IoT Engineering – Just keep making prototypes

by | Dec 31, 2019

As a mechanical engineer, I view the engineering phase during product development as the most relevant element of a development initiative. Often, as a result, I end up spending too much time in engineering before the product is ready (check out articles on Ideation and Design phases for context).

  That being said, I am in line with Ben Einstein's view of product development as described in his Illustrated Guide to Product Development (Part 3: Engineering). The article does a great job highlighting many lessons while depicting the DipJar (an IoT product company) startup’s journey through the engineering process.

  I have outlined many of the lessons learned by DipJar, during the engineering phase here:
  • Start with a rigorous engineering specification document Also known as a “spec” or Product Requirements Document (PRD), this document functions as a shared outline (between all developing parties) that breaks requirements down into groups such as hardware and sensors, commercials and regulatory, electronics, firmware and libraries, software and web, durability and packaging, and environmental and service.
  • Build a works-like prototype to validate core function, component selection, PCB, mechanics, feel and assembly. The core function of each system needs to be built and tested with components that need to be selected and tested for basic functionality and durability requirements. Often changes need to be made to get the right combination of price, quality, durability, and supplier availability/lead time. Multiple versions of the PCB (Breadware, the engineering firm I founded often went through 3 to 5 iterations of boards before production) and enclosure need to be developed to get the feel and assembly to an acceptable. Plastic and metal parts need to be designed to account for manufacturing limitations such as wall thickness, drafts, rounds, screw bosses, heat stakes, optics, finish texture and structural integrity.
  • Build firmware and software from the “bottom-up” The firmware and software are generally done after a prototype is developed, and often the process begins at the lowest level (hardware) and builds up the stack. Starting at the hardware level, components on the PCB need to be verified for quality before hardware commands can be tested. Functions can then be designed and grouped into libraries to accomplish complicated actions such as communicating with a web API.


Importance of prototyping


It is common to build at least 3 - 4 full-function prototypes with this methodology before feeling comfortable to move past engineering and into product validation. Prototyping can greatly help in ensuring the efficiency of the design cycle and decrease the overall time of the development process to a great extent.

As mentioned earlier in this article, since the prototypes are developed to test the companies’ design in the real-world environment, it is easy to identify potential problems that could cost a lot of money during the actual development process.

To accelerate the prototyping phase, companies can adopt rapid prototyping. In this method, 3D CAD software or other 3D printing technologies are adopted to test a variety of physical components of the product and their features. Using various 3D printing materials like metal or engineering-grade thermoplastics, designers and engineers have a clear understanding of the physical aspects of the product such as the look, feel and behave.

One of the important reasons for prototyping is that companies can release early prototypes to a group of trusted customers for beta testing. This will help in knowing about the product from the customers’ perspective. Also, with remarks and feedback from the customers, the product can be altered by making the necessary changes before pushing the product into production.

 

Best practices of prototyping


While traditional methods of prototyping are still effective, in order to keep up with the competitors and the current trends, companies can adopt modern prototyping technologies. It is best to outsource 3D printing to a 3D printing service provider. But companies can also implement in-house 3D printers for prototyping.

  The benefits of outsourcing are that the company only has to pay for the services offered. But in the case of having in-house 3D printing for prototyping, companies have to invest in buying and maintaining the printers as well. Hence this method of implementing in-house printing is not very cost-effective.

In-house 3D printing can be used for producing products on a small scale. For these purposes, 3D printers are available at smaller budgets. But enterprise-grade printers with more power and larger build size come at a higher cost.

For companies that are keen on preserving the confidentiality of their designs, in-house printing is the best option and they also have access to printed prototypes sooner.

 

Understanding IoT prototyping


Prototyping is a common methodology that has been adopted by manufacturers across various industries such as automotive, aerospace, medical and consumer goods, etc...In creating prototypes for IoT products, various factors have to be taken into consideration as mentioned below.
  1. User interface
  2. Hardware device
  3. Backend software
  4. Connectivity
 

User interface


The user interface is what the users experience or see while using a product. IoT mainly focuses on hardware devices and connectivity, but for a product to be successful, it has to create a good impression among the users.

The UI has to be designed in such a way that it proves its value to the user while being user-friendly.

 

Hardware device


Hardware devices are an essential part of IoT product development. This is where one or more sensors, actuators and other vital components are present. Other than these, the components that help an IoT device communicate with one another, usually through wireless communication, are also present in a hardware device.

Making use of modern 3D printing technology, a prototype can be created where all the above-mentioned components are neatly packed in a single piece into a hardware device.

 

Backend software


The backend software enables the IoT device to function properly. This part is usually not visible or accessible to the end customer. But the backend is where the data is collected and decisions are made. The backend software is usually implemented on the cloud.

 

Connectivity


Connectivity ensures that the hardware is connected with the backend and the backend is connected to the UI. The connectivity can be majority categorized into two: user-backend connectivity and device-backend connectivity.

The user-backend connectivity is implemented using usual internet protocols while the device-backend connectivity can be implemented using LPWAN and Bluetooth.

A successful prototype of a product can be achieved even after 5 or 6 iterations. But spending time and money on prototyping consumes very little money rather than altering the product post-production. Every IoT product has to be prototyped to validate the business and the technological choices involved in the development of the product.
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