Digital mavericks in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

//Digital mavericks in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Digital mavericks in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Leadership magazine June 2018 FC

The Internet of Things (IoT) and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) have been important talking points over the last 12 months, with many industries waking up to an array of benefits that connected technology and artificial intelligence (AI) can offer businesses.

One of the leaders in the rollout of more reliable and intuitive technology is Metacom, who custom-design and produce hardware, in particular, smart routers, in order to provide seamless high availability network connectivity across a converged communications platform. They deliver any data, anywhere in the world, reliably, securely and cost-effectively, and are currently working across 22 countries, with a sizable footprint in Africa.

Founded by the dynamic technology entrepreneur, Réan van Niekerk, in 2001, the company has grown from strength to strength, boasting bespoke offerings that focus on quality and performance. And because it is all done under one roof, including support, you get a more customised experience. Which is why they are the preferred provider for leading retail chains, banks and essential service providers like Eskom, for example.

Van Niekerk had an interest in technology from a young age and enjoyed taking things apart as a child, to see and understand how they work. He had one of the first IBM personal computers released in 1981. He developed a deep passion for programming and its technological systems and was fascinated by the interconnectivity of things, people, equipment, machinery, computers, and electronic communication always intrigued him.

Organic inception

In terms of his vision for the company from the beginning, and building its exceptionally reliable reputation over the years, Van Niekerk says, “I have always had a passion for technology and networking and interconnecting people, machinery and equipment. I created Metacom before the concept of IoT came into the public arena. Metacom has been doing this since 2001.

“Metacom was entirely bootstrapped, with no external capital or investors. The company has grown organically since inception and the business model has proven to be a great success. I set extremely high standards for customer service and the quality of work in everything we do, and anything less is simply not tolerated. Our customers rely heavily on us and our commitment to perform 24 hours a day as their businesses are heavily dependent on the reliability of our network infrastructure.

“One of the main driving forces was to provide high availability networks at very reasonable prices.
“By designing and manufacturing our own routers, we could provide exceptional products and services to our partners while others were constrained by traditional IT systems,” he insists.

Metacom is primarily a high availability Software Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN) company. Their focus is to provide exceptionally reliable point-to-point connectivity with multiple redundancies built into every part of the system.

The knowledgeable Van Niekerk says, “Although our networks are used for a number of different applications, we have developed exceptional expertise in business, engineering and financial transaction processing solutions. There are various products that have evolved over time but they all fit within those areas of expertise and specialisation.”

Over the years, Metacom has implemented a number of products and services, requiring network connectivity. It is pleasing to see a proudly South African company offer a whole suite of offerings, from design to product assembly and vital after-sales support and service. And when you are providing connectivity to some of the country’s leading banks and retail outlets, time is money.

“Our strategy has always been to build this reliable network infrastructure and to provide additional solutions that require network connectivity. Therefore, we have developed a number of vertical applications and specialisations with custom-designed hardware and software, such as internet video, internet radio, managed Wi-Fi and ATM connectivity, to name a few” he says.

IoT: the way of the future?

IoT isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon: it’s been around for quite a while, but only now it’s been coined as a term, so to speak.

“The basic concepts of IoT have actually been around for a very long time. It was (Bruno) Thüring who said in the 1940s that connected things will be a major part of our future, and there was tremendous advances in connectivity in the 50s and 60s. The term ‘IoT’ was only coined in 1999, and really only became mainstream over the past few years. But the interconnectedness of equipment, machinery, devices and people is a concept that has fundamentally been around for many decades,” Van Niekerk explains.

Research and development (R&D) are vital to push product development and the company’s goals forward, and Metacom spends a lot of sweat equity and collateral to stay ahead of the curve, in a very competitive industry.

He explains, “We continuously spend a tremendous amount of our income on R&D in the field of engineering capability as we believe that is the only way to take the business forward. It is important to note that all the engineering skills that we require—hardware, software and networking—reside under one roof, right here with us. Therefore, we have the capability to customise or to add additional features as our customers’ wish, which is a fairly unique capability, and which I certainly believe is unique in this country.”

International footprint

Metacom operates in 22 countries, 18 of which are in Africa, which is arguably the fastest-growing technology market in the world, with connectivity surging through the continent. And with it, the opportunities for IoT to be rolled out. But with any expansion into Africa, a strategic approach is favourable for long-term success.

Van Niekerk says, “Doing business in Africa is not for the fainthearted, there are numerous challenges: business, language, regulatory compliance issues, difficult terrain and vast distances. We like to believe that we do this for our customers to take their pain away, and as our devices are extremely robust and reliable, we are quite happy and comfortable to install them anywhere in Africa.

“There are so many different challenges. We believe that the only way to do things is to simply make a plan, so we have a rough idea what we need to do before we start the rollout and then our technicians and support staff at Metacom’s International Operations Centre must simply make a plan as they carry on. Business and regulatory compliance changes from month to month and country to country. There are various challenges, and we believe that by working with local partners in a particular region also helps us to understand the business and challenges that may exist in the region.”

Global appeal

Last year, Metacom reached a point of scalability and maturity, which allowed them to expand their footprint into Europe. Van Niekerk explains why they decided to open their first European office in Belgium and plans for the lucrative European market, which is also a gateway into other developing regions to the south and east.

“We established our office in Belgium in April 2017 and believe that our routers are of world-class quality. We are really excited to look at the European market as a whole to distribute, sell and support our routers. Not only do we have the ambition of distributing or expanding our business in this region, but we also intend to assist companies that are European-based with their African expansion. Because of our vast experience, both in business and the telecommunications field in Africa, we believe that we can support them, either on a consulting or project basis.

“Having Metacom’s presence in the region gives us access to the numerous conferences, events and trade shows; exposure we need to not only stay abreast of technology but to use this information to envision and build our own future,” Van Niekerk says.

Team effort

But like any good leader, Van Niekerk is eager to acknowledge the team around him who have been instrumental in the growth and wellbeing of the company. He is an extremely hardworking Managing Director who expects the best from himself and the team.

“It has taken me a tremendous amount of effort and time to find the right people, and I am very privileged and proud to work with an exceptionally-talented group of people, really senior engineers, especially on the product development side, fantastic hardware engineers, software engineers, embedded engineers and network engineers, covering the entire spectrum of what we need together with highly competent support structure in production, finance and systems support” he says.

In today’s world where it seems that everything is being produced in China, it’s really refreshing to see a locally-made product. Metacom is a bespoke digital communications provider that prides itself on an individualised approach to business, which relies on more than just the bottom line, but also on the critical after-sales support that cheaper offerings are unable to provide.

“We don’t try to compete with them [Chinese brands]; we provide products, which we believe are quite unique.

“We certainly come up against competition, price-wise, but the uniqueness of our products, the incredibly high quality of the design and manufacture, and the flexibility we offer our customers is what sets us apart,” Van Niekerk enthuses.

Five-year plan

In terms of further expansion, Van Niekerk outlines what Metacom hopes to achieve in the next few years. The focus has primarily been on engineering and developing state-of-the-art information and communications equipment, but it will expand as new opportunities arise due to the ever-changing face of technology, AI and software development.

“We will continue to drive hard and expand our installed base of routers exponentially. I am currently investigating a number of other international opportunities and we will definitely work on growing our international presence. Although ICT is our core, our passion and our success, there are numerous opportunities in the technology arena that excite me enormously.

“Metacom is passionate about technology and engineering is at the heart of what we do. It is in our DNA. We will continue to look for problems that require our innovative solutions, and create the technology to solve these,” he says.

The Cape Town hub

Metacom’s large office in Cape Town is a hub of activity, with several different departments working together to deliver a superior customer experience resulting in successful growth, year-on-year. This was made possible by the reliability of their products, through to the skills of their engineers and support team, once operations were up and running.

He says with pride, “Every single device that we install, supply and maintain comes out of this building. The final assembly, quality assurance, configuration management and all the final production and manufacturing of the products, occurs right here.

“Some of the keys to our success are our hardworking team of very capable people, focus and a little bit of luck. We were fortunate to win a number of the biggest corporates as our customers fairly early in the business cycle. Almost all our customers are doing well and growing, hence their growth is our growth.”

Blue Chip clients

Metacom has racked up some impressive clients over the years, which further illustrates the company’s impressive profile, reputation and reach, as he shares some of his blue chip clients.

“We provide all the communication networks for the entire PEP Group, including all the divisions such as Ackermans and John Craig, across Africa. Another major customer is Lewis Stores, for whom we provide all the communication they require. For Eskom, we provide over half the communication to monitor and control electricity distribution in South Africa, to name just a few,” Van Niekerk says.

Metacom, being a leader in the tech space in South Africa for 17 years, is able to boast about some telling achievements, which put them on the digital map.

There are numerous examples of firsts and major successes for Metacom:

  • First Integrated VPN communications infrastructure
  • First GPRS Financial Transaction Router
  • First GPRS SCADA Router
  • First Multi-Connectivity Router
  • First Integrated Router with Internet TV and Radio

Major customers including: EOH, Eskom, Lewis Stores, Old Mutual Finance, PEP Group and SPARK ATM, to name a few

Consistent Annual Growth

“Our greatest achievement lies in growing ‘The Metacom Way’. We are passionate about achieving the seemingly impossible and exceeding our customer’s expectations. We have an incredibly strong ‘can do’ attitude. ‘The Metacom Way’ is an ethos by which we live. It guides us in everything we do and nothing our customers ask of us is too much. We simply do what must be done. And we do it now,” Van Niekerk enthuses.

IoT savings

IoT is all about making critical long-term savings and optimising efficiencies for companies, while seamlessly integrating automation into our world. Saving time, money and energy is vital to the health of one’s balance sheet. Van Niekerk explains some of the benefits of their network, “The primary benefit that we offer is incredibly high network reliability. Because there are multiple redundant failover systems in every part of the communication chain, we are able to provide customers with up-time in connectivity, which is unsurpassed in the industry, at a highly competitive price, which is just unbelievable!”

“As we become more and more reliant on devices and IoT, whether it be people, computers, machinery, sensors, controllers and edge computing devices in the field, we need to be mindful that without reliable connectivity, the devices are basically useless. So, connectivity and reliable network infrastructure is of paramount importance as IoT grows. And let’s not forget that we are only in the very early stages,” he elaborates.

The MC6000 Enterprise Router

Metacom’s recently released pride and joy, the MC6000 Enterprise Router, is the most sophisticated router designed in Africa. Van Niekerk gives insight into this ambitious endeavour and why it has been so successful.

“The success is due to our formidable experience in the field. Integrate a lifetime of technology experience, and more than 15 years of experience developing intelligent routers. I believe this is a world first, as the MC6000 integrates all the functionality and services a retailer or bank branch may require; reliable communication with integrated fibre, ADSL, LTE and Wi-Fi connectivity, incorporating failover communication, Internet TV, Internet Radio, and much more,” he explains.

As with any new technology, you can either run away from it and be scared, or embrace it and enjoy the full benefits. Van Niekerk sees utterly limitless opportunities and possibilities that come with the advent of the 4IR.

“I believe that we will build anything we can imagine now. I am really excited by man’s ingenuity to create incredible things. And with the advent of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), giving us more than 340 undecillion unique IP addresses, there is going to be no reason why we cannot connect anything and everything in the future. Various international studies show that there will be upwards of 100 billion devices connected by 2030. That is only a minuscule percentage of the available IP addresses under IPv6,” he enthuses.

IoT misconceptions

Like any new technology, there are often misconceptions about IoT and Van Niekerk often needs to explain to clients exactly how it works and the real-world benefits. Hollywood and action movies have distorted what the 4IR will look like and its impact on humans.

“It’s quite interesting that when you ask 100 people in the know what IoT is, the initial statement is usually similar but the details are massively different. So, IoT is just a vast idea of things being interconnected. What it actually means depends on specific markets, specific applications and specific needs,” he explains.

There are security concerns when you have so many devices connected, and Van Niekerk believes that securing your online assets is of prime importance in the new digital age.

“Security is going to have to be continuously enhanced in order to keep abreast of all the problems that arise, but let’s not underestimate that as fast as we block holes in security, hackers will find other ways to disrupt operations. It is a concern, very much so, especially with IPv6, where everything is connected to one vast IP network and everything is, theoretically speaking, able to connect to anything else. Security is a major concern that will have to be addressed, as it is presently, but even more so in the future,” Van Niekerk elaborates.

IoT and energy efficiency

Energy efficiency is one of the requirements of remote IoT, firstly, by making each device as energy efficient as possible from the battery life perspective, through to devices only being turned on when needed, thus saving on operational energy.

“All devices that are designed should be energy efficient so that collectively they use as little energy as possible. It’s true to say that your cell phone charger uses very little power, but if you’re connecting two billion cell phone chargers a day and most are not even plugged into phones, those little power supplies collectively consume and waste a tremendous amount of energy, so devices must be designed from the ground up to be energy efficient. Secondly, with IoT devices you are able to manage energy consumption so that air conditioners are turned off automatically when people leave, and electric devices that consume huge quantities of electricity are properly managed and controlled when they are not required. The energy efficiency concept will be better controlled by modern design techniques and certain specialist areas of IoT,” he says.

Health and safety

As more and more electromagnetic radiation covers the planet for GSM, Wi-Fi, satellite and other communication, some scientists argue that there are health concerns from overexposure due to this radiation. Given that this phenomenon is still relatively new, few definitive studies exist.

Van Niekerk muses, “That’s a fascinating debate and there have been various studies in that arena to check, monitor and attempt to prove whether or not electromagnetic radiation has any effect on us. There are two schools of thought—clearly, there’s an extremely strong school of thought that believes it is harmful to mankind and society.

“When we conduct these studies though, we need to take into account that every day when we walk outside, we are exposed to the natural radiation from the universe. From the sun, there’s a tremendous amount of radiation, which is blocked by the atmosphere and the magnetic fields around the planet. Having said that, it is an area of concern, which must be monitored and scientifically verified, as to whether it is or is not a problem for the future of mankind.”

Role models

Globally, the ICT space is filled with high-profile leaders who have changed the world that we know today. From Steve Jobs to Bill Gates and Elon Musk, there are a plethora of high-profile visionaries for Van Niekerk to look up to.

“I have various role models and mentors in various areas of my life. In technology, it would certainly be these. We also have to remember, in a different era, Henry Ford and the Wright brothers, and I grouped those collectively for one very important reason—they all not only had a vision but the ability to work hard, and the grit to continue working hard under extremely trying circumstances. For me, there are so many people with dreams and a vision. There are many people who work hard and are capable of working hard.

“A leader needs to have a vision and the ability to work hard and have true grit under trying circumstance to ensure that the company moves ahead. That is difficult and it’s why I respect people with these qualities.”

Van Niekerk concludes by outlining his keys to sound leadership and the importance of leading from the front. “Being a leader, there is nothing like experience. Lead from the front and set an example. I never expect of others what I am not prepared to do myself. A leader needs to know a bit about everything, but most importantly, create the right environment for the people, the experts in their field, to flourish and develop.”

Metacom will open their Johannesburg office on 1 September 2018, as their business continues to prosper. Watch this space for more.