Built to last or built like crap?

In the last couple of weeks, I have been involved in many discussions on IoT hardware design. As the IoT market matures and more hardware becomes available, it is evident that all hardware is not built equally great.

The battery battle

Many discussions have involved batteries and battery life for IoT devices, more on that below. One of our partners described battery life as a time that the battery would last, but at that point, the startup that initially designed the product would no longer be around; in other words, if battery life ended up as five years instead of 10, there would be no company to blame for it. The other takeaway from that discussion was that the longer the battery life, the more security measures were circumvented to build a device focused on good battery performance.

The right hardware makes a difference!

There are many IoT-hardware suppliers out there. I represent two of them: one distributing hardware and the other designing hardware. I will share some pitfalls so you can avoid mistakes, whether you work with me or someone else.

1. Skipping CE-testing

I need to stress the importance of CE certification. It is there to get the stamp of approval for the performance of your product. It addresses from a radio and electrical perspective. Of course, it costs money. And yes, it is costly. And apart from that, you must do more than send your product to the lab. You may need to invest in entirely new firmware for the tests.

I know companies supplying hardware based on a design they purchased via social media. Hardware that has not been CE-tested because of neglect or bad judgement. Hardware that could be based on a design that is a copy of someone else’s design. The supplier probably has no clue if it is performing as expected or if it is dangerous, if it is polluting the spectrum or if it is fit for the environment in which it is used.

How do companies get away with this? You will get a ready-made kit if you purchase a sensor value as a service from a company. But in these setups, we tend to worry about CE-testing even less than we usually do.

2. Battery-life

I recently published an article and a video on batteries and the use of primary batteries or disposable batteries. Anything you throw away after using it once does not resonate to spare the environment from unnecessary waste. The worst thing anyone could imagine when designing a way to power supply hardware was to think disposable batteries would be the thing. But there are worse ideas. One is to put disposable batteries on the board that are soldered to the board, so you have to desolder them to change them. Why save €1 on soldering it in place instead of having a holder for the battery so you can remove it?

Are disposable batteries not useful at all? There is one situation where these outperform rechargeables; it is when you have to use them for many years as they will last for years without self-draining, this is where the rechargeables fall short. Also, and I am talking from experience, the design and safety testing for a product with a built-in charger is quite a large bite in your wallet. I have done it. At the same time, the environment will last longer if we do not use disposable batteries in most IoT devices, which is the norm today. Dare to challenge your hardware supplier

3. Safety testing

As I just mentioned, testing for electrical safety on a product, something you usually do during CE testing, is costly, complex and challenging. But it is part of the game. If you are designing hardware or being the purchaser of hardware, you must understand that this has to be in place. You should be able to show the correct documents upon request.

4. Firmware

So, when it comes to firmware in these IoT devices, there are many very crappy firmware in devices on the market. This crappiness is super hard to prove or to understand how it is structured; I get it. There are many corners to cut. One is battery life. Battery life will be better if you compromise on security. Skipping end-to-end encrypted transmission increases battery life. So the worse device from a security perspective, the better the battery life.

I am not presenting you with a solution to these problems. Massive IoT is great and exciting. But as we move ahead, let us jointly understand that a price-competitive product doesn’t necessarily have the most expensive firmware or hardware. And even if the software in the device is okay, it could be hampered by processing power and storage space, reducing its possibilities to have a robust and secure ecosystem for firmware.

Please be advised. Ask your supplier questions, and don’t make too fast decisions. Know the pitfalls, and enjoy great IoT hardware.