The Challenges of Internet of Things (IoT) Development

IoT design and development used to be seen as an advanced area of electronics, but today it is a standard design modality with millions of operational devices deployed in the field.

21 December 2021

IoT design and development used to be seen as an advanced area of electronics, but today it is a standard design modality with millions of operational devices deployed in the field. In consumer electronics, just about any device could be classified as an IoT product. In contrast, in enterprise systems, IoT products are aiding growth in other areas of technology, such as smart infrastructure and automation.

IoT development is a broad area that requires collaborative efforts from multiple disciplines. IoT platform development starts with electronics design. However, it requires inputs from firmware/software development teams, mechanical designers to develop enclosures, and a manufacturing partner to ensure the platform can be manufactured at scale. Even simple IoT systems require rounds of testing at the hardware level, as well as automated testing at the software level, to ensure uptime and reliability. Your EMS provider can aid development and scaled production of IoT products by acting as a development partner in multiple areas.

The IoT Development Process

IoT brings together designers from multiple disciplines to create systems with some common characteristics. IoT products have a few important attributes and subsystems that enable required network connectivity while also interfacing with the broader world. In terms of hardware design and engineering, IoT platforms carry focused development efforts in four areas:

  1. Processor and peripheral selection
  2. Board layout to enable network connectivity
  3. Embedded and cloud application development
  4. Mechanical enclosure design
Host Controller and Peripheral Selection

System architecture in IoT products is centered around the device’s host controller, normally an MCU or FPGA. The main processor in the device will determine the available functionality and the peripherals needed to implement the required user experience. IoT product development should start by focusing in this area. However, selecting the wrong MCU or FPGA can create unacceptable supply chain risk that may trigger a redesign if your processor or peripheral components suddenly go out-of-stock, NRND, or EOL.

Because of recurring semiconductor shortages and the volatile nature of the electronics supply chain, the host processor should be selected to ensure long-term manufacturability. A shortage of components can derail a production run, so it is important to ensure the selected host controller and peripherals have sufficient alternative parts available. This way, the device can still be produced, ideally with minimal redesigns, without major design changes before each production run. Considering the supply chain constraints may narrow available part selection, but it will increase the lifetime of the device and ensure producibility over the long term.

Network Connectivity

IoT products PCBs for IoT designs need to include some network connectivity. For some devices, this could be as simple as an Ethernet port on the circuit board with a MAC/PHY interface built into the host controller. It is more common to use a wireless protocol for network connectivity, such as:

  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth
  • Other ISM band protocols
  • Sub-GHz protocols
  • Some products may include both options for network connectivity with Ethernet available as a backup. Implementing these protocols alongside your digital section will be successful when the PCB is properly floor-planned and components are arranged to prevent mixed-signal interference. RF design and layout engineers play an important role in IoT design as they help ensure network connectivity without signal integrity problems in the finished device.

    Application Development

    Application development for IoT products can take many forms, ranging from simple on-board applications to making a connection to a web platform. IoT devices will require, at minimum, some firmware flashed on the device host controller to capture data from peripherals, which must then interface with external devices over standard interfaces. What happens next with this data depends on the target application for the platform and how data will be retrieved by users or platform administrators. This could involve processing and subsequent storage in local memory, or transmission of data back to a cloud resource via an internet connection and an API.

    Making this connection between the embedded device, an external network, and any online resources requires a software and hardware team to work together in close collaboration. Platform connectivity requirements will determine the networking protocol used to interface with an external application and the cloud, which will limit the available component options for the hardware designer. These points should be clearly communicated to the hardware designer and the platform must be designed in a collaborative approach to ensure smooth development and a successful go-to-market strategy.

    Mechanical Design

    Most IoT products are produced as standalone devices, rather than as add-on modules for other products, so they need to have an enclosure. A mechanical enclosure could be as simple as a pre-fabbed plastic box that includes cable access, or it could be a custom-designed injection-molded housing with a unique form factor. The mechanical design will impose constraints on the board layout and component placement, and these constraints should be determined at the front-end of development efforts with clear communication with the hardware designer.

    The Role of Your EMS Partner in IoT Development

    Success in the above areas of IoT design and development requires managing multiple sets of requirements while ensuring manufacturability and design for testing. Success in these areas will help ensure high quality and yield, as well as long lifetime and reliability once products are deployed in the field. The right EMS provider can bring extensive engineering and embedded development experience to help transition from prototype to volume production.

    An experienced EMS provider that brings extensive design, engineering, and process automation experience can help ensure your new platform will be manufacturable at scale. PCI has more than 30 years of EMS experience focused in consumer goods, industrial, automotive, and medical devices, as well as in Printed Circuit Board Assembly (PCBA) and box builds. Our Lean Six Sigma manufacturing expertise enables us to customize our manufacturing line to meet our partners’ requirements.

    If needed, we provide our customers the flexibility needed to quickly scale production as needs arise. We provide our partners with high-quality products at lower manufacturing costs thanks to our shorter change-over time and leaner material control. Contact PCI today to learn more about our capabilities.

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