Is It Time to Incorporate the Internet of Things in Your Product Line?
Consider the opportunities—and challenges—involved.
The Internet of Things (IoT) seems to be the buzzword on everyone’s lips these days. With an astonishing 25 billion devices predicted to be connected to the Internet by 2015, some experts predict it could become a multi-trillion dollar market by the end of the decade. Wireless sensors are being incorporated into everything from garbage cans to refrigerators—and that’s just the beginning.
Countless new products are currently in development and will be entering the market in the coming months and years. Appliance manufacturers that don’t already have an IoT strategy in place put themselves at risk of falling behind.
This presents a huge opportunity, to be sure. However, the IoT brings challenges as well, and appliance manufacturers that jump into the IoT waters without a deliberate strategy may quickly find themselves in over their heads.
To fully capitalize on this emerging market and create products that are useful, cost-effective and profitable, manufacturers should first ensure they understand how to navigate the potential pitfalls that can occur when designing and manufacturing Internet-connected products.
What Do Consumers Want from the IoT?
Many technology industry experts are calling the IoT the next computing revolution. “I’ve never seen our industry go as fast as it is, or create as much value. It’s a very magical time,” Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce.com, stated in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
Truly, IoT has the potential to completely transform the way consumers interact with products. The practical applications are nearly limitless. Consumers are particularly interested in Internet-connected appliances that will simplify their lives, improve their well-being and even save them money.
For example, imagine a homeowner being able to know if their basement is flooding, even while they’re at work. We have been helping a manufacturer develop an Internet-connected sensor that would send these alerts to the homeowner’s cell phone. For anyone who has ever come home to four feet of standing water in their basement, the significance of this new product—and others like it—cannot be understated.
Indeed, consumers are embracing the concept of being able to access the information they need, when they need it. People are already virtually tethered to their smart phones, using them to check everything from the day’s weather forecast to traffic congestion to stock market updates. Now, they can connect their phones to wristbands that track daily physical activity, thermostats that allow them to adjust the temperature remotely and washing machines that let them know when a load is complete.
On the flip side, all of this data has consumers worried about security—and rightfully so. In January 2014, cyber-security firm Proofpoint Inc. uncovered what may be the first proven IoT-based attack involving household smart appliances. The global attack involved more than 750,000 malicious emails that were sent from more than 100,000 products, including home-networking routers, connected multi-media centers, televisions and at least one refrigerator. Many internet-connected appliances are poorly protected, and consumers may be ill equipped to prevent or even detect these security threats. Manufacturers will need to be aware of these concerns so they can proactively address them.
Nonetheless, the IoT is paving the way for such advances as smart homes, smart energy grids and even smart cities. In a smart home, for example, multiple appliances would be connected together in one unified system. If the smoke detector detects smoke, it could sound an alarm through the home entertainment stereo speakers. The light bulbs in the home could start to flash. The television could show evacuation instructions. And the front door could automatically unlock.
Currently, this scenario is not quite yet reality; most Internet-connected devices aren’t equipped to “talk” with each other. But some initiatives, notably the AllSeen Alliance, are hoping to bridge that gap. The Alliance is spearheading the development of AllJoyn, an open-source universal software framework that provides a common language for compatible devices to recognize each other and work together, regardless of manufacturer, technology or operating system. As more and more devices adopt a universal platform, consumers will gain new levels of functionality from their appliances.
There’s no doubt that we’re only scratching the surface of what IoT can become. But it’s important for manufacturers to remember that there is a cost to developing and producing these products. It’s easy to get carried away by the potential and ignore the very real obstacles that might prevent a manufacturer from obtaining the best ROI on their product.
Design Challenges and Obstacles to Keep in Mind
We suggest companies consider the following issues when developing their own development strategy for Internet-connected products:
What value will this product bring to the end user? Don’t fall prey to Shiny Object Syndrome! Instead, keep a focus on the value that your Internet-connected product can bring to the market. Will the product simplify the user’s life? Will it reduce energy usage? Will it save time? Will it save money?
For example, a “smart” garbage can might seem to be of limited value—until one considers that the city of Cincinnati has reduced labor and fuel costs by nearly $1 million each year with an innovative recycling program that uses cellular-enabled bins to monitor waste levels.
How will you ensure ease of use for the end user? In appliance design, usability is always at the forefront of the designer’s concern, and IoT products are no different. The designer must think about how, why and in what context people will use the product. The “5 E’s” are still critical; that is, the product must be effective, efficient, engaging, error tolerant and easy to learn. After all, the last thing a consumer wants is to have to call for a technician to come over to install, configure or repair their appliance. A user-centered design focus will result in usable products.
How will the product connect to the Internet? Manufacturers face a range of choices, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Bluetooth low energy (BLE), ZigBee, and cellular, just to name a few. The right choice depends upon the environment in which the product will be used.
For instance, if the product will be used in a home, the product must be compatible with the home’s existing wireless technology and must not cause interference with other products. But if the product is to be used in an industrial setting, many industries have their own standards and approaches to wireless technology. Manufacturers must assess application requirements early in the game to determine which technology provides the right mix of coverage, power consumption and service costs.
How will battery power be managed? Reliable power is a major concern with most appliances. Manufacturers must design the product to address charging, weight and battery life from the perspective of dependability and performance. The design must also consider power system redundancy.
For example, with the basement water sensor, internal diagnostic capabilities allow the sensor to self-monitor and send an alert to the home owner if the power supply has become compromised as well as when water begins to back up into the basement. Working with an experienced design partner can help appliance manufacturers gain access to the latest knowledge and industry insights.
Ultimately, appliance manufacturers should be careful not to jump into the IoT just for the sake of IoT itself. They must be prepared to ask the right questions—and find the right answers—before launching the design of an Internet-connected appliance.
A well-thought-out strategy will allow manufacturers to integrate the most reliable, flexible and cost-effective solutions for their products. This will help ensure that the products they introduce will bring real cost savings, real benefits and real value to the market—and to their bottom lines.