How a Calgary company keeps slushees flowing around the world

Oilfield sensor technology is being put to use in convenience stores, farmers’ fields

A Calgary company that started 30 years ago in oil and gas monitoring is now helping convenience stores monitor their slushee machines.

The next time you’re treating yourself to a sugar-filled, semi-frozen beverage from your nearest corner store, there’s a good chance a Calgary-based company helped make it happen.

Matt Heffernan, CEO of Zedi Inc., said the company got its start more than 30 years ago making probes and sensors for oil and gas wells.

Initially they made probes that could be lowered down a well to send back information, but over the decades they expanded into automation, and even artificial intelligence.

“The view was we could use technology – even back then – to determine how much volume was being produced, were there any alarms (…) so producers knew how much production they really had.”

As with so many Alberta companies, the 2014 downturn had them looking to branch out into other sectors, and diversify beyond oil and gas.

“We thought those industries would be environmental,” said Heffernan. “Air monitoring, water monitoring, renewable energy, those sorts of things. And we started to pursue those.”

Matthew Heffernan, CEO of Zedi Inc., stands by a wall of some of the company’s oilfield products.

But they were also approached by a business that specializes in slushee machines, and the company realized they could help them out as well.

Heffernan noted that getting an ice-filled drink to the customer requires a fairly complex piece of equipment. They put eight sensors in a gas well, but 16 on a slushee machine.

“We invented new technology that was really an extension of what we did in the oil sector, but really used state-of-the-art wireless communications – leading edge stuff we’re good at – and started to deploy those in convenience stores.”

The sensors do three things: They warn of potential mechanical problems before they happen, they alert the owner when things like syrup need to be restocked, and they monitor the quality of the final product going into your cup.

Heffernan said as with the work they continue to do in the energy sector, it’s all about reducing down time for the customer.

Mary Moran, president and CEO of Calgary Economic Development, said Zedi is a great example of how Calgary businesses are pivoting from the focus on energy to find new markets.

“We say technology isn’t a sector these days but something that applies to all sectors of the economy,” Moran said in an email to LiveWire.

“So when you see a company like Zedi embrace new opportunities and take the technology that it was using in oil and gas and apply it to other sectors, it speaks to the incredibly innovative thinking happening in Calgary as we grow and diversify our economy.”

Heffernan said the solution they developed for slushee machines involves the latest wireless technology, and they’re now finding they can take that back to the energy sector and provide new low-cost solutions there that weren’t possible just a few years ago.

They’re also partnering with Olds College on soil monitoring.

“This is real time moisture content at depth, and what’s the soil telling us? That then integrates into smart farming.”

And yes, one cannabis company is already working with Zedi on their grow operations as well.

It’s still very early days for Zedi’s new direction. The company has 1.72 million sensors now deployed in the energy sector, and just under 1,000 deployed in new applications outside of energy.

“But that started just after January,” said Heffernan. “So it’s fast growing, but it’s not making a mark on being in 26 countries and on 146,000 wells. That’s still our bread and butter.”

His larger vision is one of sensors being integrated into all parts of our lives. While other tech companies are working at developing sensors and making them as small as possible, he wants Zedi to be the company that integrates these into business and environmental solutions.

“Why can’t we look at what’s in the belly of a fish?” he asked. “Why can’t we look at chlorophyll in a plant? Why can’t we look at moisture in soil? Our belief is the planet is talking to us and we’re just not listening. This allows us to listen.”

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