Connect the Dots: From Home Lighting To The Factory Floor, Retrofit Old Dots For IoT

Create: 06/06/2016 - 13:00

The IoT applies to legacy equipment too, as easy-to-install kits and reference designs simplify connectivity, control and data analysis, from home lighting to the factory floor.

Sometimes all the talk and excitement about IoT makes it seem as though the opportunities only apply to new applications and systems. That’s far from the case. With a massive installed infrastructure of older systems, from the simple home light switch to more complex and medical and industrial facilities, IoT solution providers and developers have enormous opportunities to apply their imagination to retrofit current embedded systems and bring them into the IoT era.

Embedded systems have been a topic in past blogs, “Temporary Myopia Obscures Embedded IoT’s Benefits.” It’s that huge swath of systems that don’t look like a computer or laptop, but handle all the signal acquisition and computing required to run everything from an electric toothbrush to an automotive manufacturing and assembly line.

Those embedded systems were once isolated, unconnected systems that operated independently. An I/O port would allow technicians to manually get scheduled maintenance updates on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Then those systems were connected via Ethernet, GSM/GPRS or satellite and called machine-to-machine (M2M). Once Bluetooth and Wi-Fi arrived, suddenly everything became connected and monitored and controlled remotely. Add in data analytics and presentation, and presto! We have the Internet of Things, with petabytes of data to analyze and enable better processes and outcomes, and whiter teeth.

At least that’s how it would seem, except it’s not quite the Internet of [every] Thing, at least not yet. Yes, new watches and toothbrushes can connect wirelessly to a monitoring station to track how we’re doing. And yes, new factories are installing the latest and most up-to-date connectivity. But what about those “old-fashioned” light switches in every home, or those older factories and vending machines that keep delivering the goods, day in, day out.

It’s easy to say that they work, so don’t mess with them. But the argument for enabling IoT capability for embedded systems is strong, given the potential efficiencies of less downtime via predictive maintenance, better final products through in-the-field monitoring and repair, and new design ideas, plus increased revenue, based on the data.

Developers of embedded systems are recognizing this: VDC Research’s 2015 study on embedded systems and the IoT showed that 35.5 percent of companies studied are currently deploying IoT capability, while another 41.9 percent of companies intend to deploy IoT capability and applications in their products within the next five years.

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Figure 1: The opportunity to capture the legacy embedded systems upgrade cycle looms large, with 41.9 percent of companies ready to deploy IoT in the next five years.

It’s easily said, but what’s the best way to do it cost effectively, without the expense of a complete system upgrade and associated downtime?

Retrofitting for the IoT

For the connected home and the IoT, much of the activity and excitement is around controlling lighting and climate and security. Being able to view and control the home environment remotely as well as from within the home has many advantages, especially if the energy consumed is tracked smartly.

However, in the case of lighting, that control comes at the expense of having to swap out the installed base of light switches for a controllable switch. For the average home DIYer, the only cost is the new switch, and the guilt of dumping the old one. For non-DIYers, installation costs can add up quickly.

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Figure 2: Switchmate magnetically clamps onto legacy switch plates to instantly upgrade lighting systems to the IoT, without having to expose wires to replace old switches.

This installation cost is greatly reduced, if not outright eliminated, by Switchmate, which has developed a connected device that magnetically snaps on to the screws of the currently installed switch plate, so there’s no messing with electrical wiring. It uses a Bluetooth low energy wireless connection to connect to the phone app, with a range of up to 150 ft.

Outside of the home, Advantech has been actively nurturing the embedded retrofit concept for solution providers. For the factory floor, it developed a serial port–to-USB adapter so new laptops could connect to the legacy factory equipment, which lacked the relatively modern USB connector option.

Moving further up the design chain, the Intel® Reference Design for Intelligent Vending puts the Vending Machine Controller (VMC) functionality on to a PC-based computing platform using a Vending Machine IO (VMI) board. This allows vending machine operators to quickly upgrade their equipment without a complete redesign, saving time and money. It improves the user experience with LCD and a touchscreen interface, while adding telemetry, proximity marketing, advertising and data analytics, using data coming from the cloud.

The reference design comprises an Intel® processing board, an I/O interface module and a software stack. The processing board comes with a choice of processors, including Intel® Core™ vPro™ processors, Intel® Atom™ processors and Intel® Quark processor.

So while it’s tempting to think that IoT is all about flashy and new, low-cost upgrades of legacy equipment is an area that’s ripe for innovation, from the smart switch overlay to the factory floor custom connector and the remote vending machine.

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Patrick Mannion
Patrick Mannion is an independent writer and content consultant who has been working in, studying, and writing about engineering and technology for over 25 years.

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