Not that long ago, devices like fitness trackers and smart appliances were all the rage when it came to the internet of things. These days, the focus is on devices for industrial IoT. Farm drones are being used to monitor crops and livestock. Robots are keeping factory floors moving efficiently, intelligently and safely. Smart meters are helping cities better manage their resources.
These devices aren’t science fiction. They are a reality, and they are only the beginning.
IIoT is a rapidly growing segment of the IoT ecosystem. Grand View Research predicts that by 2025 the global IIoT market will have ballooned to $933.2 billion from just $116 billion in 2016. Realizing such growth will require key enabling technologies, not the least of which is a suitable wireless standard for IIoT connectivity. There’s just one problem. IIoT is not the same as IoT, and that leaves some of the more conventional wireless standards falling short, especially when it comes to balancing the required device performance and cost.
Unlike many consumer IoT devices, those destined for IIoT typically require mission-critical performance, robust coverage, scalability and reliable security (see the Figure). Those requirements and the cost of achieving them are often at odds with the need to keep module prices low.
Connecting IIoT with NB-IoT
One wireless standard with the potential to deliver a good balance between functionality and price is Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT). What sets it apart from other low-power wide area network (LPWAN) technologies is its ability to deliver significantly improved device power consumption, system capacity and spectrum efficiency, especially in rural areas and deep indoor facilities. It also supports a battery life of more than 10 years for a wide range of use cases. And because NB-IoT uses licensed frequencies, it can coexist with legacy cellular broadband technologies like LTE and GSM. This enables it to enjoy the same security and privacy features as mobile networks.
Clearly, NB-IoT has the right features for IIoT, but what about its price point?
Initially, NB-IoT module cost is expected to be comparable to that for GSM/GPRS, but its target price is just under $5.00. As module demand increases, that starting cost should begin to decrease rapidly. A prime reason why is that NB-IoT’s underlying technology is much simpler than GSM/GPRS. As a result, NB-IoT modules can be produced more cost-effectively than LTE, 3G or GSM modules.
That’s good news for module/product makers and IoT device manufacturers alike, but the overall module cost is more than just its price tag. It also includes operational costs, the cost of test and the cost of any product failures or recalls once the module is embedded in a product and operating in the real world.
How exactly can these additional costs be avoided or minimized in NB-IoT devices? Here are a few quick tips:
- Make smart hardware choices. To achieve a low NB-IoT device cost, manufacturers can choose to use lower cost components or they can simplify the hardware design. To ensure these cost-cutting measures don’t inadvertently compromise device reliability, be sure to properly characterize device performance.
- Ensure device reliability. To keep service and recall costs to a minimum, device vendors must develop reliable NB-IoT devices. Those devices must operate for 10 years or more, completely unattended, and be able to recover by themselves when the IoT server goes down. One way to ensure reliability is to test NB-IoT devices under different realistic operating scenarios in the lab and on the production line, and with a high degree of repeatability. Device vendors also need to test negative scenarios, such as an IoT server that’s down or a connection failure to ensure the device can recover by itself without excessively draining power.
- Select the right test equipment. The cost of test during a module’s development and production significantly impacts its price. Careful selection of the right test equipment can help reduce cost.
Using an integrated technology that can cover the whole product lifecycle, from design to manufacturing to conformance test, can help minimize test equipment capital expenditure. And, if the technology can be easily upgraded with hardware and/or software as the users’ needs change, that capital investment can be protected. Finally, if the technology is fast, test throughput can be dramatically increased, further driving down the cost of test.
The bottom line
Finding the optimal balance between IoT device functionality and price is often much more difficult than one would think. For any module/product maker hoping to reap financial reward in IIoT, it’s critical. NB-IoT technology delivers both the features and an expected price point that promise to make it ideal for IIoT, but extra steps must be taken to keep overall device cost low. Making the right hardware decisions, carefully selecting test equipment and conducting the right tests are just a few of the things module/product makers and device manufacturers can do to take a real bite out of their overall NB-IoT device cost.
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