A decade ago, predictions for IoT saw sensor connectivity in all aspects of our lives – billions of devices reshaping the very nature of technology’s interaction with the physical world. A decade later, while IoT advancement continues to move ahead at a healthy clip, development has lagged behind the bullish early predictions of many analysts. One significant factor underpinning a slower pace advancement is cost. Specifically, the cost needed to validate new systems and applications in the field.
Traditional technology development in consumer electronics or network infrastructure often follows a clear line of innovation, a logical progression of ideas underpinned by the core concept of more: more speed; more memory; more pixels per square inch; more battery life; more appealing form factor.
In most instances, “more” comes with a clear business case – valid sets of data to pull from in assessing which customers are likely to buy your product and why, and a basis for predicting revenue. It is exactly this business case that underpins investment in the thousands of prototypes needed to work out kinks, making products truly ready for scale.
In IoT, that model is flipped completely on its head. While one can point to a sector and create a hypothesis that IoT devices will improve efficiency, validating that hypothesis in the field is often an immense task. Understanding exact data to gather, sensors to use, optimum network to communicate through walls or across great distances, and how to harvest and manage energy in a specific context can’t be done at a desk.
Such development requires investment of thousands or millions of pounds in prototypes – before the data is known, the market validated and even the exact nature of the tools needed fully understood.
Investing millions without a clear ROI or business case is a hard sell in the best scenario – and a flat no in most cases. To truly facilitate advancement, the business proposition must change.
Industry is best positioned to lead this charge. With scale and some of the clearest areas to generate efficiency, this sector can innovate and drive demand at the levels required to lower costs on MEMS sensors and transceivers, thereby facilitating growth of the wider IoT.
Industries related to construction have already moved significantly into this space, creating smart buildings so facility management can control room occupancy and save on energy related to lighting and heating. Logistics companies are deploying devices to monitor the movement of freight down to the pallet level across complex supply chains, as oil and gas companies implement solutions to improve safety and overall operational efficiency.
These applications are underpinned by emergent network capabilities. A veritable eruption of wireless technologies operating on unlicensed frequencies of ISM bands, like LoRa and Sigfox, have changed the WAN connectivity possibilities for IoT devices. Known as Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) solutions, these new technologies enable low data rates and long-range communications capabilities, while maintaining very low power consumption and a low cost for the silicon transceiver. The licenced community grouped under 3GPP has followed, releasing its own version of LPWAN known as LTE Cat-M and Narrow Band IoT.
As these new network capabilities enable access to data on an unprecedented level, it’s important to remember: these trends in and of themselves do not create a business case. Data is the journey, insights are the destination.
Creating real value
The gap between data gathering and insight creation requires we start with the outputs, the specific information we are seeking to glean from an IoT solution, and exactly how that information will add value to a business. Then, speak with an expert to assess which connectivity and sensor technologies are likely to optimally generate those specific outputs. Expertise is critical, as the sensors and wireless technologies at the heart of IoT fall outside the traditional knowledge base of many organizations.
As mentioned earlier – testing, refining and validating in the field are key next steps. Even with dialled in objectives, data gathering and transmission will often vary significantly at IoT scale. For many companies, this involves creating thousands or millions of custom prototypes to evaluate real-world performance. There are also several alternate paths, like the iENBL solution we developed at Flex.
These devices include most sensors, GPS and connectivity options, so companies can trial real-world IoT applications on a significantly more measured scale, without investment in custom hardware, while also reducing development time.
Enhancing available development boards like Arduino or Raspberry Pi can also help companies progress development. When combined with the required sensors and select connectivity interface shield, these solutions can support testing, though still not at the more measured scale in the tens or hundreds of units.
Many industries have made significant progress into the IoT, but we are still in the very early stages of this technology’s implementation. While the space for further development and value creation is immense, this future will only occur at a rate of one system and one validated business case at a time. As companies get better at homing in on the insights they are seeking and finding the right technology partners, and as costs on field testing continue to come down, we will see the full potential of IoT truly begin to emerge.