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Solution Architect's Guide to IoT, Part 1: How To Network A Machine

Updated: May 24, 2019

This is Part One of a three-part blog series addressing how IoT solution architects and OEMs can accelerate time to revenue and broad adoption of their IoT-enabled solutions.

Network connectivity is the first step towards making a machine, a device or a sensor a part of an IoT solution; it serves as the tunnel for data to be transported between the machine and enterprise software applications. Millions of dollars and thousands of man-years are spent in developing highly reliable products for mission critical industrial environments that demand long product lifecycles and must operate with near-zero downtime.

Despite all this effort and expertise, when it comes to adding network connectivity to machines, nearly 75% of all IoT initiatives fail to go beyond the POC stage. Adding network connectivity to machines, devices or sensors continues to be a complex and expensive task that often results in schedule and budget overruns. This post shows you how to add network connectivity to machines while minimizing costs and eliminating complexity.

With multiple wired and wireless technology options and thousands of form factors, features and price points to choose from, it can seem like settling on a connectivity solution would be relatively easy. But the inverse is true. Choose or commit to the wrong network connectivity strategy and your team could find itself enslaved to a hamster wheel of on-going certification, firmware and OS updates, or worse, spending hundreds of man years designing a solution that later is found to not perform in the field and sends your support team scrambling to retrofit a solution.

Adding network connectivity into existing and new machines is both time-consuming and complex. For connectivity solutions to work, development teams must:

  • Standardize on or develop an IoT connectivity module that can work in different types of customer deployment scenarios.

  • Develop drivers, embedded network stacks, configuration and connectivity management applications, security applications and test to make sure that they do not alter or negatively impact the existing machine application.

  • Alter the machine's PCB and machine casing to accommodate the IoT modules, including any additional power consumption or processor needs

  • Obtain and maintain needed wireless certifications and updates. While many industrial products average lifespan is 7-10 years or longer, wireless standards often change every two to three years. This means dedicating development team resources to keeping up with certifications and updates that can impact your supply chain and product design roadmap.

  • Commit development and support resources to handling on-going firmware and OS updates.

In many cases, building connectivity into a device requires a development team to significantly alter its existing hardware and software design, or worse, can force them to throw away decades' worth of investments in an existing field-proven machine platform to create a new connected product that has yet to see the light of the day. All of this adds up to more cost, complexity and uncertainty to the project.

Use Off-the-Shelf Network Connectivity Solutions To Minimize Costs and Accelerate Time to Market

Not surprisingly, many solution architects choose to use off-the-shelf IoT modules and gateways in their designs. There are several key benefits to using off-the-shelf network connectivity solutions:

  • Pre-certified and field-tested in other applications

  • Reduces the need for additional budget, time and resources for network stack and network applications development and on-going maintenance.

  • Advanced modules and gateways provide additional security capabilities and management interfaces that simplify field deployments.

IoT connectivity solutions come in two forms:

  • Embedded IoT modules and gateways which are built into a machine or sensor; and

  • External IoT device servers and gateways which are attached outside of a machine.

Embedded IoT Modules and Gateways

Embedded IoT module solutions range widely from ones that provide simple certified network connectivity to more expensive and advanced embedded gateways that deliver security, multiple integration options, connectivity management and other applications. In addition, their small footprint allows embedded IoT modules to be incorporated into a wider range of IoT applications than external IoT device servers. Nowadays, embedded IoT modules can range in size from ones small enough to fit inside a hearing aid to ones as large as a U.S. half dollar bill.

Key advantages of embedded IoT modules and gateways include:

  • Fully integrated solution with no external boxes, cables or power supplies to ship and support

  • Lower cost compared to external IoT device servers and gateways

Embedded IoT modules and gateways need modifications to existing PCBs, power supplies and machine casing to incorporate the module. One key risk factor in using an off-the-shelf embedded IoT modules or gateways is vendor lock-in. You are committing to a partnership with a specific IoT module supplier as part of your product design. If your supplier's roadmap, pricing or supply chain changes, this can have critical consequences for your business and product development roadmap.

External IoT Device Servers and Gateways

External device servers or gateway typically provide certified wireless radio module(s), network OS, stack, drivers and configuration tools in a ready-to-use enclosed casing that can be attached to a single machine or in some cases, a few machines. Like embedded IoT modules, they vary in terms form factor, features and pricing. Key advantages of external IoT device servers and gateways include :

  • Eliminating the need for redesigning the machine's existing hardware, software and enclosure.

  • Replacing an external device server or gateway is much cheaper than replacing the logic board or the entire machine.

  • Adding network connectivity to machines already deployed in the field

  • Enabling a range of network connectivity options versus a single hardwired embedded solution to support a wide range of customer deployment scenarios

  • Reducing your risk of vendor lock-in.

Since most industrial machines tend to have lifecycles of 7-10 years or longer, an external IoT device server or gateway is most likely a more adaptable and cost-effective choice for most industrial IoT OEMs and system integrators.

The Bottom Line: Keep Connectivity Simple

The bottom line? In the near future, machine connectivity will be considered a standard option - one that customers will expect to receive at no additional cost. So when it comes to connectivity, keeping it as simple as possible. Separating frequently changing network technology away from your stable core machine logic is often the best way to go and ensures that your machine stays reliable and cost-effective while IoT-enabled. Offloading network connectivity to off-the-shelf networking hardware and software enables your team to focus on your core business logic, minimizing costs, accelerating time-to-market and ultimately enhance ROI.

Machinechat is focused on designing next-generation ready-to-use data management solutions that enable OEMs, system integrators and MSPs to Cross the IoT Chasm and bring the next billion devices online - faster, smarter and more successfully. Want to learn more? Click here to sign up for our newsletter and get an email when Parts 2 and 3 of our Solution Architect's How-To series are published.



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