Larry Jordan (EE ’89), president of the remote monitoring technology company Wi-Tronix®, says that although he had led the Electro-Motive Diesel team that created the company’s signature IntelliTrain remote monitoring system, he just couldn’t shake the feeling that an even better system was just down the tracks.
“I can’t just have an idea—I have to make it a reality,” says Jordan, noting that when he had the chance to collaborate on a project with Electro-Motive colleague Mike Heilmann (M.B.A. ’04), he knew that together, they could make it happen.
Both men believed that remote monitoring technology could be developed that would improve the efficiency and safety of locomotives, Electro-Motive’s chief product. They lobbied to expand the product’s diagnostic scope to address these aspects, but the executive leadership wasn’t interested. The duo left in 2005 and began Wi-Tronix in Jordan’s basement. Joined by two former co-workers, the team began to develop their Wi‑PU™ [Wireless Processing Unit] and remote monitoring system solution. Recognizing that their innovative Internet of Things (IoT) technology was not limited to the rail industry, they coined the term “high-value mobile asset” to encompass expensive (costing more than $1 million) equipment that can be piloted away (from locomotives to tugboats), has a long life cycle, and demands sophisticated monitoring.
“We wanted the device to stand out from the blue of companies like General Motors and General Electric and from the blacks and grays of other locomotive electronics.” Mike Heilmann
About the size of a square tissue box, the Wi-PU can connect to a locomotive’s event recorder, or “black box,” and continuously monitors conditions and triggers remote alerts for inefficient or unsafe operations and accidents. In the United States, the recorder monitors and records data such as train speed, direction of motion, and brake applications and operations. The Wi-PU gathers data remotely in real time and provides the railway with information on fuel monitoring, GPS location, and access to on-board data. The unit is updatable, compatible with any mobile asset’s black box, and adaptable to future changes in technology.
“We wanted the device to stand out from the blue of companies like General Motors and General Electric and from the blacks and grays of other locomotive electronics” -Mike Heilmann
While the rail industry has been the company’s mainstay, with a client list that includes Amtrak, BNSF Railway, CN, and Kansas City Southern, the Wi-PU has been fitted onto water vessels such as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority ferries and Illinois Marine Towing boats in suburban Lemont. When Jordan and Heilmann approached the marine industry, they discovered no consolidated method existed for remote monitoring of high-value assets, such as tugboats. Heilmann says the marine paradigm mirrors that of the railway’s, “a longtime industry in which technology implementation is still a very new concept.”
Wi-Tronix now monitors more than 10,000 high-value mobile assets. In 2015 Jordan and Heilmann received the Daily Herald Business Ledger Entrepreneurial Excellence Award in the Innovation category for their idea.
While the Wi-Tronix team has grown to more than 90 employees and is now headquartered in a sleek office space in Bolingbrook, Illinois, the duo hasn’t forgotten how Illinois Tech helped to shape the company’s foundation. Heilmann, executive vice president of business development, explains that he drew on the knowledge he gained in a brand management course at Illinois Tech as the team decided on the company’s colors and logo.
“We wanted the device to stand out from the blue of companies like General Motors and General Electric and from the blacks and grays of other locomotive electronics,” says Heilmann about the team’s decision to use purple as Wi-PU’s central color.
“Through the fresh opportunities IIT afforded and with the help of professors, I was able to invent,” recalls Jordan, noting that Wi-Tronix offers Illinois Tech students and alumni internship and employment opportunities.
The expanded Wi-Tronix team, including Ken Schleich (AE ’11), recently unveiled its latest visionary product. At its annual conference this May, Wi-Tronix officially announced the launch of Violet™, the new, industry-leading, multi-functional Locomotive Data Acquisition Recording System (LDARS).
Violet makes other LDARS systems obsolete by enabling a host of new functionalities, including predictive diagnostics to increase locomotive reliability and video analytics that will improve safety for crews, railway workers, and the public.