From the Blackberry’s release in 1998, to the iPhone in 2007, to the vast array of connected and powerful home and personal devices we have today, the past two decades have seen an incredible leap in our ability to communicate, control, and interact with our world as consumers. Indeed, it is these 3 pillars of innovation – communications, control, and human machine interface (HMI) – that drove this consumer revolution, motivating many of us to stand in line for hours every two years just to get our hands on the new iPhone. Unfortunately, the non-consumer, or “embedded systems” world has been unable to leverage these technology ingredients. Yet, the pressure to bring those same pillars of innovation to embedded systems has continued to increase and is now taking the embedded world by storm. Let’s examine how these pillars are affecting the embedded systems you design.
Pillar #1 - Human Machine Interfaces (HMI)
Human machine interfaces in embedded systems have traditionally been very basic. Many industrial, medical, and similar applications today still use a simple 2x16 character display, LEDs, and a few buttons for human interaction. In the age of connected devices and the prevalence of smart phones with high resolution images and videos, many users don’t just want improved human machine interfaces but are requiring them in order to more efficiently interact with devices. As soon as a system has a graphic/touch display on it, it can dramatically transform what can be done with the product. For example, add a display to a commercial oven and suddenly you don’t just have a way to control the oven but also the ability to interact with the user and provide them with important information such as training videos and interactive manuals right on the machine. The HMI suddenly takes on a life of its own and can dramatically increase product value.
Pillar #2 - Controls
A critical component to every embedded system is how it controls and interacts with its environment. When I hear the word controls, I often imagine general purpose input and output being used to read switch states and drive relays. While this is quite common in embedded systems, controls are helping to innovate embedded systems for several different reasons. First, the types and number of sensors available to developers has skyrocketed. Next, sensors used to be big and bulky but recent advancements in sensor technology have shrunk the package sizes so that they take up almost no space in a product. Finally, with the mass production of so many sensors due to the smart phone and wearable device revolution, sensors are very inexpensive. Control applications can now use these inexpensive sensors and leverage their connections through communications and HMI’s to provide ways to interactive with the environment that were never before available.
Pillar #3 - Communication
Since the industrial IoT it is finally starting to gather steam, adding communication interfaces to a product can radically transformed how and what can be done with a product. Imagine adding Wi-Fi to an oven, washer or other industrial device. Suddenly that connectivity adds a plethora of capabilities and ways that the product can be used and innovated such as:
- Collecting run-time and performance data
- Performing predictive maintenance analytics
- Adapting to user consumption and interactions to minimize waste
- Managing device wear and tear to maximize life-time
- Over-the-air/wire firmware upgrades for maintenance, security, and features
These are just a few examples and there is a nearly endless possibility on how a company can use communication interfaces to not just provide new capabilities to their clients but also to revolutionize the way that their business model works!
As we have seen in this post, the same three pillars of consumer product innovation: HMI, control, and communications, can bring incredible value to embedded systems. But engineering teams will have to rethink their development and technology strategies to overcome or avoid the inherent problems in adopting consumer technologies into their products if they want to bring this value to fruition. In the next several posts, we will dig deeper into each pillar and provide the reader with the knowledge and tools they need to understand and leverage each pillar successfully in their own products.
A Tip for the "Serious" Engineer
Is your company and its products leading your market as these 3 pillars of innovation appear in competitive products? Are you on a sustainable path with “embedded suitable” ingredients? Start considering today how these three pillars will change the way that you not just design your products but also run your business.