IoT: classic and also quite different
Strictly speaking, the Internet of Things (IoT) is not a new venture for EBV Elektronik. EBV has, for many years, been working on topics which are now specific to IoT or directly associated with it, but which were not classified as IoT before the term was coined.
The disciplines of sensor technology, data preparation and data processing, data output, actuator engineering, connectivity and security come together in the Internet of Things – and EBV has been continuously active in all these areas for over a decade. The terms IoT and the very closely related ‘Industry 4.0’ are now widely recognised and a starting point for further discussions.
One of EBV’s main strengths for many years has been its ability to combine these individual areas and from this combination develop new potential for its clients. For some years, this has found expression in the segments on which EBV has focused: on the one hand, the classic market segments including the automotive, consumer, healthcare, high-rel and renewable energies segments and, on the other hand, the technology-driven FPGA, identification, LightSpeed and RF & wireless segments.
Two examples from the healthcare market segment clearly show the extent to which technology is used in it:
1. A diabetes management system essentially consists of a blood glucose meter, an app on a smartphone and a patient database in the Cloud. At intervals throughout the day measurements of the blood sugar level are recorded and transmitted to the smartphone by Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).The patient can use the associated app to document other things such as food intake. They also receive advice and recommendations via the app about correct diet and fluid intake. The data are bundled together from the app and transmitted in encrypted form to a patient database. Professional medical personnel can then access these data and provide the patient with appropriate advice and notifications, such as about the insulin dosage to be given. This system can also be supplemented by an automatic or semi-automatic insulin pump, attached to the patient’s body.
2. Another example from the area of Personal Health & Fitness is the Activity Tracker or Activity Monitor. Numerous versions of these are now commercially available, from simple step counters to complex sports watches, which measure the user’s blood oxygen saturation and heartbeat. There are differences in the features and the precision. Most devices have one thing in common, namely a BLE connection to a smartphone, an associated app and/or an interface to the most popular fitness and running apps. The data are usually sent by the smartphone to the Cloud in unencrypted form. By private arrangement these data can then be seen by friends. In these applications, unlike in the medical application, no great value is placed on data security, since it is up to the users to decide whether or not to share their data publicly.
The industrial area is also supported with applications such as M2M and Industry 4.0. One important area is NFC – Dual Interface programming of motors (Motor Control Unit) by mobile NFC. Applications of this type are to be found in the Industry 4.0 area, where displays and touchpads on machines are being replaced by tablets.
Communication between machines (M2M, machine-to-machine) has been an important area for EBV for decades. However, the Internet, with its infrastructure and the increasing spread of products such as PCs, tablets, smartphones and new semiconductor products, has not only shaken up the market completely but also permitted totally new approaches to solutions in areas which were not previously relevant at all.
IoT solutions for traditional EBV customers
With its market matrix technology, EBV Elektronik already has a very good initial approach to determining which technology can provide what added value to the corresponding application, in order to achieve a competitively viable product.
With the IoT, however, the challenges facing EBV’s clients also change, when, for example, an existing autonomous device needs to be connected to the Internet or to a Cloud solution. This connection also brings with it new requirements. For example, a wireless module in combination with the corresponding software solution may provide the desired connectivity, while an appropriate security solution may provide the corresponding data security for authentication and data exchange.
EBV’s customers know their core products inside out – these are often autonomous devices – and the customers are often world leaders or hidden champions in their sector. However, as far as RF technology and security are concerned, in many cases these companies have had little or no involvement until now, so that in many instances they do not have enough of the appropriate resources in-house to meet the challenges of the IoT. This is where EBV Elektronik comes in, as it has a particular strength in its ability to assist these customers with appropriate resources and specific know-how, in bringing their new product to market as soon as possible. At the same time, EBV explicitly addresses the security risks which arise with the data transmission, for at the end of the day an appropriate security solution can always be found using suitable semiconductor components and appropriate software.
Support for Newcomers to Electronics
In principle the IoT connects different markets which have existed until now as essentially isolated solutions, in the same way that the Internet networks together stand-alone computers and PCs. This has blurred the lines that used to separate many applications from each other. In this way, the previous sharp divisions between many applications are softened. Good examples of this include sportswear that can now contain sensors, or pieces of furniture with built-in recharging units for wireless charging of mobile devices. Typically, the sportswear or furniture manufacturers were previously not electronics specialists, so they require suitable partners to implement the electronics functionality for them while taking into account characteristics of the corresponding solution from all possible angles. EBV shows these companies the possibilities offered by the technologies and provides introductions to suitable partners who are able to address the individual requirements of the corresponding area of business or solution in an appropriate way. For example, EBV Elektronik helped a major sportswear manufacturer to incorporate a pulse rate sensor in outerwear and pressure sensors in running shoes. These applications often require a flexible board for the semiconductor connection.
Support for Start-Ups
Start-ups also have very clever ideas but often the hardware for these businesses is only a standard product which they need to implement their business idea. Often these businesses are primarily distinguished by their software and services, by the connection to the Cloud and/or by the underlying data processing. EBV Elektronik has already helped various start-ups to bring their products to market – sometimes even by brokering a contact with a potential financial backer or investor, or with an appropriate manufacturing partner. Again, EBV can often provide start-ups with vital logistical support, such as for the organisation of software updates or for the outsourcing of gateway, server and/or Cloud services.
In Europe too, the IoT provides clever start-ups with a very good chance of realising their ideas – even (but by no means only) in the areas of wearables, personal healthcare, fitness sensors and trackers. In Central Europe EBV has a team of seven people which deals solely with start-ups and in 2014 identified a good 400 customers.
Semiconductors (also) for Niche Markets
Sometimes there are no appropriate semiconductors for the particular market or the desired design. One reason for this might be the fact that this market moves or changes too quickly; however, it might also be that the classic semiconductor manufacturers feel that a market or a field of application is not attractive. Under its EBVchips programme, EBV Elektronik is able to create a solution relatively quickly for applications that were previously not covered. Two of the products which come under EBVchips are not pure semiconductors but wireless modules, known as Vesta and Maia, for special applications. Vesta and Maia provide developers with a platform that they can use to bring a software-configurable product with Internet connection to the market relatively quickly. While Vesta is a sub-GHz module for IP500 mesh networks, Maia is a sub-GHz module which EBV delivers with approved stacks for M-Bus and OMS.
Sensor Technology und Low-Power
Sensors, which capture the status quo of various quantities, constitute an important element of the Internet of Things. EBV Elektronik is fully equipped with its very wide range of sensors. An intelligent pre-processing of the sensor data directly at the sensor permits a significant reduction in the data volumes transmitted over the RF interface. This reduces the workload of the frequency band used while reducing the power needed for transmission.
It is precisely in such cases – where sensor data are to be captured in the field, possibly pre-processed and then transmitted onwards - that low power design is often a very important topic. One good example of this is a battery-operated temperature sensor which transmits its data over an RF connection to a computer. The smaller the energy requirement for the switching, the longer the sensor system is able to operate without a battery recharge and the lower the maintenance cost will be. Above all, the low power microcontrollers produced by Atmel, Freescale, NXP and STMicroelectronics, which contain an ultra-low power processor core from ARM, now enable astonishingly long battery lifetimes.
The data processing is followed by actuator control, so EBV’s programme includes a wide range of motor drivers for the regulation and control of motors. EBV also offers many possible solutions for smart lighting. Smart lighting involves intelligent lighting solutions – including the control of brightness and colour temperature.
The catchword ‘Industry 4.0’ refers to a high level of networking in the manufacturing area. One relatively new aspect in this area is predictive maintenance. Here, sensors identify potential wear and tear and alert operators in good time, before a breakdown, that maintenance and/or a replacement of parts is required.
EBV Elektronik’s involvement with Industry 4.0 is no longer limited to the purely technological implementation, but extends to answering questions such as ‘How do I work with that? What does it mean? Who are the players? What are the repercussions?’. Consequently, the challenge for EBV is to bring the discussions with its customers to a higher level and to help them to adapt their processes, supplementing product-related advice with the business element.
New possibilities are also arising in the areas of home automation and the connected car. In a house, for example, most light switches could be dispensed with if sensors were able to detect where people were. These sensors also provide valuable input for the efficient control of heating. At the same time, German car manufacturers are assuming that by the year 2020 at least every second new vehicle will be a connected car, i.e. a vehicle with a permanent Internet connection.
In the medical area the IoT allows new forms of patient monitoring. The appropriate sensors on the patient’s body and a smartphone in their pocket can continuously monitor certain vital parameters in everyday life, without them needing to be in hospital or visit a doctor daily. In such applications the IoT not only provides for a much higher quality of life but also reduces the treatment costs at the same time, so that the improvement in the quality of life is also of interest from the purely financial point of view. This type of patient monitoring system primarily uses BLE and Wi-Fi for data transmission.
IoT @ EBV
While EBV Elektronik provides its customers with the necessary technical support in connection with the IoT, the support also extends far beyond purely technical aspects. It begins with information about the possibilities offered by the IoT, continues with technical seminars with specific manufacturers on applications and/or vertical markets and extends to consultancy services which can sometimes even lead to a radical review of the business model. For example, one of EBV’s customers had previously developed and manufactured compressors but now sells compressed air as a service: instead of selling its customers a machine, it now provides them with air with a well-defined, permanently available quality and specification. Making use of the previously mentioned predictive maintenance in the framework of the IoT and the resulting reliability, by virtue of offering a service, this customer is now able to create much more value. Of course the EBV customers themselves determine their business models, but with the right questions EBV’s experts are able to trigger interesting discussions about relevant points.
Although EBV Elektronik’s core business is very clearly semiconductor distribution, the company has also been investing in software support for some time. This means one EBV employee is solely concerned with the investigation and qualification of the software of potential and existing partners, so EBV is able to involve qualified third-party suppliers in order to facilitate the fastest possible implementation of the customer’s solution. EBV Elektronik has already certified some 20 companies whose software is specially tailored to IoT applications. The spectrum ranges from engineering services and software houses to Cloud partners.
Data security is a sensitive but extremely important topic. EBV increases its customers’ awareness of this topic by asking questions like ‘Have your products already been copied?’
During an analysis of competitors, one of our customers discovered that a certain device, albeit with an outwardly different appearance, was an exact copy of its own product.
How high is the risk that people will access the data, manipulate them or pass themselves off as authorised to access the data and tap into them?
The level of demand for security and identification products is currently accelerating massively: while up to about a year ago EBV only received three or four queries per year about ID and security solutions, it is currently receiving between 15 and 20 queries per month.
As far as the topic of identification and security is concerned EBV has all the market leaders on its product line card, including the manufacturers Atmel, Infineon, NXP and ST. Depending on the application, even a small crypto-component can have a large effect, and sometimes complete security solutions with key management etc. are also required. In this area too EBV works with corresponding partners such as the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied and Integrated Security (Fraunhofer AISEC) in Garching near Munich. EBV’s FAEs are specially trained in security and help developers to recognise the potential dangers and work through the corresponding issues. Since very few medium-sized companies have the resources to create their own secure server infrastructure, collaboration with the appropriate specialists in the field is an absolute must in this area in order to ensure the long-term success and the survival of the business.