The Internet of Things opens Pandora's box. The result will be a creativity explosion.
Everyone believes that the advent of IoT is unstoppable, and they are right. The Internet of Things is the next “big thing” in electronics. This is an explosion of new ideas that will add sensing and controls to literally billions of everyday situations. From food quality sensing and bio-medical applications to smart cars and smart parking spots, purpose-built tiny computers will be deployed to (hopefully) make our lives easier and better.
The concept is basically easy. Take one of hundreds of standard microprocessors, attach its I/O ports to a sensor, add some packaging and some software and bingo, a “Thing.” Communication to the outside world is via Ethernet or a wireless protocol. Many, especially “wearable” items, will use batteries, but some will attach to wall power. IoT is really flexible.
IoT has all the makings of a supply-side bonanza. Makers of ultra-low-power microprocessors will find ready markets with few standards. Though Intel is entering the space, there are no predetermined preferences for “Intel Architecture” products and in fact the ARM processor and Android operating system may already have an edge in designs.
Apart from sensors and microprocessors, the pull-through on other components will be tremendous. Voltage converters, resistors, capacitors, and ferrites will have a field day and circuit board makers will be stuffing a lot of small circuit boards.
We can expect a good portion of the “Things” to be low-volume items. The driver for this is 3D printing, making production of plastic and metal housings on-demand relatively simple and inexpensive. This is where 3D printing is going to find its niche. It allows a “Thing” designer to get to market quickly, and without all of the trappings of plastics molding, not least of which is a reduced level of engineering staff.
For a while, at least, the highest visibility markets revolve around health-related products. Implantable sensors, wearables, and microchip diagnostic devices are well along in the research labs, and the exploitation of these ideas will involve a good deal of innovation and re-packaging as the technologies evolve.
Most nations and health service providers are looking for ways to reduce costs, and the new technologies impact major areas by reducing the need for doctors, and by improved analysis and reporting of health issues. Still, the idea of invasive “Things” is not intuitively acceptable, which will impact form and function as vendors look for the least invasive unit possible.
Sensor technology will create a collateral market for “over-the-counter” wearable health aids ranging from pulse and oxygen sensors for joggers to do-it-yourself EKG kits. Already, the first, relatively crude products are hitting the market, and tied to the expected i-watch fashion wave should be a sizable business in its own right.
The building trade should see demand for home improvements such as smarter heating controls and security systems, never mind all those intelligent appliances. In this market, there will be a premium market segment, primarily serving builders, and an after-market do-it-yourself segment. Pricing will separate the two. A new IT segment, the “home manager” box, seems a likely outcome of all of this, though that might end up as just cloud software.
The food industry is planning to be part of the gold rush. Sensors for bacterial contamination in meat or food freshness are available. These will be very low-cost but are used in huge volume. They may be passive, but readers and in-store scanning systems will bulk up the market value. Retail will also expand sensor use, looking for faces and detecting activity at particular displays, and using much more digital signage. This brings up the lowly RFID tag, which will see expanded use.
The smartphone has opened a major window into our lives, and will be the vehicle for controlling much of this. With near-field wireless and high-res cameras that can count bacteria, for example, they themselves open up a vast array of “Things,” many of which will be mostly software.
IoT is unstoppable. Too many classes of people see advantages in the approach. There are opportunities to surf the way and deliver the wide variety of “Things” that this unleashed creativity will drive. This article has touched on many items that will subtly or unsubtly, change our way of life, and the one sure “Thing” is that this is the tip of a creative explosion.
IoT should really take off in the 2017 timeframe. By 2020, estimates, which vary widely, talk of annual revenues as high the $9 trillion range, which is around half the GNP of the US. Do you think we'll be spending at those levels?