Top considerations before starting your IoT design project
There is no question that the Internet of Things (IoT) market has enormous potential. Literally everything that can be manufactured, from automobiles to refrigerators, is now being considered a candidate for connectivity. Adding features that provide consumers with direct and/or remote access to devices for updates, maintenance or information represent unlimited revenue opportunities for both start-ups and established companies.
Few companies have the expertise or the resources to build every component of their design from scratch. Online suppliers offer myriad sophisticated, off-the-shelf solutions to help designers add wireless connectivity to new and/or existing products, but developers are often hesitant to adopt new technologies as they fear their lack of in-house experience or support tools could lengthen the product design cycle.
A thorough trade-off analysis of your application at the earliest stages of the design process is really the best way to make the right technology choices and get your product to market as quickly as possible. This concept, called virtual prototyping, allows designers to define and test system attributes. In this way, cost constraints, time-to-market and performance requirements can be evaluated and balanced to make sure the end product is both valuable and affordable before making any large design or manufacturing investments.
Understanding Your Application
Even if an engineering team is able to cobble together various components into a working product, few companies have the in-house expertise to navigate all steps necessary to successfully take an IoT product to market. Before jumping on the bandwagon, it is vital that you fully understand the hardware, software and certification requirements of your application before you even begin design. There are several key questions to ask during this analysis phase:
- What is the end goal of the application? Will it be used to track products in a supply chain, or monitor machines for product wear and tear? Does it need to provide real-time data for information, planning or safety/security purposes? Or perhaps the intent is automation and control? Understanding the end-use scenario will enable you to determine the required power and performance levels.
- What are the size requirements? Today’s consumers seem to want everything to be as small as possible, but at what cost? Take wearables for example. Performance is often limited in these miniature form factors, which are really only capable of supporting small bursts of data. If small size and high-performance is mandated, a long-lasting battery will be needed to extend power consumption demands, which can quickly make the overall solution larger and more costly. Outfitting a large space in a building can be equally as difficult since you will have to determine just how many components will be needed to ensure sufficient signal transmission throughout a facility.
- What are the communication range requirements of the application? In an indoor or urban area, with WiFi readily available, range can be measured in feet or yards. But in an outdoor or rural area, the range needed for a signal to reach the nearest server/wireless gateway could be miles, requiring a cellular or GPS interface. If it’s a long transmission distance, higher power and higher frequencies will be needed. If it’s a remote location that can’t be accessed frequently, battery life will be an important. Interference with physical obstacles or other RF devices can also affect operational distance.
- What is the power source? Transmitter power is a very critical matter in the design of an application since it affects both the range of the communication and the battery life. The longer the range, the more power is required. The more power required, the shorter the battery life. If the device will be powered by batteries alone, then all design decisions must consider how to preserve power. Many networking technologies will not be a good fit with battery power. Frequency of communication has an influence on power selection, too.
- What environmental considerations need to be addressed? One of the many benefits of wireless systems is that they can often go where human beings cannot, including harsh and/or hazardous environments. However, it’s important to verify what types of wireless systems are able to operate in specific situations (hot, cold, wet, dry) and even extreme conditions. For example, an application that needs to be implemented in a medical freezer, or one used in a server farm that emits a great amount of heat, will likely require more frequent monitoring and possibly built-in emergency alerts.
- Does your product need to communicate with other products? If so, then you need to make sure they are interoperable. This goes beyond compliance with organizations such as IEEE, ISO and others, as even these well-known standards are sometimes open to interpretation in more than one way. For example, say there are two different manufacturers of media access controllers (MACs). Both are compliant with the 802.11b standard, but one doesn’t include all the functionality required for a specific operation by the end user. Even though both MACs are compliant with the same standard, they may not be compliant with one another or with the user’s application. The only way to ensure interoperability is via an interoperability testing and certification process.
- What about security? Even if your application isn’t targeted for use by the military, financial industry or health organizations, security of information is, and always will be, a major design consideration. Bottom line, you need to design-in as many layers of encryption protocols as feasible; SSL and passwords at the very minimum.
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