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Making the connection

By Vaishali Kamat - Last updated: Thursday, September 4, 2014

The world is steadily moving towards realising the prediction made a few years ago of 50 billion connected devices – the so-called ‘Internet of Things’. Some sectors are adopting connected systems with open arms while others are being dragged along. Nevertheless, the reality is that tomorrow’s world will be far more connected than yesterday’s – in ways we haven’t yet imagined.

Your dishwasher starting itself in the middle of the night when electricity prices are lowest or being able to arm your home security system from your phone seemed like fantasies not long ago. But these smart home systems are already a reality. Similar intelligent systems are also making their way into healthcare. Today, automated vital signs monitors capture data continuously and alert the doctor if there are anomalies. Tomorrow, type 1 diabetics will have an artificial pancreas enabled by closed-loop communication between an insulin pump and a glucose meter. And surgeons will perform surgery in remote parts of the world using robots controlled via the internet.

We are already seeing unprecedented adoption of smartphone and tablet technology in healthcare, whether to cross-reference symptoms or diagnose tumours on CT images. These small devices, which pack enormous computing power, an interactive graphical user interface (GUI) and seamless global connectivity, are the perfect platform to deliver care services anywhere, any time. Add to that the power and potential of the genetic and predictive analyses, which are yet to be fully harnessed, and we will certainly have smart systems capable of things we cannot even dream of today.

The opportunity is huge and ripe for the taking but, at the same time, can be daunting for those unfamiliar with the space. Pharmaceutical companies used to focusing on drugs and mechanical drug delivery devices are fearful of electronics and their impact on the regulatory pathway. Big brand consumer goods companies are often outside their comfort zones when it comes to simple sensors and algorithms, making connected systems a far stretch. The high degree of interaction with – and dependency on – other products, as well as the infrastructure associated with connected systems, catches many unawares. Moreover, these industry giants – along with most medical device manufacturers – are traditionally product businesses. With the market slowly but surely moving towards services, devices will eventually be only a means to an end. It makes you wonder how many businesses are truly ready for the connected world.

At Cambridge Consultants, we started working on connected devices – and, indeed, connected systems – a few years ago. We’ve helped build everything from satellite phones and smart gas meters to networked highway cameras and wireless medical devices. Over the course of all this work, we’ve come to understand what it takes to design, develop, deploy and sustain a connected system. It involves, as you might imagine, several elements that must be carefully balanced in order to yield a cost-effective, usable system that can survive the test of time. There are a few important steps to follow when undertaking such developments:

Identify all stakeholders and the value proposition for each

When clients come to us with an idea for a product or solution, we aim to understand what it will bring to their customers and to internal stakeholders. When generating ideas or solution concepts, we determine the best balance between market need and internal fit. It is important to review the overall end-to-end system and the likely service that can be offered, to uncover all potential revenue sources. Moreover, present and likely future competition must be acknowledged to ensure sufficient differentiation and intellectual property potential. Often, we use our home-grown Appcessory Toolkit to rapidly generate concepts with ‘looks-like’ mock-ups – to not only assess the technical viability of the connected device but also provide clients with tangible material that can be used to generate internal buy-in.

Define the system ethos and design principles to achieve the desired user experience

A seamless and engaging user experience is just as critical as system functionality. Thus, we invest time in understanding users and what drives them. We confirm the image that our client wishes to create and how they wish to be perceived in the market. This helps create the user experience which is defined not just by the GUI for the app or device but extends to everything that the user touches– the box, the website, the marketing materials and the customer service hotline, as well as the buying experience. A core set of principles is established which then guides the implementation.

Architect the system so it is modular and scalable

Applying system design principles is even more important when developing solutions for the connected world. We break down the system into relatively independent, manageable modules, and identify dependencies with other system elements as well as those portions provided by others. The trade-off between various critical features is considered to arrive at the optimal solution. We define interfaces such that they can be well controlled and allow for change without affecting all underlying details. Finally, we consider the regulatory pathway and the impact of feature partitioning. For example, critical features, where possible, are kept isolated, with minimal dependence on pieces of software or hardware that are not within control – such as third party or commercial off-the-shelf products.

Identify critical partners, suppliers and infrastructure needs

Very often we’ve seen people face setbacks because they didn’t think of the manufacturing and supply chain early enough in the development cycle. It is too late when you find out that your fantastic industrial design cannot be made in volume. For a connected system, this issue becomes even more critical, as now one must think of not just the device manufacturer but also the infrastructure supplier, network operator, call centre etc. All of these aspects, if considered early, can help manage overall system costs and reduce risk.

Develop individual elements abiding by the design principles

We execute the engineering development via a risk-based approach, mitigating critical risks early. We ensure the architecture and design principles are maintained throughout. Finally, we prototype early and obtain feedback often – such that iterations can be cost efficient.

Deploying a connected system might seem like an uphill battle. But connecting with the right partners and taking a systematic approach is the smart way to win the war.

Download a copy of our free guide – The ‘top 10 issues’ guide to creating a successful connected device – at: www.CambridgeConsultants.com/connected-device-guide.

Read more from Vaishali and her colleagues in our Interface magazine.


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AuthorVaishali Kamat


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