10 Tips for Transforming Appliances into Connected Products
Home appliance manufacturers need to consider everything from network security to application software design.
Smart appliances that connect with mobile phones, voice assistants and other systems can enhance a manufacturer’s revenues and help differentiate its products in a crowded consumer marketplace.
But creating home appliances for the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) requires more than simply embedding a wireless chip or adding a sensor. Home appliance manufacturers need to consider everything from network security to application software design. Furthermore, they need to know how to budget, scale, distribute and future-proof their products.
Here are 10 tips for manufacturers as they consider embarking on a journey of digital transformation for their products:
1: Define a use case
Remember that the real value of the IoT lies in the data that connected devices generate. When identifying use cases for connected appliances, consider how you might use the data to differentiate your products, enhance their features and generate additional revenue streams.
Because such capabilities were not possible with traditional, discrete products, a use case for a connected appliance might be very different from what you’ve done in the past.
2: Prioritize security and scalability
From the beginning, know how you will achieve enterprise scalability with your connected products. That might mean producing 2,000 or 100,000 connected appliances a month, or turning on millions of connected appliances in a short period of time.
And as you scale, make sure your security scales, too. If you don’t build in end-to-end security from the beginning, you’ll have to go back to recreate and validate that every link in the security chain is secure.
Here’s an example. Say your company invested $5 million to launch its first IoT refrigerator, but neglected to include end-to-end security. It could cost an additional $5 million to start over and add security at every point of your connected refrigerator product. Plus, you might have to spend more on hardened security than you would have spent originally—not to mention causing a significant time-to-market delay.
Therefore, IoT security must be bulletproof at the device, cloud and mobile app levels, as well as everything in between, so there needs to be a plan for end-to-end security from the very beginning.
3: Design for end-to-end visibility
The IoT can give manufacturers unprecedented visibility into how appliances are actually performing and how customers are using them.
The data generated by your IoT appliances represents a powerful tool for gaining knowledge and insights not previously available. In the past, you had to rely on surveys or questionnaires to understand how your products performed and how customers used them. Now, you can get these insights from the products themselves. You can use that knowledge to build better appliances, add new value-added services, and establish new and stronger relationships with your customers.
4: Use open standards IoT solutions
Your connected products will need to reach customers worldwide and support cloud-to-cloud connectivity with various IoT platform, manufacturer and retailer clouds. Your connected appliances will also need to integrate with related products and services from other providers. The best way to achieve this interoperability is through using open, native libraries and other standards-based solutions.
For example, if you manufacture a connected refrigerator, you might want to manage its use with other appliances, such as ovens and dishwashers, and also with other home automation systems such as connected water filtration, HVAC, door locks and lighting.
Choose a cloud platform that is agnostic to any particular data types. That way, smart home appliance products can interoperate with existing clouds and connectivity methods as well as new cloud and connectivity approaches that emerge in the future.
5: Make your products easy to install and use
All IoT products require some level of control, whether that means frequent input from an end user via a mobile app or occasional use of a web application by service professionals. With the complexity of the IoT and the high expectations of end users, manufacturers have the added challenge of making those mobile or web apps extremely easy to use.
Here are some of the considerations that will need to guide the design of your mobile or web app:
- Who will install and set up the connected appliance, and what information will they need to have?
- How will you provide that installation information?
- Will the setup be done using a display on the product, a mobile app, web application—or some combination?
- What kind of PIN, password or other identification is necessary for installation?
- Will networking setup happen at the same time as product installation, or will it be a separate process?
- How will end users register their products?
Testing is critical throughout the IoT design process, but it’s especially important that you test and retest to make sure that your mobile or web app delivers a superb user experience—for all the operating systems and browsers that you will support.
6: Design for secure over-the-air system updates
One of the biggest differences between connected appliances and traditional appliances is that connected appliances are able to change and improve over time—even after installation in an end user’s home.
Through over-the-air (OTA) updates, you can update the firmware on your connected washing machine or refrigerator, or add features based on analyzing real-world customer usage of that appliance. Your OTA system will need to have enterprise-level security to ensure data integrity and prevent hacking. The security itself can also be updated via OTA communication as needed.
7: Include role-based access control
Role-based access control (RBAC) is a method for granting either temporary or permanent access to a particular appliance by individuals based on their “roles” or their relationships to the products.
For example, service technicians could be granted access to a refrigerator during hours of a scheduled maintenance visit. Adults, children and guests in a household could all be given different degrees of ability to control various appliances in the home.
Owners of vacation properties could provide vacationers with temporary access to a unit’s heating and air conditioning controls, as well as to its door locks, washer/dryer, dishwasher, lighting and other connected features. Likewise, owners of apartment buildings, office complexes or hotels could provide various levels of connected appliance access based on whether the individual is a facility manager, corporate energy manager, employee, building contractor, tenant or guest.
In addition to RBAC, other advanced controls to design into your connected products include custom scheduling, triggers and alerts, and notifications—to the end user/owner, dealers or other service professionals, and to you as the manufacturer.
8: Rethink appliances from a service perspective
The IoT changes everything. To grow your business in the new IoT world, appliance manufacturers must shift their mindsets to capitalize on the new opportunities available with the IoT. Start by rethinking how you define the boundaries between a “product” and a “service.”
Some of the things you can do with connected appliances that your traditional products could not achieve include the following:
- Use rules engines, which allow your connected appliances to evaluate various rules rather than following pre-set procedures. This approach makes the appliances more responsive to the needs of the people using them.
- Establish geo-fences, which are virtual barriers or boundaries for geographic areas. Using global positioning systems, radio-frequency identification or mobile beacon data, geo-fences can be predefined as a zone of control, such as by a connected thermostat. Geo-fences can also be generated dynamically, such as defining a physical area in which a particular connected appliance can be controlled by smartphones.
- Implement digital dashboards on web or mobile apps to visualize data for activities such as diagnostics, predictive analytics and energy usage. Using these dashboards, you can offer fast or preventive maintenance, troubleshooting and solving problems without sending a service technician. You can also easily monitor—or allow end users to monitor—how much energy or water the appliances are using.
- Tune your connected products to achieve or demonstrate compliance with Energy Star or similar programs.
- Extend the capabilities of your IoT connected offerings beyond what traditional products could achieve by integrating with third-party services such as energy demand response, weather feeds, pollen counts or air quality reports. Using data from these third-party services, you can design your connected IoT offerings to automatically adjust their operations to optimize performance, energy efficiency or other parameters.
9: Stick with proven hardware
Hardware options such as electrical connectivity or networking protocols are not the place to express your competitive differentiation. For instance, if you’re sourcing a Wi-Fi chip, select a proven supplier rather than shopping for a low-priced alternative.
A Wi-Fi chip from a low-cost supplier may work for simple connectivity in a prototype or proof-of-concept project, but it won’t have a full networking stack or enterprise-grade security. Using inferior-quality components for production could cripple your IoT efforts if customers try to use products that lack sufficient wireless range, performance, compatibility or—most seriously—security.
10: Choose an established IoT platform, rather than starting from scratch
Does your organization have the specialized technical expertise in house to properly connect, scale and secure versions of your appliances for the Internet of Things?
Sometimes it can make more sense to buy this expertise from an established IoT platform vendor than to try to assemble all the IoT talent needed—and then to stay up to date on fast-changing security practices, networking protocols, user experience design and other IoT necessities.
Transforming traditional home appliances into successful IoT connected appliances means making dozens of small and large technical decisions and applying a broad range of technology expertise. Working with an expert vendor just may be the difference between an expensive appliance design that disappoints and a well-designed connected appliance that delights your customers.