Well, we are genuinely getting deep into the smart, connected products era. It seems like everywhere you turn nowadays, you run into something that is connected to the Internet of Things and interacts with you intelligently. Cars are making progress towards autonomy. Refrigerators help you build grocery lists in the cloud — industrial machinery report on their operations. Right now, practically every industry is going through a revolution.
So how exactly does a smaller company make this transition? What does it mean for the engineers in those companies? Providing some answers is the focus of this blog post. Let’s dive in.
Context: Anatomy of a Smart, Connected Product
Before diving into specific guidance on how to navigate this change, it makes sense to have a little background. And for this conversation, the context is the anatomy of a smart, connected product. The changing composition of these offerings determines your development process, the roles, and skills involved, and the technologies that enable them to do their job. So, what makes up a smart, connected product? It includes:
Embedded Systems: Traditionally called an electronic control unit (ECU), these black boxes contain some circuit boards, perhaps as a multi-board system with generic or custom integrated circuits (ICs), with embedded software. These embedded systems act as the brains of your product, providing some closed-loop control or communication with an internet of things (IoT) platform.
Antennas: Speaking of an IoT platform, your connected product needs some means of talking through a connection to that platform. Antennas are what enables that. These are the ears and mouth of the product that allow communication.
Sensors: Smart products react intelligently to their environment, users, and their operation. To do that, they need to sense all those things. That’s done through sensors that cover temperature sensors, vision systems, short or long-range radar, and a whole host of other readings. This class of electronics acts as the touch, smell, and other senses of the product.
Power: Any product with lots of electronics needs power to run. And depending on the complexity of that product, you might need lots of power.
Actuated Components: Smart products don’t just sense their environment, users, and their operation. They also have the power to adjust to those things. This is done through actuated components like electric motors, electrically controlled hydraulics, and more.
Electrical Systems: All of these electronics need to be connected. The embedded system must be connected to the sensors and actuated components to provide control. Everything needs to be connected to power. Cables and wires not only deliver power to these components but network connectivity as well.
Ramping Up Development for Smart, Connected Products
If a company has been developing traditional, mechanical products for most of their history, many of these aspects of smart, connected products will be foreign. So navigating the transition to modern offerings involves figuring out how you’re going to staff the roles that will design these new components. What are the options here?
The most obvious one is to hire a bunch of electrical engineers and software developers. But let’s be honest: taking that step with little to no knowledge of those domains is very risky. This is a fairly unpalatable choice for executive management.
Another choice is outsourcing. You choose an engineering services firm with competencies in these domains and outsource the work to them. This approach carries far less risk than hiring a bunch of people in an unfamiliar field. However, this isn’t a hands-free effort. Most executives will want an employee to act not only as a liaison but also an internal expert. Guess who that is: a mechanical engineer. We’ll talk more about this in a moment but for now, let’s put a pin in this one.
One last choice is not to hire or outsource any work. Instead, executive management ‘dips their toe in the pool’ by asking a highly successful and productive mechanical engineer to explore these new areas. There’s no extra staffing or outsourcing expense here. The executives interface with someone they trust deeply. It is a half-measure that is very popular.
So, in all likelihood, a mechanical engineer will be asked to get involved in a few new design domains. Are you ready?
What’s Designed vs. What’s Purchased?
In that overview of the anatomy of a smart, connected product, you’ll notice there are a lot of electronics and electrical components involved. A lot of electronics, such as antennas, sensors, and actuated components will be off-the-shelf parts. You’ll need to integrate them into your design as opposed to design them.
Embedded systems, however, can be another story altogether. What responsiveness do you need for your control system? Many factors can affect the answer to this question. However, that answer will determine if you need a multi-board system, a custom IC, or how fast your embedded software needs to run. That, in turn, determines if you can use an off-the-shelf industrialized board or something custom. If it is custom, you have to design it.
One thing that very likely has to be designed is the electrical system. At the very least, you have to develop a logical diagram to identify what electronics connect. That determines your cable and wire runs. So, get ready on this front no matter what.
Enabling Yourself: Get the Right Tools
One last note: if you are a mechanical engineer heading down this path, there are a few realities you need to recognize.
Many of the tools used to develop these electronic, electrical, and embedded software aspects of these products are highly complex and specialized. As a mechanical engineer, I suggest you need a different set of tools. Ease-of-use and automated guidance should be a few key characteristics of your tools.
Those specialized tools I mentioned before? They are often siloed. They’re good at focusing in on one aspect of design in that area. I would suggest that integration, especially with mechanical design, is also critical. Take that into account.