Electronics For You
We see a lot of startups and small design teams working on “Internet of Things” projects that aim to let people control household appliances from a smartphone. Is that really where the potential lies? Let’s take a look.
Ralf Buehler, Senior Vice President, element14 Sales & Marketing speaks with Dilin Anand from EFY.
Q.What is the biggest opportunity for electronics engineers today?
A.It is one thing being able to turn your lights off from your smartphone, but what really makes this work is a step further, where technology responds to the users normal living patterns, rather than merely providing them with the opportunity to control things around them through a different mechanism. It’s a big hardware opportunity but it’s probably a much bigger software ecosystem opportunity. A lot of the next generation companies in this space will not be the ones existing today but will be the result of new entrepreneurial ideas. This means that engineers or inventors with great ideas have a chance of making it big.
Q.What are some popular areas of engineering R&D today?
A.In Internet of Things, the trend clearly is about connecting to something and controlling it via a communications setup. While simply sensing what was happening in remote area was a very big part of things, the segment is developing rapidly. Today, people are less content with simply sensing and are thinking about developing their system to do the next big thing – autonomously controlling machines using what it learns from the various sensors connected to it. It’s no longer about simply sending a message, but more about using actuators to act upon the messages it sends and receives. Power is at the heart of challenges that any wireless device faces. Energy harvesting and other methods to improve the uptime of devices is a big area of research.
Q.what is the biggest R&D challenge that those entering this space need to gear up for?
A.The current situation is such that the problem that needs to be solved will probably need a piece of hardware that is not specified as yet. The big challenge then, is that engineers need to learn how to leverage new hardware technology as soon as possible without having to build it scratch while they are still playing around with a proof of concept. Hardware should not be a limitation, but a tool or platform that engineers can rapidly build their business case on. Once the business case is proven, engineers can come back to the hardware world to figure how to get their hardware into mass production.
Q.Any insight as to how the importance of hardware has evolved in the last couple of years?
A.When you look at a lot of the hardware trends over the last three years, there were a lot of concepts that did not even exist before. Fitness trackers were non-existent until some people realised that it could be made into a business. I would say that it was more of a hardware play than a software play. On the other hand, a majority of IoT solutions outside of industrial applications are truly more of a software ecosystem development than hardware. This is true even when we look at things like Amazon’s Alexa. Yes, there is a piece of hardware but the hardware is kind of almost a throwaway product because the real sell is in the software and it’s transactional model.
Q.Could you share what you have done to reduce the barrier of entry for hardware startups?
A.A lot of these startups come from people who are very young and from different disciplines. They may not be experts at building hardware from scratch, so we have gone a step further back in the chain to enable all these people learning how to code and built a platform for them. These come out as a very simplistic piece of hardware on a small board, which lowers the barrier of entry so that more people can experiment and play around with hardware.
Q.What then is the biggest challenge that typical startups place when they enter this space?
A.The biggest challenge to leverage the supply chain is to figure out how to talk to people and get the connections needed to get your manufacturing done properly. You could talk to one person today and three tomorrow, or you can get the networks needed to get things immediately. This was one of the challenges that we looked at and solve today – to see how we can help our customers find and connect with relevant people and support.
Q.Has the model in which you support engineers undergone any change as the industry evolved?
A.The traditional model was where you have hardware and people visiting hardware engineers consulting on specific problems. That model does not work today when we have hundreds and thousands of startups. We now implement a combination of all the things we used to do. We have always had a technical support team that takes care of larger opportunities, but we also have a balanced set of engineering communities where members are able to collaborate with one another on topics that they are experts in. It is much easier to solve a problem on a particular topic by working with someone who has already worked on something similar before.
Q.What is the typical way in which you identify new trends and insights about your customers?
A.We are a highly e-commerce oriented organisation, and the information gleaned from the website is extremely helpful to spot trends and such. It shows how people interested in one particular product are also interested in other products, which lets us draw trends between them to products that they are likely to buy.
Q.How far along are we on the route to standardisation in this area?
A.When you need a mix of devices to work together, like your power outlets talking to your thermostat and your lighting – there is a big need for reliable standards for all these to work together and provide true convenience to users. The bigger players have their own standards and consumers need to either stay invested with those standards or make a shift. While small consumers may prefer staying within the standard, the kind of people looking at automation solutions for a big factory are more willing to try a new standard.
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