Upskilling at speed

August 27, 2018

You probably already know that your iPhone is several thousand – even million – times more powerful than NASA’s Apollo mission computers, but did you know that your washing machine is probably faster, too? The massive increases in processing power and affordability driven by Moore’s Law have seen sophisticated computers become embedded in a huge range of devices. This trend is accelerating, based on demand from customers for ‘smart’ devices, which is putting pressure on suppliers across many markets.

The industrial sector is no exception; the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) means that there are more devices with processing capability than ever before. The IIoT also means there’s a move towards connected electronics, with wireless links passing data from sensors and actuators to a central hub and vice versa. Taken together, these changes put new pressures on OEMs, which means you’ll need to add new skills to your design team. Read on to find out why, and how you can respond.

Why Smart Trumps Dumb

Why do IIoT devices need more processing power? What’s wrong with dumb sensors? A lot of it comes down to the huge amount of data generated by IIoT sensors. If you have a stream of information coming from every machine in a factory, plus environmental data such as temperature, there’s simply too much data to stream back to one central processor, or to the cloud. It could risk overloading your network connection or, worse, introduce unacceptable delays to real-time processing.

Instead, the IIoT dictates that intelligence at the edge is needed, with the devices that are generating the data also taking on at least some of the processing workload. For example, a machine tool might only send back information when it detects an out-of-range reading, indicating a fault or problem. Basically, no news is good news.

IIoT Ups the Game

Industry 4.0’s trend towards a smart factory also means a gradual shift away from traditional automation, where a device might turn something on or off based on one factor. Instead, we are now seeing more sophisticated decision-making and optimization, some of which is already using artificial intelligence capabilities.

As well as needing to be smarter, the IIoT creates other new demands. Each IIoT device must be robust, reliable and able to cope with harsh environments. It often needs to have low power consumption – with some devices expected to operate for their entire lifetime on a single battery charge.

Overall, the IIoT means more and more technologies are being combined into limited spaces. And cost must be kept low, which means making the design as efficient as possible in terms of component selection.

New Demands on OEMs

If you’re an OEM, this shift to smarter devices means you need to add new skills in embedded electronics design and, more specifically, in communications and security.

Not all companies will have the right mix of expertise – and the IIoT is too big to be ignored. You need to respond relatively quickly, without the time to retrain your designers. So how can you upskill at speed?

One alternative to trying to build this expertise in-house is to work with an expert partner, so your engineers don’t need to get up to speed on all the technologies you will need in your IIoT design. In particular, at the start of each project, it’s worth considering whether a custom semiconductor provides a compelling case over using standard parts. A custom IC can include many of the functions your IIoT design will need, by taking advantage of the supplier’s existing intellectual property (IP) covering areas such as communications and security. This approach can reduce risk and cut time to market, giving you a massive competitive advantage over your competition, particularly if they are trying to do everything in-house.

For IIoT projects, a custom mixed-signal ASIC can also include the analog part of the signal path, alongside digital processing and RF. And the economics of custom semiconductors means you may well be able to reduce your total Bill of Materials (BoM) cost, too.

Whether you’re planning the next shot at the moon or something a bit more down to earth, a custom ASIC partner can help you add the expertise your IIoT project demands.

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