How to Make Your First IoT Product: an Engineer's Guide to 'Smart' Design.

Smart Home

The smart home revolution is here, and companies are jumping on board, hoping to delight consumers with "brainy" products and eager to gain an edge over the competition. But if you're the engineer tasked with bringing brains to your not-so-smart product, it can be difficult to determine the best or most cost-efficient technology platform to pair with your product. Although there isn’t a “best in class” solution for everyone, there are a few factors to take into consideration before you select and invest in the right solution for your needs.  

Most IoT technology solutions, in their current state, suffer from widely fragmented platforms and lack of technical and security standards. There are, however, a few commonly accepted and supported solutions that stand out.

How to choose the right technology platform to create a smart device.

Smart or IoT devices, such as a lightbulb or thermostat, can connect in a variety of different ways, including:

IP enabled devices

An IP enabled device connects directly to a homeowner’s WiFi network. Once connected to the internet, the device communicates with a server outside of the user’s home. In most scenarios, a custom app is used to control and report on these devices. (Belkin WeMo, Emerson Sensi, GE Connect, Nest, SmartLife, Meross, Magic Home).

Hub connected devices

Hub connected devices are often the most cost effective smart home platform a consumer can select. A hub connected device requires the homeowner to have a compatible hub installed on their network either via their WiFi network, or through a wired ethernet connection. The devices communicate with the hub via a number of standard and proprietary methods and the hub relays this information with a server outside of the user’s home.

As with IP enabled devices, in most scenarios, a custom app is used to control and report on these devices via the hub. (Samsung SmartThings, Insteon SmartLinc, OSRAM Lightify). It’s common for smart hubs to support multiple protocols such as Samsung SmartThings, which support Zigbee, Z-Wave and IP enabled devices.

Technologies commonly used for Device to Hub communication are:

  • Bluetooth (Standard 802.15.1 / WPAN 802.15.4, and Proprietary Bluetooth Stacks)
  • Radio Frequency (RF - standard and frequency shifting)
  • Power-line communication (PLC - standard and phase shift keying)
  • Dual-Band (Any combination of the above technologies)

Leading Smart Home Technologies / Protocols:

Thread / Zigbee Pro - Mesh network (WPAN 802.15.4 - 915 Mhz and 868 Mhz) with a device limit of 250 devices with a native IP addressability. MAC level and AES-128 Encryption. Data transmission rate is 250 kbps with sub GHz transmission ranges up to 1km.

Zigbee - Mesh network (WPAN 802.15.4 - 915 Mhz and 868 Mhz) with a device limit of 65,000 devices. Data transmission rate is 250 kbps and the data transmission range is 100 m. Encryption is secured by 128 bit symmetric encryption keys.

Bluetooth Mesh - Mesh network (WPAN 802.15.4 - 915 Mhz and 868 Mhz) with a device limit of 32,767 devices. Data transmission range is 60m. Encryption is handled via mandatory security keys on multiple layers of the technology stack (DevKey, ApKey, NetKey).

Insteon - A Dual-Band Protocol leveraging Power-line communication and Standard Radio Frequencies (902 to 924 MHz) with device limit of 17.7 million devices. Data transmission range is 45 m. Encryption is maintained via MAC based linking control and proprietary encryption. Data transmission rate is 180 bps.

Z-Wave - Radio Frequency Communication (800-900 MHz), A Z-Wave mesh network has a limit of 232 devices. Z-Wave is secured via the Z-Wave Alliance Security 2 (S2) Encryption Standards. Maximum open air operating range is 80 feet. Data transmission rate is 250 kbps.

X10 - A Dual-Band Protocol leveraging Power-line communication and Standard Radio Frequencies (310 Mhz). The X10 protocol has a device limit of 256 devices and lacks encryption capabilities. Data transmission rate is 20 bps.

Voice Assistants and Modern Operating Systems offer Unified Control

With the advent of Voice Assistants (Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Apple HomePod) and modern operating systems (Windows 10) these fragmented systems can be consolidated under a single application for homeowners. For example, smart devices can be made to interface with Amazon Alexa through “Alexa skills,” allowing for voice control; the associated mobile app allows consumers to interact with their various smart home devices through touch. These smart devices might consist of lights controlled by an Insteon Hub, a door lock and a moisture sensor controlled by Samsung SmartThings or a fan controlled by the IP based Meross. If you’d like to know which smart home products work with Amazon’s Alexa, check out this guide.  

Amazon Alexa Smart Home Control

How Do I know Which Smart Home Technology Platform to Use?

So how can you tell which smart home platform is right for your product? You’ll want to consider ease of implementation, cross-compatibility and the likelihood the company will still be in business for continued upgrades and support (and be cautious here - sometimes even prolific companies purchase and kill platforms). We recommend selecting from the more widely accepted and supported technology platforms.

Thread / Zigbee Pro - We love the potential of this green power platform, it’s backed by Comcast, Huawei, Kroger, Silicon Laboratories, Texas Instruments, Amazon, Carrier, Eaton, Intel, Johnson Controls, GE, Honeywell, IKEA, OSRAM, Samsung, Schlage, Siemens, Toshiba, and Underwriters Laboratories - this is the platform we recommend developing for, first.

Z-Wave - A close runner up is Z-Wave, with the Z-Wave alliance including SmartThings, Huawei, LG, ADT, Honeywell, Kwikset, LG, Pella, Schlage. This platform is currently the most widely adopted and it’s likely here to stay (smart play by Samsung SmartThings supporting both protocols/platforms with their SmartThings Hub).

Keep it simple and let the software do the work

After you've determined the technological platform for your device, it's important to remember that the allure of IoT lies in simplicity, consumers seek ease of interaction with their smart devices and many times, that ease will be delivered through the software that's in place to support the hardware.

If you’d like more personalized assistance, Cream City Digital would be happy to help, contact us here.  Interested in the best tips, tactics, news and how-to’s for Amazon’s Alexa? Join our Facebook group.

*Cream City Digital is an Amazon associate and if you click a link and purchase an item, we may collect a small commission.  

About the author

With 20 years of digital experience under his belt, Charlie has led digital and development teams at numerous agencies. A true technical advocate, he partners with companies to ensure best practices are followed during the life-cycle of software development and implementation.  He specializes in emerging mobile, tablet and hardware device integration technologies.  His client roster includes Sargento, Samsung, Reynolds, Kellogg, Pfizer, Roche Diagnostics, GE Healthcare, XBOX, Miller-Coors, Fujifilm, Nintendo, Anguil Environmental Systems, Johnson Bank, Marcus Theaters and many more. 

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