IoT: The Future of Appliance Control Design
IoT is a proven enabler that brings measurable value to OEMs, business owners and homeowners.
Until recently, the internet has primarily served to connect people through social media, our bank accounts or our favorite shopping site. In practice, we would call this the “Internet of People,” even though it is never referred to that way. Now, as industries identify new ways to benefit from connectivity, the internet is playing a new role connecting things. This connectivity is referred to as the “Internet of Things,” or IoT. Today there are 500 times more things on the internet than people and there are several reasons for this shift.
First, things can be where people would prefer not to be, working tirelessly, without complaint, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Also, sensor technology is evolving as rapidly as microprocessor technology. Even a typical cell phone today now has as many as 14 sensors. Things, when outfitted with these sensors and connected to the internet, can tell you exactly what you want to know, when you want to know it. There is hardly an industry these days where IoT connectivity is not simplifying and automating tedious functions, watching for and predicting failures and optimizing processes automatically and remotely. As business managers recognize these benefits, they are excited to bring these high tech solutions to their market, and of course monetize new recurring revenue and market opportunities where none existed before.
Sensors and wireless communications are evolving as fast as processing power
In the appliance industry, electronic controls and sensors are commonplace, performing the monitoring, control, regulating and safety functions for their respective appliance. In functions where there are still mechanical controls, such as mechanical bulb and capillary control, the cost benefit of switching over to electronic is increasingly appealing as the cost of sensors and electronics drops and the features and capabilities grow. We now have small microprocessors embedded in appliance control electronics that are several times more capable than the processors on Apollo 11 that first put man on the moon.
In most cases, sensors and processing capabilities are already present in today’s modern appliance. The next exciting technological development that enables IoT is seamless connectivity. Today, WiFi and Bluetooth are ubiquitous. It’s increasingly impossible to find a business or household without one or more WiFi hotspots, and virtually everyone is walking around with a Bluetooth radio and touchscreen computer in their pocket. Just like microprocessor and sensor technology, radio frequency connectivity technology like WiFi and Bluetooth is approaching Moore’s Law, essentially doubling in capability every 18 months and consequently, dramatically reducing in cost every year. It’s becoming increasingly affordable and efficient to add WiFi and Bluetooth capability to embedded electronic controls.
A dashboard is not just for your car
After the sensors, microprocessors and wireless connectivity, the last important elements of a connected system is the remote user interface and applications. These applications and dashboards can live in the cloud or on a handheld device like a smart phone or tablet. A dashboard is what it sounds like: a friendly interface that shows information in a visual, easy-to-read format. Graphs, charts, tables, and alarms can be configured together on a dashboard to create a comprehensive display of the data being collected remotely from appliances across the country.
For IoT, these applications and dashboards live in the cloud. The cloud is the internet site that hosts the data. Your data, via the dashboard, is accessible by an internet URL, like any site you visit today. Think of the cloud as your nationwide bank. You deposit your money wirelessly from anywhere, it’s available remotely or from any branch, but you can be guaranteed it is always safe. The cloud provides that service, storing your information in large data centers with redundancy. This means your data is stored at several sites, so you can be assured it is always accessible, even if one data center is having issues. Further, the data is stored behind many layers of security.
Connectivity, however, doesn’t always have to mean internet and IoT. The Bluetooth-equipped computer in your pocket is a convenient graphical interface, no internet required. There are several practical applications in the appliance world that are ideal to run on Android and iOS devices locally within Bluetooth range of the appliance.
What IoT Means to the Next Generation of Appliances
By combining technology, connectivity, and security and applying them to modern appliance design, OEMs are offering customers more convenience, power, and serviceability with their equipment. Several sensors monitor temperature, switches, liquid levels, fan speeds, electrical current draw, air flow, and many other functions. Virtually anything an appliance does can easily be monitored, and probably already is by the electronic control in the appliance. By adding WiFi or Bluetooth connectivity to a control, you have the means to wirelessly stream relevant data into or out of the appliance as frequently as desired. Using an app in the cloud or on your Android or iOS phone or tablet, you can review this data from the convenience of your office desktop PC, or from virtually anywhere in the palm of your hand. IoT not only provides critical data collection and convenience for the end user, but it can even prevent catastrophes in situations where temperature control is crucial.
For example, imagine that a refrigerator in a healthcare facility stores pharmaceuticals or plasma and must hold them to a tight temperature tolerance or they will perish. IoT provides verification of compliance to these temperature tolerances in real-time, and can even send an immediate alarm should a mechanical failure occur. Ultimately, this relentless around the clock monitoring and alarming for malfunction can prevent thousands of dollars in spoilage.
IoT can also help the OEM conduct efficient field trials. Field trials are necessary for launching any new piece of equipment, but monitoring the performance of appliances in the field is complicated, and often involves much travel and discussion between the engineers and the equipment operator. With IoT, equipment manufacturers can monitor all parameters of the equipment’s performance remotely, from the comfort of an office chair.
For the service industry, data connectivity and IoT leads to intelligent service through data analytics. Data analytics is the processing of performance data to proactively identify signs of malfunction, wear or fault conditions. When something malfunctions in a pizza oven for example, an alarm can automatically be dispatched to service personnel or business owners by text or email. The message can indicate not only the malfunction, but also which part needs repair or replacement. In this way, IoT can dramatically reduce service costs and downtime by dispatching the service person with the correct part, on the first visit.
Analytics can even proactively look for trends, such as a compressor or heating element with unusual current draw, a cooling fan that doesn’t run at the expected RPM, or an evaporator or compressor temperature indicating a coolant leak. Then a service person can be dispatched with the right replacement part even before the equipment goes down.
Homeowners that have kitchen appliances with IoT can utilize their android or iOS phone to perform many conveniences remotely, such as monitoring their meat probe temperature or cook timer, enabling the quick ice feature in a freezer or even taking a picture of the contents of the refrigerator from the grocery store. For the equipment provider, these value-added features secure recurring revenue streams through IoT subscription fees.
But will I get hacked?
One of the biggest concerns of first-time users is security, and it is a valid concern. It’s important that security surrounding IoT be just as reliable as any bank site or shopping site where credit card and bank account information is exchanged and stored. Just as you are assured of security while making internet banking transactions to pay bills, you can be assured that the transaction of data between your computer and an IoT appliance will be secure. IoT communications utilize many layers of security to ensure the confidentiality of each transaction. Users and devices are carefully authorized and require unique pin codes and device keys to access an account. Devices and the cloud use communication layers between them encrypted with SSL/TLS to secure against middleman attacks. Finally, an OEM may simply elect to disallow or limit the remote use of certain appliance controls, such as turning on an oven heating element via the internet, or limiting the temperature range adjustment of a walk-in cooler.
The list of benefits that IoT and connectivity bring to the appliance market is limited only by the imaginations of the customers and those implementing their ideas. For OEMs, IoT can help streamline field testing and speed time to market for new equipment. For business and homeowners, IoT applications bring convenience and efficiency, minimize service downtime, and reduce service call costs. IoT is a proven enabler that brings measurable value to OEMs, business owners and homeowners. The extent and value of what it enables is yet to be fully discovered.