IoT for the Rest of Us: Effective Design Strategies for Wirelessly Connected Devices

BY MIKE ROBERTS | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN PDMA VISIONS MAGAZINE, ISSUE 1, 2016 • VOL. 40 • NO.1

IoT for the Rest of UsIt seems every day another Internet of Things (IoT) expert is making an even bolder prediction about how big the market will be for smart products that use wireless connectivity to provide users with exciting new features. Appliances that can diagnose their own repair needs. Coffee makers that can order more of those K-Cup® capsules. Industrial equipment that can report data that used to require onsite visits to remote locations. The list is limited only by the imagination of product designers and engineers, and that is why the experts keep adding zeros to the end of their predictions about how much money there is to be made selling smart, wirelessly connected products.

Companies that manufacture both consumer and industrial products are clamoring to get their share of the market. That means a very high percentage of PDMA members are already facing (or will soon face) an intimidating number of IoT design projects from their employers who want to be first to market or who are desperately trying to catch up to competitors.

For most people, IoT is all about the cool, futuristic smart things that previously “dumb” products can do. They naturally focus on the new bells and whistles that are possible when products suddenly have wireless connectivity nearly anywhere in the world. Their excitement is warranted. So many of the applications of IoT are science fiction come to life. But what about the rest of us—those who are responsible for actually designing these products and making them a reality? We have to build these things. We have to make this sci-fi stuff come true, but it isn’t easy. The honest truth is that IoT design is difficult. It can be fraught with challenges, full of wrong turns and painfully slow. Fortunately, there are steps product managers can take to sidestep those challenges and put these complex design projects on a path to success.

The purpose of this article is to map out a design strategy for new product professionals who are making the wireless revolution come to fruition.

Let’s start with one of the key early decisions a product manager must make when mapping out the strategy for a design project. To create a marketready, connected product, product managers and design engineers have a long checklist that they need to address in their game plan for the redesign. One of the first big questions an engineering team should tackle is the decision about what to put inside the product vs. what you do outside the product. How you map that out will have a significant impact on how quickly the project can be completed, how many resources you will need and how successful the final product turns out to be.

Putting too much on the product not only increases the scope of your design project, but it also means you will likely need a lot of outside help because of the range of specialized skills involved: radio frequency design expertise, firmware programming expertise, specialized skills in electromagnetic compatibility, IT security expertise, database programming skills, smartphone/tablet app design expertise, HTML/Web design skills and more. Few companies have that eclectic set of skills in-house and getting access to them from outside contractors may not be an attractive option to propose to management.

Figure 1

Figure 1 

With IoT projects, product managers need to think very carefully about what not to include in the connected product. Keeping the in-product elements to a minimum allows the design teams to make the scope of these re-designs more manageable, skip over the design steps that require external resources and get to a finished product faster. It also results in a more elegantly designed product, which is something every product manager and design engineer values a great deal. The way to keep in-product components to a minimum is to take advantage of cloud computing as a home for those complex elements, utilizing Internet-based computing resources as an extension of the product.

Cloud computing may not necessarily be a topic that comes up much in shop talk among new product managers. It is typically something that the IT department concerns itself with, but IoT projects are building a bridge between the IT world and the product design world, and neither will ever be the same.

The big picture of what will come from that alliance is the subject for another article, but there is a very practical interaction that plays out in design projects for these IoT projects: By shifting key elements on the design checklist to the cloud, design teams can minimize the amount of actual design work they have to do as they turn traditional products into connected products. This strategy also allows design teams to utilize pre-built platforms that reside on the cloud, eliminating the need for specialized external talent. In addition, a cloud-based strategy has long-term benefits for more easily and cost-effectively supporting and enhancing systems throughout their lifecycle.

Figure 2

 Figure 2

There are four major elements to a design project that takes advantage of the cloud (see Figures 1 and 2):

  1. The connected product itself, in which the design modifications can be minimized dramatically thanks to the cloud. The inproduct components can be addressed with a low-cost, highperformance wireless module that equips the product with a radio that can wirelessly connect to a network, establish an Internet connection and interact with the cloud-based software. Modules have the added benefit of being pre-certified to meet the compliance requirements of governing bodies such as the Federal Communications Commission in the United States.
  2. A wide area network (WAN) is a wireless network that the product can connect to, enabling the transfer of data to and from a device. In most cases, it is simply a Wi-Fi network like those found in most residential and commercial settings. In some cases (such as products that are used in remote areas), however, a cellular network or perhaps even a proprietary protocol may be the more practical source of connectivity.
  3. A cloud server with the software components that were not built into the product itself, including functionality for managing communication with your connected products, managing interaction with a smartphone/tablet app and providing other key functionality such as data-logging, analytics and rules-based engines that aggregate product data and make it actionable. There are robust platforms on the market that provide this functionality in a way that removes the need for electronic engineering teams to do development work themselves or with contracted help.
  4. A smartphone/tablet app that provides an interface for the customer to interact with and control the connected product.

Cloud servers and cloud-based applications aren’t typically in the tool box of product managers and their engineering teams, but IoT projects require a different tool box—or at least a larger one— because of the reasons already discussed. The cloud solves those technical challenges in a way that gives design teams a fighting chance at keeping up with the wave of re-designs coming their way, and it results in streamlined product designs that have an elegance any product manager can appreciate. It’s also important to note that the easiest and fastest way to address the cloud portion of these design projects is to use an IoT platform solution like TiWiConnect.

These pre-built platforms reduce development costs, minimize risks, accelerate timelines to deployment and offer solutions that will inherently grow and evolve to support your installed base of products through their entire life cycle. That is important to remember because you don’t need to be a cloud expert to ensure that your design project includes cloud connectivity. No need to run out and get certifications in cloud computing infrastructure management and those other disciplines.

This article is naturally just an introduction to a few of the design principles that will help you as you and your teams tackle IoT products. For a deeper dive into the technical aspects of effective IoT product design, access the white paper, “’Is there an App for that?’ Leveraging the Cloud to add powerful Mobile App capabilities to your Product,” which LS Research’s technical team recently published.

Mike Roberts, who has more than 30 years of experience in product development, is the director of disruptive innovation for LS Research (now a part of Laird), a global leader in wireless modules and design services for the next generation of connected smart products. In his role at Laird, Roberts steers research and product development that help companies around the world design wirelesslyenabled products much more quickly and successfully. Roberts is also the vice president of membership for PDMA’s Wisconsin Chapter.