GreenpeakWhen I go home tonight, I’ll be able to turn on the lights in my house, adjust the thermostat and put up the garage door all with one simple command on my smart phone. I also can disarm my alarm system and open my door using an app.

I’m not alone. The number of smart products continues to rise and capture the attention of both consumers and businesses. With 26 billion smart units predicted to be installed by 2020, Internet of Things (IoT) growth is expected to exceed that of cell phones and tablets.

Making products that can connect to the Internet is one way that product manufacturers are staying competitive within their industries. However, the benefits go beyond the “cool factor.” IoT allows manufacturers to easily add new features to products through a simple software update. Gone are the days when consumers have to purchase a new product in order to get new features.

Connected products also are a smart play for manufacturers by enabling them to stay connected with their customers like never before. Smart products can deliver maintenance reminders, special offers, recall notices and other notifications at prescribed intervals. The data captured by these devices can help manufacturers get to know their customers better. For example, by gathering usage data, washing machine manufacturers can know which of the functions owners use most, helping with future product development. Sensors in the appliances can trigger alerts when a component is about to fail, allowing customers to set up service calls proactively, which boosts customer loyalty. Even information about how much detergent customers use, water temperature preferences and wash cycle choices could be packaged and sold to detergent companies as consumer insight information.

At the same time, connected devices are becoming fairly inexpensive to manufacture, and they can be sold with a higher price tag. In general, connectivity can be added for a material cost of about $10, plus the cost for app development and cloud hosting. While lower cost devices, such as coffee makers or toasters, may not be able to support the added cost, larger ticket items (washers/dryers and refrigerators, for example) can. Much of it depends on the added convenience and value the connected device brings to the consumer.

The possibilities presented by smart products are very attractive, so designers are thinking of ways to add connectivity to products. Along with adding the Internet component, smart products present other unique design considerations.

Look and feel
It’s tempting to want to simply modify existing product designs to make products smart. Sometimes that works, as there are a number of compact networking modules available that will fit in a manufacturer’s existing products. Still, some design modifications will likely be needed. Designers must consider the space they have available on their circuit boards and in the product’s enclosure to accommodate the networking technology that is selected.

There are a variety of options for networking modules, and each will impact the type and number of antennas needed. Module manufactures often provide multiple options for antennas, such as on-board chip or ceramic antennas. They may also offer a wire or whip antenna, a trace antenna, or a pin-out, which allows the manufacturer to add their own antenna elsewhere on the circuit board. When selecting between internal and external antennas, designers must consider the material of the housing and the potential placement of the product within a home or business. For example, metal housings almost always require an external antenna because the metal in the housing greatly diminishes the quality of radio frequency (RF).

Power considerations also will affect design. Consider where the product will be used and if untethering it from a wall outlet makes the product more useful. The power source generally can be decided based on the power needs of the device. If the device needs to be “on” constantly, a traditional battery won’t work because it will drain quickly. Some products, such as motion sensors, are able to sleep and wake, reducing power consumption and enabling the device to be battery powered.

Finally, think of how customers will interact with the smart device for programming, updates and other reasons. The product can have a visual interface or display, or it can be controlled through the Web or via an app. If there is no visual interface, consider how the customer will know if a device is “on.” It may be necessary to add an “on” light to a product that previously didn’t have one. Also, consider whether the device should have a manual on-off switch. The apps to monitor and control connected devices can be web-based or available as smart phone apps, or both.

Network Considerations
Learn about the network connection standards being used to connect devices to the Internet. Some devices can be directly connected to the internet using existing networks, such as Ethernet and Wi-Fi. Other standards require a “gateway” to convert the network to either Ethernet or Wi-Fi, which adds cost and one more potential point of failure. The easiest devices to connect will use Wi-Fi, Ethernet, cellular or Bluetooth. Wi-Fi and Ethernet are available in most homes and businesses and Bluetooth connects through smart phones and tablets, using their existing cellular network. None require the addition of hardware or gateways. Other protocols include ZigBee, Z-Wave and Thread.

In the home, many different standards are emerging for interoperability between products from different manufacturers. Devices should support more than one of these standards to ensure their products will be able to work with and communicate with a variety of manufacturers’ products. Some of the best known interoperability standards include: Brillo (supported by Google/Nest), Alljoyn (supported by Qualcomm) and HomeKit (supported by Apple).

Many smart products transmit sensitive information. For example, home thermostats provide clues about when a home owner is away at work or vacation. It’s important to understand how data can be compromised and what the potential outcome is if there is a breach. Product manufacturers must employ best practices and security protocols to ensure the safety of data, and should educate users about how they can help ensure their own security. For example, users need to take appropriate precautions to secure their IoT apps on smart phones and tablets.

The U.S. market for connected homes is expected to quadruple to $44 billion from 2014 to 2017, according to the GSM Association trade group. The Industrial Internet of Things should reach $500 billion by 2020, according to Accenture. With the appetite for connected devices surging and costs plummeting, it’s time for products to smarten up.