It wasn’t long ago that an engine that could proactively alert technicians to swap out a failing part or a fridge that posts the weekly shopping list was the stuff of science fiction. Today, these types of offerings are popping up in every industry as manufacturers shift development of smart, connected products into high gear.
Industry estimates call for 25 billion devices, be it cars or consumer appliances, to be connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) this year, doubling in scope to 50 billion by 2020. A McKinsey Global Institute report predicts that 80 to 100% of all manufacturers will deliver some sort of IoT application by 2025.
Despite their transformative potential, IoT offerings are still just products, at least from a design standpoint. However, the age of the smart, connected products does usher in a number of new competencies that engineering organizations and individual designers will have to master in order to actively engage in this next wave of development.
The IoT vision calls for physical objects or “things” to be outfitted with technologies such as sensors and actuators, which allow them to report on aspects of their environment over wired or wireless networks. This continuous stream of data can be tapped any number of ways. In the engine example, the car or aircraft might sense a pending failure on a particular component, sending an alert to service technicians to initiate proactive and preventive maintenance. Farm equipment might collect data from weather satellites and ground sensors to assess crop conditions and adjust accordingly—for instance, automatically doubling up on fertilizer or activating extra watering cycles. In a more familiar example, a home thermostat could take in environmental conditions and make automatic temperature adjustments and even power up a fan.
To design and deliver IoT products, engineers need to acquaint themselves with what in some cases, may be wholly new disciplines or in other instances, take a deeper dive into areas once considered outside the scope of their domain. For starters, engineers should nurture basic competency in these four areas to ensure they don’t get left behind in the era of IoT design:
Instrumentation. Sensors, actuators, and similar technologies are the underpinnings of IoT products, allowing them to collect information about their environment to initiate an action or service. Not only do design engineers need basic knowledge of instrumentation technologies to determine what is best suited for their particular product and application, they also need to understand how the product operates in the field so they create an instrumentation design that will effectively collect and communicate the proper data.
Embedded software. The rise of embedded software should come as no surprise as code has fast become an integral component of products of all types. While no one is suggesting design engineers become ace coders overnight, it will be increasingly important to possess a general knowledge of programming and higher level software architecture. Even more important to IoT product design is to break down the silo mentality whereby mechanical engineers and software specialists develop things sequentially. Instead, cross-discipline teams will need to take a systems engineering approach that calls for regular communication and parallel design.
Communications. Depending on their end product, many design engineers already possess a base knowledge of communications technologies and protocols. However, with IoT products, the communications piece is critical. There are a lot of moving parts in this area as wireless protocols and standards are continuously evolving. Design engineers need to be up to speed on evolving standards and technologies while developing a base familiarity with issues such as noise and interference that will be come part of standard design exploration.
Security. This is a huge concern with IoT products–so much so, that FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez called attention to the issue at this year’s Consumer Electronics show. In a speech, Ramirez tempered enthusiasm for IoT products with a call to arms for manufacturers to adopt security by design practices that would bake security capabilities into a product or application at the earliest stages, not as an after-thought. To deliver on the security mandate, engineers need to become familiar with technologies like encryption while adopting security best practices as part of the design process, from risk assessment to vulnerability testing.
Designing IoT products won’t demand wholesale changes, but it will require engineers to broaden their horizons beyond what might be comfortable. Taking a hall pass from doing so not only prohibits participation in exciting, next-generation product design, but it’s also a sure fire way to be pigeonholed as risk adverse and a traditionalist, which won’t do much for career advancement.