Over the past decade, the trend of making everything “smart” became mainstream, and now it’s very common to find a home with a programmable appliance. Smart doorbells, smart thermostats, smart appliances, and even smart lightbulbs are widely available for consumers, and their computational sophistication and connectivity capabilities continue to increase. These systems are gaining even more intelligence thanks to features like on-device AI, connections to a cloud platform, and biometric recognition.
The same trend is spilling over into commercial, industrial, and office environments, where smart appliances are used in everything from data capture to security. As newer smart appliances continue getting smarter and their capabilities become more advanced, further integration of intelligent processing capabilities can create difficulties for many designers. An experienced electronics manufacturing partner can help designers in many ways, ranging from qualifying designs to aiding firmware development, testing, and much more.
Challenges in Smart Appliance Development
Any time an existing appliance is made “smart” there will be some unique challenges. Some smart designs are updates on older products, where features and components are consolidated into more powerful processors. Other challenges relate to smaller form factor, where multiple power, processing, I/O, and HMI blocks must coexist in a device without interference. Smart home devices connect to a local network or a user’s mobile device via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, respectively, meaning a web platform or smartphone app must also be developed to support these products.
The major design requirements and challenges fall into four broad areas:
Smart appliances can have an array of form factors that may not leave much room for a PCB with a dedicated digital processing section. Determining where to put the PCB, how large it should be, and whether functions could be put on multiple boards are essential front-end engineering tasks. Your electronics manufacturer can help answer these questions and come up with a plan for the hardware design while ensuring the PCBA, enclosure, and supporting components remain manufacturable at scale.
Many smart appliance designs are mixed signal designs, meaning they typically must integrate a digital processing section, low-frequency analogue sensor section, and high-frequency wireless communications section onto the same device. PCBs for these products can be difficult to design as the goal is to prevent noise coupling and interference between each of these sections. Mixed-signal PCB designs require special care and experience and the eye of a manufacturer to ensure suitable board stack-up is implemented to support the device.
Smart appliances will generally receive AC power from the electric grid, so they need to have a power supply section integrated into the end product. The power section needs to supply power to the entire product, not just to the embedded processor block. These supplies normally include a power factor correction (PFC) circuit with a switching DC-DC converter for high-efficiency power conversion and regulation.
In some home appliances, these supplies may need to supply high current through a switching converter during operation. The challenge here is to integrate power regulation into the same product as the main digital processing section. High current switching action can be a major noise source that interferes with digital and analogue sections of the appliance. In many cases, a bad PCB layout can cause a design to fail EMC testing, requiring redesigns before going to market.
The embedded application in a smart appliance is exactly what makes the appliance “smart.” In the past, these were logical applications that included a user interface with a touch display or keypad. As devices have become more sophisticated, cloud services have expanded, and newer processors are released to the market, designers have more leeway to decide which portions of the application should run on the device and which should be delegated to a cloud platform.
Smart appliances are getting even smarter as designs begin to incorporate AI directly on the device. New ASICs and newer processors are enabling new designs that can accommodate AI-driven applications. The major challenge is in choosing the appropriate device architecture and developing more advanced applications. Embedded developers need to make these decisions in concert with their internal app and web platform developers to ensure a smart appliance product can have the required functionality.
Consult Your Manufacturing Partner For Design Advice
Because the challenges and functional requirements for smart appliances span multiple technical areas, experienced design and manufacturing teams have a role to play in ensuring these products perform as intended. An experienced innovation partner can advise on areas like processor and peripheral selection, device architecture, application development, and PCB layout for each functional block in a system.
Because smart home systems will require some level of development and testing, the right partner can work with a design team to implement best design for testability practices for prototypes and finished designs. By engaging with a manufacturer early in the design process, product designers are ensuring a design can be scaled into high volume production with high quality and yield. Early engagement with a manufacturer also helps streamline the transition to full scale production by helping a design team avoid common DFM mistakes.
During production, on-the-line boundary scan and IC programming must be performed to ensure high throughput. On-the-line testing like flying probe in-circuit testing should also be implemented to ensure each product comes off the line functioning correctly. Experienced high-volume electronics manufacturers excel in these areas and can provide simple design guidance to streamline these processes.
Finally, with today’s semiconductor shortages and supply chain volatility, it is important to develop a sourcing strategy early in the design process. Supply chain volatility creates risks that can greatly delay a project by forcing entire product redesigns. Experienced manufacturers know how to navigate the electronics supply chain and develop a procurement strategy that helps ensure success. The right procurement and management strategy can help customers stay on-schedule and on-budget.
OEMs that want to bring their smart appliance products to market should partner with an experienced EMS provider that specializes in embedded design and development. We have 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.