Getting one IoT device to work in the lab is hard. Getting 100,000 of them to work in the field is really hard—and that difficulty appears at every stage of the design process. In one survey, 84 percent of enterprises listed hardware design as their biggest challenge. So how do you design for reliable connectivity, ensuring your IoT project can successfully scale from planning to prototype to production?
Whether you’re adding IoT functionality to an existing product or building a new device from scratch, the key is to plan for connectivity—and to keep connectivity front and center, from proof of concept through to the end of the product’s lifespan. That’s easier said than done, but a simple, step-by-step approach can help set you up for success.
Let’s take a look at the five steps for the initial stages of IoT product design, each with an emphasis on maintaining reliable connectivity (and failing gracefully when the inevitable problem arises).
5 Steps for Successful IoT Hardware Design
#1: Define Your Business Case.
What does your product do? What is the value connectivity brings to the product’s users? Clear goals are the essential bedrock for IoT hardware design. Maybe you need to reduce device downtime to increase transaction volume; maybe you need to collect vital health data via sensors; maybe you want to gain essential insights as to how customers are using your product.
Get your product’s desired feature set down on paper before you start prototyping. Know the outcomes you are aiming for. Otherwise, you are designing in the dark.
#2: Identify Clear Connectivity Requirements.
Once you know what your product needs to do, you can start narrowing down the technical specs that support each use case. For any given device feature, you may need particular data rates, latency, or energy requirements. Establish these technical requirements early to avoid problems down the road.
#3: Choose Connectivity Hardware that Meets your Goals.
Now you know your business case, and you know the technical requirements to bring that business case to life. This is where the design process really begins. If your product will rely on cellular connectivity, explore modems, SIM cards, and IoT components to find equipment that provide the technical capabilities you’ve identified. Once you’ve identified the right connectivity hardware, you can start designing around it.
#4: Prove the Value of Connectivity with a Device Prototyping Machine.
Don’t rush into production. To ensure your plans actually create value, experiment with rapid IoT prototyping. These devices won’t end up in your actual product; they allow you to experiment with sensors, modules, and parameters to establish a proof of concept—and identify the hardware and software that work for your product’s use case.
Look for a prototyping platform with reusable code libraries which will make it simple to start sending data so you can determine the value of your product’s features. This approach is ideal for connecting your existing, standalone products, but it is also helpful for building an IoT device from scratch. Without a prototyping approach, you will spend a fortune on circuit designs that may not end up working. Save yourself the trouble (and the money).
#5: Test, Validate, and Iterate.
No matter how well-built your device may be, some things are outside of your control. Network behavior is one of them—and it’s much better to discover failure scenarios before you’ve shipped thousands of products.
Much can go wrong in a connected device. Say a server momentarily goes down. All of your devices may try to reconnect at once, creating a signal storm that crashes the network when it comes back online. Sensors can break, causing devices to send constant alerts. When servers don’t behave the way devices expect them to, they may continually re-send a single message—leading to runaway data usage and associated costs. Even simply switching networks can cause a device to fail.
Testing uncovers these scenarios and gives firmware designers a chance to build in fixes. But few IoT solution and hardware providers have the testing environments you need for comprehensive validation. Luckily, resources for testing, validating, and even designing IoT hardware are available.
Partner With an Expert
Today, most IoT connectivity providers just sell a product: a SIM, chipset, module, or modem. Look for one that also provides end-to-end design support and advisory services. The ideal IoT partner will operate their own network, giving them full visibility into device behavior during the testing phase. They’ll have cellular engineers and design experts who can help you through all of these steps—and the onboarding process that comes next. In short, the simplest way to succeed at device design is to partner with connectivity experts from the very start. Designing and planning for the connectivity of IoT hardware is hard, but help is out there.