Your company is a maker of a particular type of control device. It could be washing machine, building air-condition or even a mission critical or life critical device. There are many diverse types of such ‘things’. Each is niche. i.e. there are too many niche, but small specialized industries. Let me call these collectively as ‘electronic control industry’. There is a huge trend of bringing ‘things’ to the internet. It is known as Internet-of-Things (IoT). Some people started calling it as Internet-of-Everything because internet now has PCs, mobiles, tablets and things.
Your organization is bitten by “IoT bug”. It is investing heavily in Internet-of-Things projects.
Your portfolio has one such project starting now. Along with project, you are getting lot of visibility. The project will integrate 3G broadband to the device. The technical interfaces are figured out. It just requires your device to attach the 3G through an interface similar to Ethernet. Your technical folks have selected the best 3G chip from the market leader. There can be some technical challenges but they can be handled by your technical team. Just by integrating, you will be able to harness the power of devices on internet. The technology of 3G is mature and so is your control product. Integrating and shipping the product to market should not take much time.
Is everything looking good? Probably not.
There is one broader issue you need to identify which your teams can not figure out. While recognizing the trees, they miss out the forest. It is about working with different industry.
What can go wrong beyond typical technical and project management issues? In this case, what challenges are likely to occur when electronic control industry is working with consumer electronics industry?
1. Not a preferred customer due to low sales volume:
The vendors of 3G module may not want to work with you. Initially they are enthused. but gradually they will say your volumes are too low. They have customers who guarantee volume of millions of pieces per year. An unfamiliar customer promising volume of few thousand pieces per year, is not very interesting.
Initially the vendor may agree. However, over period of time, not being the most important customer, vendor may not give due attention to your project.
2. Level of technical specification:
Control engineers want to understand how exactly everything works. The reliability needs are high. To meet this control industry invented its own networking technology. They provide the reliability and predictability. They meet real time needs in both practice and theory.
When the telecom/networking technology is used, not all answers are available. Networking is standards driven technology and vendor’s team knows only the part of the standard. They can show it working. But they can not theoretically prove that it works under all circumstances and what-if scenarios. Given that they need to ship new products every few months, they can not afford to keep doing theoretical analysis.
This drives the control guys crazy. Questioning everything drives the networking engineer crazy.
3. Product Cycle Time and Obsolescence:
Every industry has different product life. Consumer electronic products need to be churned out in few months and may be obsolete within 2 years. Industrial control products in Oil fields, Power System controllers need to remain operational for several decades. They may take 2-3 years to build a new product. Then keep it operational for next 30 years.
Hence for a control product using a consumer electronics component, the obsolescence is inevitable.
Everyone in electronics business is familiar with obsolescence. Control industry too keeps replacing microcontrollers. Fortunately, most of the times there are pin compatible replacement options with minimal system changes.
However if component like 3G chip gets obsolete it is different story. Replacement options follow trends in telecom and networking industry only. This is not a good news.
Impact: System design will significantly vary. 3G will not be replaced by newer 3G chip. It will be 4G with backward compatibility with 3G support. Even if you find 3G, there will be additional functionality. The increased complexity could cause more issues in product engineering and certifications. The leading customers of the vendors are obviously telecom customers. Their requirements are taken care, not yours.
Piggybacking on telecom-oriented will work to some extent. As control industry player, you may have special requirements. If you do, you have a problem.
4. Special requirements of control products:
As I mentioned, the electronic controls industry is diverse set of industries with niche products. Each caters to special customers, use cases and certification needs. These include extreme requirements of battery, static energy storage, explosion-proof design, need to work under-ground… There is no end to crazy requirements.
People in consumer electronics industry will find it hard to even understand and appreciate these.
5. Design phase support:
As mentioned earlier, by the time the product in control industry comes out, the networking chips such as 3G, Wi-Fi would have gone through several obsolescence cycles already. In this period, how to get support from the chip vendor on design characteristics? All the detailed queries on reliability and predictability? It will always remain an impossible target.
Watch out for these to stay in the party. Now you know you need to be cautious.
But in this case, what would be the interest of vendor to support you? Before you talk about the partnership, discuss the above points I mentioned. And also the ones listed below. It makes the partnership practical and positive.
Building the case for bringing together two different worlds:
Benefits for vendor (in consumer industry):
1. Long term Stability –
Getting a pie of control industry will bring long term stability. It does not like the dynamics of consumer industry. So it goes both ways. No dramatic growth – or decline. Patience is the word.
2. Margin –
Though the volumes are lower, the margins are higher. So the vendor should not go by volume alone. And this comes without having to churn out new products every few months.
3. Diversity –
As mentioned earlier, this gets access to diverse and new markets. This would keep the innovation bulb glowing.
Solving the problems of not-so-techie industries would help to come up with new user interface options. Who knows? Some f these may be worth taking back to devices like smart phones and tablets.
What if it still does not make sense to bring together different worlds?
Option for Technology Vendor – Licensing IP core:
Not everything is lost. License IP core for ‘them’ to do the fabrication. There are many technology startups working on communication stack such as 3G. Most are ‘fabless’ companies and should be open to license their IP core. If this is packaged into ASIC or FPGA, it could be a practical solution for both.
Option for You, the Control Product Vendor:
1. Look at alternate system approach:
Avoid direct integration with internet. Use control networking options like Zigbee and then use internet gateway. This will limit the exposure of your specialized product to the dynamics explained above.
2. Look for technology vendor who makes these interfaces specifically for control industry. There are few who understand both worlds. They definitely will make life easier. Example: HIRSCHMANN (No. I am not affiliated with this organization). They may not be state of the art, in implementing the bleeding edge features. But, got to live with it.
3. As suggested above, if the technology vendor licenses out the technology, you can get rid of the dependency for long time.
Hmm. Many hurdles. But there is a way to make it happen as I explained. Once you gain this perspective, time to task your technical teams to go after this kind of topics. For this you need to groom them. Here I have tips.
Any other ideas for making Internet-of-things happen in most meaningful way?