Advantages of purpose-built hardware for IoT applications

November 3, 2017 Kevin Eichhorst, Digi Wireless Design Services

Design engineers have many choices when it comes to the design of Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. Hardware is evolving to keep pace with the ever-expanding requirements and potential of IoT applications. As with all components, simplicity, cost-effectiveness, form factor, and reduced time to market are desired qualities. Purpose-built hardware offers an easy way to customize and get up and running with a pre-certified single board computer (SBC).

SBCs are an ideal platform for quick and focused product design. They continue to evolve in sophistication, and the range of possibilities continues to expand. As those capabilities grow, so do the choices for design engineers. But what are the factors that matter most in SBC evaluation and selection?

Although design needs will vary based on important application criteria, industry, and deployment environment, certain characteristics are consistently found across implementations. As engineers continue to refine their designs and rank their functional priorities, the following advantages should be considered for the evaluation of SBC options.

High flexibility

The flexibility of these SBCs accommodate different designs, giving engineers options they previously didn’t have, with limited effort and risk. A valuable head start is pre-certification. Forgoing certifications, for example, offers great cost and time savings in the form of reduced non-recurring engineering (NRE) expenses, or the up-front cost to research, design, develop, and test a new product or product enhancement. Features such as high memory capacity for data logging and storage applications and a wide array of peripheral/interface options provide additional design integration flexibility.

Ease-of-use

Purpose-built hardware can be fully developed and operational from the start. This provides engineers an advantage when building their applications. Designers are becoming increasingly specific in terms of their industry and environment, but most of what engineers need is provided. The hardware is production ready and it doesn’t require a ground-up development effort. The costs and schedule delays of fixing mistakes during development and/or customization is significantly reduced.

Also, whereas maintenance-of-line (MOL) can be complex and time consuming, even after components are deployed, manufacturers must manage inventory and complex supply chains, maintain quality and test equipment – and the list goes on. By choosing an SBC, design engineers effectively outsource these costs and complexities. These benefits are particularly attractive for an organization without a large engineering staff.

Finally, if a component needs to be customized or built-to-suit, suppliers have years of experience to tailor solutions for a wide variety of requirements. 

Reliability and longevity

SBCs are often used in highly specialized and environmentally challenging embedded applications. Specific industry standards related tests for temperature, shock, and vibration will ensure that the platform is able to operate reliably 24/7 without failure.

The bill of materials in an SBC also has a significant importance with respect to the overall product long-term availability. For example, components must meet the highest standards for industrial operating temperature and rugged shock/vibration performance. This contributes to overall reliability but also to long-term availability of parts from a procurement point of view.

Today’s ARM-based SBC designs – even those that leverage quad-core processors – can achieve excellent power efficiency in both mobile and fixed power applications. The inherent design advantages of the ARM platform and its advanced power-saving modes enables engineers to minimize and tune power consumption for applications, load, temperature, times of day, users, and other application specific criteria. What’s more, it also helps in the design of products that don’t require active (fan-based) cooling. That lowers design complexity while increasing longevity and, most importantly, reliability over time.

Connectivity options

The IoT is pervasive throughout applications in virtually all vertical markets. Fully integrated and complete connectivity options must be considered and designed into a product right from the beginning — whether that be Wi-Fi connectivity to allow for product configuration or services, Bluetooth Classic for user device integration, Bluetooth Low Energy for low-power sensors, or Ethernet for use-cases mandating wired network connections.

Purpose-built hardware is fully integrated and diverse, and immediately capable from an interface perspective. With Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or cellular modem connectivity, there is the ability to connect to short-range, proprietary networks or the broader Internet. Engineers, for example, can develop an application and adjust wireless connectivity to meet it. This is particularly helpful because new connectivity options for IoT applications are always improving and evolving. Rarely are purely homogeneous networks found.

Modularity

Modularity allows for expedited development with building blocks to interchange different technologies. Engineers can develop an application and integrate quickly, plus adjust as needed. Similar to software design where code blocks increase productivity, this provides increased options as modules can be interchanged rather than developed from scratch. For example, backwards compatibility and designing for different regions of the globe can all be modular.

In conclusion, purpose-built hardware allows engineering departments to create equipment reflecting the unique personality of their IoT needs and significantly reduce design risk while accelerating time-to-market. This allows for greater focus on core competencies.

Having a head start on these characteristics is a tremendous advantage, because designers are no longer creating for the next twenty years. These advantages can guard against rapid obsolesce in the light speed IoT market.

Kevin Eichhorst has a Bachelor of Science in Computer and Communications Sciences from the University of Michigan. He has 36 years of experience in wired and wireless product development for companies such as 3M, Ingersoll-Rand, Emerson Electric, ADC Telecommunications, and Eaton. In that time, he has deployed numerous products across multiple industries.

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