploring potential opportunities and, more importantly, identifying what is required to actually get them up and running.

As Arjen himself puts it, his job is about getting devices ‘to talk to each other’. “My goal is to constantly improve products or related services. For example, so that farmers can use sensor technology to see which areas of land need irrigating and which don’t. Or so that coffee machine suppliers can see how often the coffee beans need refilling and whether the machines are still working as they should – and perhaps even whether users of those machines prefer to drink latte macchiatos or espressos, which delivers interesting insights for the Marketing department.”

From hardware to dashboards
As a member of KPN IoT’s Customer Solutions Team, Arjen examines data-related issues in collaboration with KPN’s customers. “Our task is to identify their problem and figure out ways to solve it. That could be anything, but it always involves several disciplines.” The first step is the hardware that you need, for example to read out data via a serial connection or based on analog measurements. “Or you might be able to use an additional sensor. Then you have to think about data carriers, perhaps LoRa, LTE-M, or even 4G- or 5G-based solutions. After the hardware and communication, the data ends up somewhere where something needs to be done with it; you might need to decode or enrich that data so that the user can actually use it. And then you need an application or some kind of other solution, such as a simple dashboard or a connection to a business information system.”

Arjen’s role in that process is to analyze what is actually needed to make such chains operational and to come up with a design. “Sometimes we deliver a proof of concept that demonstrates, for example, that we can actually get that one particular heat pump to tell us something remotely.” And once the team has figured everything out and proven that the solution works, there is still the challenge of building a sound business case. “I don’t do that on my own; as a technical consultant, I work closely with a business consultant and a project manager. The business consultant oversees the business case, and the project manager makes sure we get the guidance we need in a project, for example, by liaising with our customer, application parties and hardware suppliers.”

Changing the world of bicycle insurance
Every project is different, and that is precisely what makes the work challenging, explains Arjen. “For each project, you have to immerse yourself in the customer’s field. And all along the chain there are difficult trade-offs to be made. Decisions you make in one place have an impact on what you can do further down the line.” A prime example of this is a project that was recently completed for an insurance company, which was looking for a solution to help them successfully track and recover stolen bicycles. One of the key requirements was that the proposed solution had to continue to be operational for the entire duration of a bicycle insurance policy, in this case five years. “A LoRa device can run for a very long time on a battery. These types of resource-constrained devices sleep practically all of the time; they wake up briefly to send small messages of, at most, a few hexadecimals, and then go back to sleep – until the moment that the ‘theft mode’ is activated remotely. After which, they proactively transmit location updates at a high frequency.”

Besides the durability of the solution, the device also had to be secure. “The solution had to be weatherproof. We also had to think about the design and shape, to make sure that policyholders could attach it to their bike. Such considerations have an impact on the hardware, and that’s about more than just connectivity.” Since this project entailed the development of an entirely new service, from front to back, it was exciting to work on. “We worked side by side with the customer to brainstorm how the service should work and how someone could then locate a bike using an app, which had to be able to communicate with our platform. It also had to be possible, using RF and Bluetooth, to locate a bicycle from a short distance.” Quite apart from all the technical challenges, the business case also had to be spot on. In this case, a bike owner would rather recover their stolen bike than be reimbursed for a new one by the insurance company, which reduces payout costs. “That’s the calculation you need to make. The insurance policy can’t cost more than a certain amount, so then you build a case in which business and technology intersect. That’s a real challenge.”

Integration challenges
It is that mix of technology and business that Arjen loves about his work at KPN, where he has now been working for around five years. “I studied business information systems and business administration at the University of Groningen, but I specialized in IT. I can program, but I prefer not to do that all day. I really like working on integration challenges.” He gives the example of a customer who wants to be able to read out data from energy systems in residential homes. “The question here is how you actually go about doing that, because some devices already have vendor-specific solutions, but others don’t. The challenge is to get a whole chain up and running – from reading data, for example with a modbus, to creating a dashboard with Power BI, for example.”
Arjen’s favorite thing about his job? “Creating and delivering the dashboard is the really rewarding part of a project, and that’s great. But I would say that the thing I enjoy doing the most is connecting devices and obtaining data. That’s where it all starts, where you get devices talking to each other. That’s also my task. At the end of the day, I’m not the one who puts it into production; I’m there to figure out if it can be done and then to work out how we’re going to do it, with a design and usually a proof of concept. So that the development teams can set to work on it and the finished solution ticks all the boxes.”

Never a dull moment
The technical consultant has found that people are still sometimes surprised when he tells them about the markets and fields in which KPN operates. “Whenever I’m at a birthday party and mention that I work for KPN, people often say: ‘Oh, could you take a look at my router?’ That makes me laugh, people know us as a telecom company. We’ve always been the Netherlands’ number-one connector, and that’s essentially what we’re still doing now – in my case through IoT.” Arjen is inspired by the new products and improved services that emerge as a result of connecting devices; that motivates him to get out of bed every morning. “I just love that. And our department is full of young, enthusiastic, and inquisitive people who are great to work with. As a technical consultant, it’s also great to be able to move around – whether that’s in the energy sector, financial services, or in the healthcare sector, where we also do many projects. Ultimately, the sector doesn’t really matter. After all, there’s always something that can be connected.”

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