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IoT product development: Get it right

As IoT systems become more ubiquitous, there is a natural weeding out of the good ideas and the value propositions. Beyond the simplest applications, the highest-value opportunities involve increasingly complex systems. For example, smart cities will feature IoT-connected surveillance, automated transportation, smarter energy management systems and environmental monitoring. In healthcare, IoT monitoring of vital signs will help patients avoid infections and assist in earlier care of medical conditions. All these IoT systems need to be implemented in a manner highly cognizant of and protected from evolving security concerns.

Complex IoT technologies require more attention to product design details. Common mistakes companies make when they embark on an IoT product design project can delay or even cripple implementation.

Here are six IoT design mistakes to avoid for successful IoT product development.

1. Connect or not?

Technology adds a cost layer to traditional non-tech-oriented products. In particular, adding communication technology can invoke both a non-recurring and monthly recurring cost. While it is “de rigueur” these days to want to create new IoT products or add an IoT technology layer to existing products, it is important to understand the business case and value. Adding this layer involves embedding cost into the product with possible monthly subscription costs, as well as an initial and continuing stream of expenditures on product development and lifecycle support. Without a clear rationale of business value, the product will flounder. Solid research conducted before embarking on a project will inform your decision and determine whether the system you consider designing makes business sense.

2. Pick the right platform

When adding intelligence to a product that wasn’t connected before, many startups select hobbyist-grade boards. The trouble is that these developer platforms are not suitable for large-scale deployment. If the device proves successful and starts generating serious demand, production can’t scale because you can’t source thousands of that type of hobbyist board. Off-the-shelf platforms are useful for proof-of-concepts and as platforms for software developers, but do not confuse these POC systems with those that are production-ready. Any experienced hardware developer who has been creating production-volume products will know a development system is not a high-volume extensible platform. You should only source components and modules for your product that will be available and appropriately costed now and in the future.

3. Don’t forget regulatory impact

Regulatory testing is another important part of any IoT product design effort. Regulatory requirements and certifications must be factored into the design. Because they are connected, IoT products must be tested for radiated emissions and susceptibility. If they plug into an outlet, conducted emissions and susceptibility could come into play. Additionally, cellular carriers must perform testing to provide certification for your product for deployment on their infrastructure. Depending on how you implement the cellular technology, this step could take months and be very costly. Selecting components that are pre-certified will drastically cut down the time and expense. Pre-certified parts are more expensive, but they radically reduce the headaches involved with getting certifications later. Of course, the size of pre-certified modules can be an issue in highly dense devices and this can force the designer into a more fundamental design invoking the higher cost and longer development/certification cycle.

Lastly, where and when do you plan to sell? It is not practical, particularly in a startup, to expect ubiquitous worldwide sales of fully certified devices on the same calendar date. While most standards of safety, communications and cellular certifications are similar, pick your target countries carefully and think about international rollouts over a period of time. Many countries are grouped to work under common set of standards, but there are outlier countries with unique standards which, while similar, are not identical to the more widely used standards.

4. Security is job one

Security needs to be baked into your IoT product design process, not added on as an afterthought. It’s a must-have, not simply a nice-to-have. The number of connected devices is astounding. Already there are more connected devices than people on the planet, according to Norio Nakajima, an executive vice president at Murata Manufacturing Co., Ltd. By 2020, there will be 50 billion connected devices, outnumbering people by more than 6 to 1. The potential for a breach is enormous, and the results could be devastating. Bad guys often scan for poor or misconfigured security. Consider end-to-end security mechanisms, end-to-end data encryption, access and authorization control, and activity auditing. A security chain is only as strong as the weakest link. Low-end and poorly protected IoT endpoints are a frequent point of entry for attacks when they are not carefully and intentionally secured.

5. Get a top product development team

While many startups spend a lot of time researching the contract manufacturers (CM) that will handle product assembly, they don’t do their due diligence when selecting a product designer. Sometimes, a CM will include the skills of their design engineers on staff at very low or subsidized costs to the startup. CMs will sometimes do this in order to lock in the manufacturing rights to the product. Unless you are a tech giant willing to place initial orders for hundreds of thousands of units, do not expect to get a high-quality design and engineering CM team responding to your needs. Nothing burns through a budget (and time) as quickly as having to redesign a product that does not meet the required functionality or, worse yet, gets deployed with poor quality. Such problems can destroy your company. Instead, look for an independent product design firm that can be your full partner in development.

6. Design for maximum user productivity

Ultimately, the person using the device is directing its activity, whether it’s connected to other devices via the internet or not. Sometimes there is no Wi-Fi, so it makes sense for a product to have some functionality even when it isn’t able to connect to other systems or devices. By making the device usable when disconnected, you’ve created a product in which the user is in control and can remain productive even in zones of poor connectivity. That’s important for some potential customers who may be uneasy with all the connectivity inherent in IoT products.

While the progress of complex IoT devices is exciting, it is important to remember the basics as well. You need a sound business case, as with any investment. Solid project management is just as important as avoiding the above mistakes when shepherding a leading-edge technology device from inception to the manufacturing floor. Selecting the right engineers for the design team, who have technical as well as communications skills, is also critical to success. Finally, staying within budget parameters and meeting deadlines ensures the plan will be completed successfully, increasing the chances of the business’s success.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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