This article was originally written by James Valentine, Chief Digital Technology Officer, Fisher & Paykel Technologies.
People will often have exciting ideas for connected, smart products and services, but the methods to make them come to life can remain uncertain. In this article we offer some practical advice on how to make progress, along with some typical pitfalls to avoid.
Before tackling the ‘how’, it is always important to understand the ‘why’. That is, why should we connect products to the internet in the first place? Looking at the connected products that our drive systems are integrated into, the most common reasons are:
- Allowing remote control of the product (e.g., from a mobile phone).
- Offer enhanced functionality that cannot be easily delivered in the form factor of the product. (e.g., complex controls).
- Send data from the product to monitor performance or better understand product usage.
- To allow for ‘over the air’ updates of the software on the product.
- Increasingly, companies are looking to use substantial amounts of real-world data to drive new algorithms or gain new data insights through the application of machine learning and related techniques.
When well designed, connected products offer significant opportunities for customer value and business value.
The key areas for you to consider in your IoT implementation are:
- Data transmission/processing requirements.
- Connectivity options.
- IoT platform options.
- OTA (and ‘Deep OTA’).
Your data transmission requirements will largely derive from the features that you are looking to realise in your product. If the focus is primarily on the transmission of data off the product to a backend platform, then the key analysis will need to be on the frequency of data that is required to deliver value. Break down the data that the product can collect, the size of the data, and the frequency it changes at. Attempt to quantify the value of these different data elements, as this will have a strong impact on your connectivity selection.
There are a wide range of connectivity options for products - Wi-Fi, 5G, NB-IoT, LTE, Bluetooth, LPWAN, and more. Selection here will depend on a number of factors:
- Required throughput and latency: From your data analysis, you will have determined the rate at which you want to send/receive data and the latency that you can tolerate.
- Power consumption: If your device is mains powered then all options are available. The lower the power on the device, the fewer options you can choose from.
- Ongoing cost: Different connectivity options have different ongoing costs. For example, cellular options such as 5G will have a monthly subscription cost for each connected device. The costs for cellular connectivity continue to decrease - but it’s important to ensure that your product's commercial viability can sustain ongoing monthly costs.
- Existing network availability: If your product is for consumers, leveraging their home Wi-Fi connection is a common option. If your product is industrial or commercial in nature it may not be possible to rely on connectivity to an existing network.
- Longevity: Technologies become obsolete. For example, carriers have shut down older 3G networks. If you are creating a product that has an exceptionally long service lifetime, then you need to consider how you might continue to offer connectivity.
- Reliability: If your product will not function properly without Internet connectivity, you may need to consider fallbacks or multiple connectivity options.
Working through the options and their specific trade-offs for your application will likely require some iteration back to your data requirements. For example, if considering a metered cellular connection, large volumes of data transfer may be uneconomic.
IoT platform options
Deployment of connected products will usually need the deployment of a backend IoT platform to manage devices, collect data, serve updates, and make that data available for analysis or for use by other platforms and devices. There are many companies supplying turnkey IoT platforms - from the hyperscale cloud providers through to niche industry operators. There are two common mistakes organisations make when selecting their IoT platform. The first is to tie your connected product to one platform in a way that it is not possible to move platforms. This becomes incredibly problematic in the event the company providing the platform goes out of business.
It’s also problematic when organisations make the second mistake wherein, they do not consider the cost of running the platform for the lifetime of the product, particularly in the case where a customer is not paying an ongoing service fee. Whatever IoT platform you select, it is important to design your products to be field upgradeable to use another platform or make any backend platform change invisible to the connected products. This usually means using non-proprietary, open standards and keeping control of any security keys to avoid vendor lock in.
OTA (and Deep OTA)
One certainty for your connected product is the need for ongoing changes and improvements. It could be the platform changes mentioned above that necessitate change, but more likely it will be the opportunity to improve the software on the product in the field - to fix issues, improve functionality or patch software vulnerabilities. For this, it is critical that your product supports Over the Air (OTA) updates. With OTA capability, your IoT platform can make new software updates available to your product. There are some important considerations for OTA. The first is the scope of OTA. In modern products, it is common to have multiple components running software.
Basic OTA approaches will only target the core system software for OTA. However, where possible ‘Deep OTA’ is an important capability. With Deep OTA, it is possible to update lower-level components in addition to the core system software. For example, in addition to updating the core display/logic board of an appliance, with Deep OTA it is possible to update the code on the motor controller as well. Whilst some added effort to implement - the benefits are significant. Deep OTA capable products allow for more extensive improvements to products and help ensure longevity.
The last point to discuss is Security. This is the most critical aspect of all we have raised so far. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked. So much so, that there is a running joke that the ‘S’ in IoT stands for ‘Security’. For those implementing IoT today, there is no excuse for not making security the foremost consideration in your implementation. This is not only to protect the reputation of your company but also to safeguard the privacy and security of your customers.
Every aspect of your implementation needs to have security as a primary consideration. If your product commercials cannot afford any minor cost increases needed to implement security, then abandon your connected plans and keep your product ‘dumb’. A key aspect to ensure you cover is supply chain security with regards to OTA. Make sure you implement the necessary security protections to prevent an attacker from creating fraudulent software updates for your products. A critical requirement is verifying the integrity of OTA updates before they are applied to the device. There is a cost in making a device secure - but it pales in comparison to the cost of shipping an insecure device to the world.
There is a lot to consider when implementing IoT into a product - however it doesn’t have to be daunting. Through some considered design and analysis, you can deliver a modern, secure, ‘smart’ connected product that your customers will love.