Sensors, storage and Bluetooth have all become synonymous with the Internet of Things (IoT) movement – and why shouldn't they? IoT is defined as "the infrastructure of the information society" that allows objects to "talk" to each other to perform specific functions that make peoples' lives easier and more efficient. But while software and user-facing interfaces receive the majority (if not all) of the attention from the media, there are other players who go virtually unnoticed in IoT conversations. Namely, the hardware, switches and buttons that consumers interact with every time they turn on their Amazon Echo, FitBit, etc. These components are critical to the success of any product on the market today, but, because they have always been a part of what makes a product tick – and are always expected to be so – they're often afterthoughts in product designers' minds.
Afterthought or not, components are most certainly a vital part of future IoT innovations, and the industry is taking notice. O'Reilly's Jon Bruner recently talked about the concept of the "new hardware movement." He said that the industry will see key advances in hardware technology that will push the IoT to the next level. According to Bruner, "The Internet of Things is the result of a much larger and more important movement that's about making the physical environment accessible in the same way that the Internet has become accessible over the last 20 years." Hardware ranging from the switches, sensors and screens used on smart watches and other wearables – to the Bluetooth, Wi-Fi antennas and embedded modems, which communicate data to the network, servers, and storage products that enable cloud computing – play a critical role in the proliferation of the connected devices and shouldn't be ignored. After all, without them, there would be no "on switch" to the IoT trend.
Parts Are Parts
To be fair, components are never the sexy feature of a device. No one ever brings home a new Samsung Galaxy and marvels at the seamless integration of its buttons into the overall device, or the design choices Jony Ive weaves into each and every Apple product to deliver a consistent and deliverable experience. In product design, the devil is in the details and the same is true with IoT devices. Product designers need to make sure that every component and feature is in line with the desired brand experience they are trying to deliver to customers.
Despite all of our digital sophistication, humans are tactile creatures, so the way a product feels is an important part of a user's overall satisfaction. For example, the "on/off" switches are generally the only control features of a product the user physically touches. In fact, many times that first interaction with the end product is the switch – so it is critical that it leaves a good impression.
Stuff Has Got To Work
If the switch works well, users come away feeling that they're handling a truly quality product. If it fails, however, the user sometimes has to return or throw the whole product away and is left with the impression that it was of a low quality to begin with. They don't blame the maker of the switch; they blame the brand that incorporated it into their design.
In addition, the incorporation of larger and more user-friendly screens mean all the other parts inside need to get smaller and still function reliably. Sure, there are apps for everything – but what happens when there's no "reset" switch and your smart phone stops communicating to the network or your fitness tracker stops transmitting your fitness and health data?
Wearables, a surging market that is forecasted to be worth more than $150 billion by 2026, were the first real IoT devices that broke through to the mainstream. One look at a Fitbit or Apple Watch and the importance of components becomes immediately clear. Again, the "cool" factor is largely in these wearables' ability to connect to a smartphone, tablet or other device, but they are still tactile objects, operated largely by buttons or – in the case of the Apple Watch – the infamous "crown." Given the size and operating environment of these devices, the requirements for the "working" components (such as switches) are all the more demanding. Important requirements to remember include the need for ultra-miniature form factors, resistance to sweat and body fluids, good impact performance and the ability to accommodate over-travel and over-actuation force conditions.
The same is true for many other industries influenced by the IoT, such as smart homes and buildings, smart grids, smart cities and telemedicine. As technological advancements keep pushing these industries further into the IoT space, the hardware that suppliers develop will also need to get "smarter." In fact, hardware is already starting to take the form of internal (SIM) card sockets for high performance embedded and external modems, which enable telematics devices in cars, allow corporations to manage oil pipelines and chemical plants remotely and allow smart parking meters to alert drivers when a parking spot becomes available. Additionally, high performance switch components act as human interfaces on products which can turn on the lights and air conditioning in your home before you get home, monitor security devices for signs of tampering and even allow your doctor or family members to monitor your vital signs remotely.
The Shifting Sands of Time
In addition to the development of these sophisticated new products, we're already seeing a shift in hardware's role unfolding from a business perspective. Hardware as a Service (or HaaS) is a business model where companies sell packages that include hardware, software, maintenance and installation for a monthly fee. The rise in these services can be attributed to the fact that people refuse to lose their grip on their hardware, according to Gartner Research Director Ted Chamberlain.
There is no doubt the future lies with highly connected devices, but the electronic switch and component industry plays a much larger role in that progress than has been reported. The IoT may seem to be centered around sophisticated analytic engines and enabling products to "talk" with one another, but there are larger, often simpler aspects of product design that must also be factored into the equation. No matter how sophisticated electronic devices become, product designers will always need to factor electrical switches and components into their manufacturing decisions.
About the Author
Mike Bolduc is Global Marketing Manager at C&K, where he is responsible for leading market strategy and global growth efforts for the industrial and medical business segments. Mike has an engineering and business background and over 25 years of diversified experience in the automotive, semiconductor, HVAC, aerospace, industrial and medical industries while working for large global corporations such as Texas Instruments and Stanley Black & Decker.