The Q word: the hushed promise of IoT

Pledging Q… 

The overarching promise of IoT is that it should pervade every aspect of our lives, therefore implying huge numbers of discrete devices all connecting at more or less frequent intervals to chat with the cloud services that have come to govern our lives.

To enable this and clearly define the distinction from its M2M sibling, IoT must abide by what I term as the four pledges of IoT:

  1. Low energy: energy efficiency is paramount
  2. Ubiquity: it needs to be deployed anywhere
  3. Low cost: otherwise adoption will be limited
  4. Simplicity: sophistacted embedded firmware is  neither compatible with low energy nor, generally, low cost.

It’s important to understand that an application must keep all four pledges to be deemed IoT. 

Holding these four pledges together and, above all, to hold the general promise of massive deployment and implementation, there lies a hushed fifth pledge. 

When poring over the unfathomable volumes of documents on the topic of IoT that are published every day, one will find it associated with words such as “security”, “smart”, “strategy”, “platform”, “revolution”, “adoption”, “disruptive”, “transformation” and the adjective “low” mostly as a prefix to “energy” and “cost”. The Q word appears only timidly, often hidden in the acronym QoS. Yet it is the most fundamental promise of IoT. So, why is quality the hushed promise of IoT?

IoT quality approved

The pledge of low cost does not come cheap.

I recall an interview I had two years ago with one of the co-founders of a major LPWAN operator in which I stated the four pledges of IoT, adding that what makes IoT all the more challenging is that, on top of these criteria, it has to be reliable.

From a network operator, I was expecting the reply to be defensive about the ubiquity promise. Surprisingly, the response was guffawed: “well, what do people expect of something that costs only a few tens of euros?” A little taken aback, I replied “as good reliability as you would expect from a 900 € smartphone”.

Here’s why:

In my years of delivering mobile and M2M enterprise solutions, I’ve seen the cost related to unreliable hardware. A return of above 2% of faulty products is bad, above 5% is crippling.Companies purchase M2M and IoT solutions to solve issues, monitor the usage of their assets and, importantly, expect a return on investment. With a classic M2M solution, a substantial deployment may range from a few hundred to a few thousand devices. With those volumes, a return rate of up to 5% of faulty devices will represent tens of devices coming back for servicing. It’s not good for image nor for profit margins, but it’s manageable.

Whatever the cost of hardware, the cost of replacing it once deployed quickly shadows it and will generate substantial losses, not to mention the impact on image and stress levels for the solution provider and customer. IoT deployments are supposed to be in tens or hundreds of thousands of devices. Yes, I know, we’re not there yet, but I’ve seen dozens of business plans and millions raised on forecasts of humongous deployments.

If IoT is to reach anything near the volumes being forecast, device makers and solution providers must have hardware quality at the forefront of their deliverable criteria.

If you have to deal with anything above 1% return of 100 000 devices, your company may not be able to live to regret the penny saving in choosing cheap rather than good. Furthermore, the backlash will hold back a slow-starting market even longer.

How reliable is the promise of long life?

Reliability and quality go hand in hand. “Obvious” you say? OK. When was the last time an RFP you responded to actually ended with the best offer being taken up and not the cheapest? It is most likely that best was on the shortlist and was either shunted or turned into cheapest by the purchasing department refusing to acknowledge the cost of better value. Best is recognised by those who have smashed their noses on the glass door of cheapest.

So how do you identify or determine the quality of a manufacturer?

Firstly, quality requires consistence and constance over the impressively far-reaching processes involved in manufacturing: from the questioning to understand you and the product you’re looking to develop, the understanding of not just technical constraints, but also those of the markets you’re targeting, the designing, choosing the appropriate materials, the huge challenge of properly sourcing components, the study-to-prototype process, the tracking of all the requested modifications, the making of the industrial tools for manufacturing, ensuring certification is undertaken the decomposition of the production process right up to packaging, logistics, customs clearance and delivery.

If you’re to have any chance of getting things right, the minimum is to demand ISO 9001 certification, just to make sure your manufacturer knows what they’re doing.

As described in the official document (iso.org PDF file) ISO 9001, especially in its 2015 version, sets out the criteria for a quality management system and is the only standard in the family that can be certified.

ISO 9001 : 2015

Mass deployment means mass production.

When it comes to mass deployment, ensuring your manufacturer has full control over the industrialisation process and does not depend on cascading responsibility. You cannot simply depend on them signing a charter that “guarantees” all their suppliers and subcontractors abide by the same terms. It is next to impossible to ensure every part of an electronic product is produced in accordance with a given set of rules. If one fails in the chain, it is you and your customers who will be the ones suffering the most to start with.

A very clear and nominal indicator of quality is ppm defectives (ppm meaning parts per million). This index gives customers an idea of how many defective devices can be expected in one million manufactured by their supplier. A defect rate below 1% (10,000 ppm) is a minimum to be looking for and 0.5% (5000 ppm) would seem a good threshold to go by. As IoT products become standardized and truly mass produced in millions of uinits, the expected ppm could go as low as 1000. However, as said above, we’re not there yet.

Sounding out your smart object supplier

Being given the ppm defectives level of your manufacture, while essential, is but a first step on the way to getting the most out of your manufacturing investment.

Smart device industrialisation is an expensive business. Product design, development and prototyping don’t come cheap, but they’re the easy part. Getting the product to be mass produced on a production line involves often redesigning the product to ensure compliance with assembly processes, costly certifications and eye-wateringly expensive molds and test benches whose own quality have direct impact on the end product quality.

Price and timescale are obviously important, as are logistics and making sure your manufacturer has a thorough understanding of the ins and outs of the final product you wish to achieve.

Hence, geographical location will be paramount to saving time, money and stress. If you can drive to meet your manufacturer and define your product in a language both understand rather than travel half way round the world and have to hire an agent and interpreter, you’ll gain a lot.

Ensuring they have the equipment and laboratories to undertake stress tests in a climate chamber, simulate accelerated use cycles and carry out In-depth analysis of radio performance and antenna radiation patterns is also an essential part of gaining time and reducing costs without toing and froing with a subcontracted quality assurance company.

The sumum is to come across a full-blown contract manufacturer that covers the full process from product design to mass production, through prototyping and certification. Such companies are few and far between, so if you do manage to find one that abides by all the above criteria, my advice would be to remember that quality results from a frame of mind that has arisen from experience.

Such qualities are priceless to ensuring you don’t end up with something worthless.

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