Long before the phrases M2M and the Internet of Things came to wider attention, we were already making machines talk to each other, says Dunstan Power of ByteSnap Design. Early adopters like General Motors and Hughes Electronics Corporation could see the benefits that machine-to-machine communications (M2M) offered forward-thinking businesses as far back as 1995 but when M2M via cellular communication took off in 1996, M2M wireless technology became far more popular.
Combined with embedded electronics, machine-to-machine communications offer consumers a wide range of sophisticated everyday devices. Businesses of all sorts are approaching us to capitalise on M2M opportunities. Whether they want to deliver a product to control home heating or monitor health, there are so many different hardware and software considerations. The innovative business with M2M ideas doesn’t necessarily know exactly what is needed to bring a product to market, so this is contributing to growth in embedded electronics consultancy services.
Indeed, there is steady growth in the electronics sector — in 2015, the European electronics industry is expected to grow by around four percent over the previous year, and the US industry by 6% . We believe that a strong growth factor in embedded electronics consultancy services has been due to M2M. Businesses are looking for support when designing or developing an M2M device, as they attempt to balance key project success factors of time, specification and unit price.
Essentially, the development cost of a product is proportional to the time it takes to complete the project. So, to keep costs down designers and manufacturers need to assign development to a team on a fixed price basis or trade cost for time-to-market by bringing in a third party software library, which can reduce development time but for an increased price.
Playing it safe
By eliminating as many risks as possible i.e. ‘playing it safe’ using tried and tested technologies rather than newer, lower cost devices and components, cost and time-to-market can be reduced — sometimes dramatically.
Smart energy apps are a great example of embedded electronics combining with M2M to offer more efficient systems that communicate wirelessly. However, as no-one wants a smart energy app that malfunctions –– getting the design trade-offs right is even more important. Take ChargePoint, Europe’s busiest EV charging posts, which were introduced at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. We helped keep London moving by developing the smart metering technology used in an installation of these electric vehicle charging posts.
ChargePoint Services approached us to develop new electronics and software for GE charging posts, which had a strictly limited time frame that included pre-Olympics testing. Reliability was critical as, during the Olympics, the charging posts were the most heavily used in Europe, powering the fleet transporting athletes and officials between venues.
The original charging post needed a PC attached to it in order to authorise vehicle charging, so we designed a WinCE-based replacement, built into the posts. The WinCE controller also added metering capabilities and GPRS backhaul to ChargePoint’s servers. New control software for the posts downloaded a ‘vehicle whitelist’ allowing the post to authorise charging even when the mobile network failed.
Not ‘bare metal’
By choosing WinCE instead of a ‘bare-metal’ microcontroller with no operating system, we added flexibility, while an off-the-shelf ARM processor and our own ZMM-01 metering module reduced cost and development time. Using WinCE also enabled us to accommodate functional enhancements requests quickly – simple yet effective, thanks to the right trade-offs having been made.
The author of this blog is Dunstan Power, director, ByteSnap Design