Modularizing The Internet Of Things

The Internet of Things has many design considerations, and one very important tool that needs to be considered in all but the most disposable IoT devices is the idea of modularization.

You might be of the age where you remember going to work on the ol’ Buick with your dad. You handed him crescent wrenches in sizes like 5/8th and 7/16th sizes, because this is America and whole numbers are for Commies. These were good times. Sometimes your dad would swear, and scrape his knuckles, and would end up needing to wash the grease off his hands with Ajax and apologies to Mother.  Sometimes you’d take a sip of his Coors when he wasn’t looking and examine the shiny new part he was about to replace, or to your dismay, examine the jets of the carburetor he’s merely rebuilding. Shiny parts always seemed better.

If you liked shiny new things then, this is your time. Nowadays, in auto repair shops across the country, they don’t replace parts.  Parts are going the way of the middle class. No, what’s replaced now are subsystems. Or components. Or modules. And you can go ahead and full-on forget about rebuilding something.

Once the tolerances got too tight, replacing or rebuilding a single part is too expensive and error-prone for the backyard mechanic to do. And doubly so for the professionals who are paid per hour. No, if you have a bushing in your control arm go out, replace the control arm sub assembly. While that simpler time is gone where the average Joe could rebuild his Buick’s carb in his back yard, he’s traded that ease-of-maintenance for complex-but-efficient modularization.

Unfortunately, this fate has run amok in electronics. Even as few as ten years ago, phones had screws that you could use regular screwdrivers on to tear apart. Now everything is soldered and slapped together with glue, driving the iFixIt people crazy. The Samsung folks are probably looking very hard at the consequences of such thinking, thanks to the great dumpster fire that is the Galaxy Note 7.  It’s a story of burns, and smoke inhalation, and Samsung losing about $17 billion dollars in revenue.

When it comes to the Internet of Things, this cautionary tale is foreboding. What could have potentially been an easy fix via a battery replacement has now become a recall and PR nightmare. I am guessing the designers of the next Samsung devices in the pipeline will be given some requirements around being able to fix it, not just replace it.

There are many challenges to making bits and pieces of your hardware replaceable. All areas of technology are getting smaller, more integrated, and the push for thinner, lighter, more efficient lithe devices continues. Even in big devices like refrigerators and stoves and all the home automation stuff people associate with IoT, the manufacturing costs and design considerations that need to happen to make the smarts easily replaceable can be a hard sell to the marketers, the C-levels, and accountants. How do you justify the cost?Another barrier to entry is tying down standards. If you make something able to be upgraded, that means that future designs that want to take advantage of the same packaging are inherently limited in their designs.

As IoT becomes mainstream, questions will emerge when consumers are burned (hopefully only metaphorically). Is this secure? How do I upgrade the smarts of my refrigerator without replacing the whole thing? How will I keep it secure? How will I replace the broken sensor or computational unit within? If the company I bought this from goes out of business, can I still upgrade my components?

These questions are more easily answered with modularization, even if the practice is more difficult than the theory. And when those questions are on the forefront of every savvy consumer’s mind, the marketers, CEOs, and accountants will fall in line.


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