Disruptive technology switches sides

September 26, 2018 Tommy Mullane, S3 Semiconductors

Disruptive technology has become a popular catchphrase since the term was coined just over 20 years ago. And, to be fair, it’s been said a lot in those 20 years, shaking up and dramatically reshaping the world around us. The world in which millennials have grown up looks very different to that inhabited by their parents and grandparents.

Semiconductors and computing are predominantly responsible for the changed landscape. The picture keeps changing, however. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the latest kid on the block. While there are many column inches devoted to that technology in the consumer press, it has also infiltrated and made heavy inroads into the world of business and increasingly, into the area of manufacturing.

That’s somewhat ironic – normally it works the other way round: business is the early developer and adopter of technology. The consumer market follows behind, adding volume sales and bringing down the cost through sheer economy of scale.

IoT moves to center stage

Earlier this year, respected market research company, Forrester, predicted: “IoT is likely to become more specialized in the coming year, moving away from generic hardware and software into platforms designed for specific industries.” The report added: “As the IoT industry continues to grow, you won’t need to be generic to achieve economies of scale” and that “more and more of IoT connectivity and integrations will happen in the cloud.... At the same time, however, in an effort to cut costs and trim latency, IoT data processing and analysis will also move from the core to the edge of the network.”

Of course, that’s precisely what’s already happening with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), where lack of latency is vital and failsafe data transfer is key. LNS Research predicted late last year that 2018 would be the year in which “inter-cloud connectivity will become both a requirement and reality,” with each end user having “multiple platforms for multiple use cases.”  

There’s no doubt that IoT has genuinely disrupted both consumer and industrial markets. From having traditionally been a marketplace in which technology was developed slowly and carefully, with plenty of time for testing new developments, the industrial marketplace is rapidly learning to become more consumer-like and consumer-based. This means that there’s increased pressure on manufacturers to develop lower-cost devices – and to develop them faster. That puts demands on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) too.

Disruptive technologies bring many benefits to those early adopters who are either smart or lucky enough to see what’s on the horizon. Increasingly the marketplace is favoring those who are quick on their feet. To derive maximum benefit, suppliers need to be flexible in terms of their engineering, responsive to the needs of their customers and to be able to keep development costs down.

Standard products are no longer necessarily the answer. There are now so many different variants of products required, depending on customer needs, that custom mixed-signal integrated circuits (ICs) will often fit the bill much better than trying to customize a standard product and for little if any additional cost. The picture is further complicated by the (frankly bewildering) range of wireless technologies and quasi-standards available, with the proprietary Sigfox and LoRa competing with LTE and other cellular offerings. 

By choosing the right supplier, with a wealth of application expertise, customers can often reduce their bill of materials (BoM) significantly. S3 Semiconductors, for instance, offers the SmartEdge platform that allows customers essentially to mix and match their requirements.

It’s not necessarily easy to find a component off-the-shelf that will provide the right networking technology coupled with the calibration, control and security functions that your application demands. It can be much easier to have your own custom application specific IC (ASIC) made up for you. Overall performance will be better, power consumption lower and the device will occupy less space on the printed circuit board (PCB).

What’s not to like about that? You can be secure in the knowledge that you’re keeping ahead of the curve, as well as being fast to market.

Tommy Mullane is a Senior Systems Architect at S3 Semiconductors, a division of Adesto. He received the B.E. degree in Electronic Engineering from the National University of Ireland, Dublin (UCD) in 1997. He has worked in research in optoelectronic devices and received a master’s in technology management from UCD in 2006. From 2000 to 2014, he worked for a Dublin based start-up called Intune Networks - on next generation optical telecommunication systems, working in a variety of technical disciplines, from optics to chip design, software and systems. He holds 5 patents and has published a number of papers.

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