person writing on a whiteboard

How to Build and Design Smart, Connected Products (the Right Way)

Security Considerations | Interoperability | Matchmaking with Manufacturers | Building a Smart Connected Products Dream Team | Additional Resources for Building and Designing Smart Connected Products

As a member of the Product Outreach team at Temboo, I’ve heard a lot of great ideas for smart connected products from the Temboo community:

  • A device that can detect underground cable fault locations
  • A drawer that notifies patients when to take pills
  • A swimming pool monitor that measures water temperature, fill level and pH
  • …and many more!

But progressing from a great idea to commercialization can be a long, difficult journey.

So, how should you approach building a smart connected product that can scale to thousands, even millions, of units?

To answer that question, I interviewed hardware experts who have successfully built smart kitchen appliances, gas turbines and more. Here’s their advice on the right way to design, manufacture and build a team.

Connected products example: Two Enox Safe-Kid-One watches

From Security Horror to Security Hero

Alex Barteau, Temboo, Embedded Systems Engineer

How does the security mantra “CIA” apply to smart connected products?

Alex: Confidentiality: Can an external party see your data in storage or in transit?

Integrity: Can someone inject fake information into your input fields, or manipulate messages in transit?

Authenticating: Is your product actually talking to your server and infrastructure, and vice versa?

The consequences of getting security wrong can be catastrophic. For example, the European Union recalled the smartwatches pictured above after discovering the communication between the watches and their backend server was unencrypted. Continually ask yourself these questions as you design your product.

Why is it important to map your product’s memory footprint upfront?

Alex: While you want to make devices as low power and cheap to manufacture as possible, they also must communicate securely. That means you need to understand the memory footprint of your product to ensure there is room for encryption- for both data protection and component authentication. The good news is encryption techniques are getting lighter weight. For example, Google’s next disk storage is based off of ChaCha.

With memory getting cheaper, there is less need to make trade offs that negatively affect security.

What are some security best practices when building connected products?

  • Always use the most up-to-date encryption techniques. You can save lots of time by using existing libraries for industry standards like TLS standardized web encryption.
  • Products with long life cycles should be over-the-air update enabled. Over the span of several years, you will need to patch bugs and security vulnerabilities found in your code, or your vendor libraries.
  • Consider using cryptographic acceleration engines to reduce the burden of implementing encryption. They are typically only $1-2 per component, and your hardware specification sheet will tell you if it’s an option.
  • The IT professionals in your organization have lots of wisdom to offer about security best practices because they are defending your company. If your team is missing a security expert, consider using a resource like Temboo. Temboo provides the software and firmware components you need to build a connected product, and makes sure they are up to date.
Microcontroller with wires and connection pins swirling from it

Say Interoperability Three Times Fast

Ida Huang, Temboo, Software Engineer

Why is it valuable for connected products to be interoperable?

Ida: Every day IoT is connecting more devices and systems everywhere. But being connected alone isn’t enough. In order to build a smarter system of connected devices we want things to communicate to us and to each other. There’s a lot of data to learn from, and in order for our connected products to make decisions then it would be useful to share information across different devices.

Customers are interested in how a new product interacts with products they already own.

What is the tension between between building an interoperable product and building a secure product?

Ida: We don’t see interoperability across all devices today because there is a lot of incompatibility between brands. It is a challenge for developers to create a both highly secure and interoperable solution that today’s end users expect. Often times when a product has a uniquely defined way to communicating or collecting information this limits the market potential and blocks more innovative solutions. I believe companies need to understand there is more value in interoperability than in protecting their own product.

Machine manufacturing a circuit board for connected products

Matchmaking with Manufacturers

Richard and Roland Mokuolu, Inventaprint, Founders

What are the challenges of finding and vetting manufacturing partners?

Richard: I received a patent related to the military space and experienced how difficult it was to get the products I’d spent years developing and prototyping actually made. Most manufacturers I came across either didn’t meet his high-quality standards, were not certified with the relevant credentials (e.g. ITAR certified for military projects, adherence to export control laws, etc.), or did not want to quote low volume orders. I spent 6 months searching the internet and going through referrals for reputable manufacturers to produce parts for his project.

Inventaprint enables hardware companies to discover vetted manufacturers in minutes instead of months through data analytics. Our manufacturing partners go through a vetting process which includes reviewing four metrics:

  • Historical performance
  • On-time delivery rate
  • Industry quality certifications
  • Intellectual property protections

Should hardware developers expect the experience of working with a domestic manufacturer to differ from working with an international manufacturer?

Richard & Roland: There is somewhat of a false narrative that domestic manufacturers are unwilling to work with smaller companies developing hardware products. The reality is that domestic manufacturers are willing to work with select hardware developers they feel have a successful future ahead of them– in some cases, domestic manufacturers are actually cost competitive when you take into account the landed cost of a product (i.e. raw materials + labor + fulfillment logistics). Having said that, it is much harder to find a domestic manufacturer to scale a hardware product vs international manufacturers given numerous supply dynamics at play.

International manufacturers (e.g. Chinese suppliers) have ramped up their skill-sets over the years and have done an amazing job in maintaining cost competitiveness while being able to achieve high-quality. International suppliers are also used to working with hardware developers to build out new product lines. The challenge is that working with international manufacturers could add unforeseen costs:

  • Flights to the manufacturer site to resolve production issues
  • Language barriers
  • Intellectual property protection issues

At the end of the day, it’s about finding a manufacturer you can trust and being able to deliver a quality hardware product to your customers. This could mean going domestic or international. Every hardware developer needs to understand their make vs buy strategy and develop a supply chain structure which will enable them to maintain negotiation leverage with their suppliers in the long-term.

If you don’t own your supply chain, you have a brand and not a hardware business.

What advice you would give to a company building their supply chain?

  • Early decisions cast long shadows. Ensure you understand the long-term impact of your short-term decisions.
  • Bill of Materials (BOM) management is important as you scale. Ensure you are effectively managing all configurations.
  • Excel is great but it’s not built for making hardware. Invest in the necessary tools to help you scale more efficiently.
  • Always think in terms of working capital. Inventory can be a double-edged sword, make sure you don’t drown in excess inventory because of a bulk buy commitment that gives you a 10% discount. Making small batch orders at a higher cost isn’t always a bad thing.
  • Document everything!
Two software engineers examining code

Building a Smart Connected Products Dream Team

Fernando Nunez, Suvie, Lead Appliance Engineer

Your background is in mechanical engineering. What other skills do you need on a team?

Fernando: To build a successful team, you need people with a variety of skills sets. When you’re just starting, it may only be a few people covering all of these responsibilities:

  • Business Development Manager- Develops the sales strategy and engages customers
  • Design Engineer- Builds CAD models translate to finished product
  • Manufacturing Engineer- Interfaces with outside manufacturers to negotiate contracts and ensure manufacturing processes produce the right quality
  • Marketing Manager- Creates the brand voice and strategies to engage potential customers
  • Quality Engineer- Designs and enforces quality assurance protocols
  • Software Engineer- Creates software and firmware
  • Supply Chain Manager- Sources parts and manages inventory

Teams often struggle with the decision whether to build or buy. How do you evaluate this dilemma?

Fernando: Speed is critical for startups. It costs precious money and resources to build your own version of a component so you need to consider whether it’s worth the investment. Once you’ve launched and have revenue, you can circle back and build a custom part. Remember that you have to ship. You have to release. You have to make revenue.

What is your approach to hiring?

Fernando: I’ve learned you have to find people who are the right culture fit. For example, our team operates at lightning speed, and we need people who are willing and happy to work in a fast-paced environment. Ultimately, not everyone you hire will be the right match. I see that as normal- not a failure.

Additional Resources on Building & Designing Smart Connected Products

Continue learning with these resources recommended by the hardware experts in this article:

  • Bluetooth for Programmers: Albert Huang and Larry Rudolph’s guide to “start creating your own functional Bluetooth applications that can interoperate with many other Bluetooth devices.”
  • Hardware Massive: Become a part of your local hardware community to exchange information and resources.
  • OWASP Top Ten List: The Open Web and Security Project published a great list of the ten most critical web application security risks.
  • Podcasts: Podcasts are a great way to stay informed on the latest news, tips, and trends around almost any topic you can think of, including smart products.
  • Zigbee RF Modules: A resource from Digi to understand the Zigbee API stack.
  • The Complete List of All the IoT Conferences in 2019: This is the most extensive list of IoT and smart product conferences, events, and forums on the internet. Period. There’s also a handy Google Calendar to help you keep track!