Future-proofing and technology selection: Maximizing the value of M2M for industrial applications
Developing an industrial Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications system can be a complex process. Given the intricacies of designing a cellular device and the ongoing evolution of wireless technologies, selecting the right technology is paramount to ensuring the successful deployment and long-term ROI of an M2M application. Mike offers insight into how designers can choose the best hardware for an M2M application in this fast-growing market.
In the past several years, the world has seen an explosion in the number of connected devices and smart technologies as Machine-to-Machine (M2M) adoption has accelerated. ABI Research estimates that the market for cumulative cellular M2M connections will increase from 110 million in 2011 to 365 million by 2016, an impressive compounded annual growth rate of 27 percent. Traditionally, M2M focused on industrial and enterprise applications; however, consumers are now realizing many of the benefits of M2M through applications such as pay-as-you-drive auto insurance and home health care activity and fitness devices.
What is striking about the current state of the M2M market and the core driver behind the boom is the ongoing advancement of wireless technologies. While early industrial M2M applications employed wired networks for localized automation, communications, and control, wireless technologies, and specifically cellular, have greatly expanded the possibilities for these products, taking them beyond the factory or industrial site.
Given the widespread availability of cellular networks, industrial M2M applications no longer require the painstaking and costly investment to build and maintain network infrastructure. Paired with the declining cost in both hardware and data services, this provides more than enough justification to pursue an M2M application based on cellular technology.
Protecting investments by ensuring long-term value
Compared to other wireless technology standards such as Wi-Fi, cellular device design is more complex; however, the ubiquity of cellular network coverage means that a cellular-based design makes it more valuable. For those who have never designed a cellular device, navigating this process can be challenging, but mobile network operators and others have helped simplify the process by providing tools to make the process easier. Working with certified embedded hardware is the first step to avoid making these mistakes and ensuring that the device will achieve end product certification, but there are several other considerations to understand prior to beginning the design process.
Future-proofing an M2M application is critical when protecting capital investments in the development process and ensuring that the system provides value. An inherent benefit of M2M technology is the cost savings associated with remotely monitoring and managing assets, removing the need for manual servicing or field worker deployments. While some M2M systems such as connected parking meters and point-of-sale devices can generate revenue, others provide incremental cost benefits at a much slower rate. These systems are much more cost-sensitive in the development phase when it comes to device components. Therefore, it’s even more crucial to ensure that the hardware will be functional in the long term, as replacement could entirely negate the potential ROI.
Currently, legacy 2G (CDMA 1xRTT and GPRS) wireless networks offer the most widespread coverage, which is often a significant benefit for industrial applications, many of which include assets in remote and disparate locations. However, largely due to the popularity of the iPhone and the resulting spectrum crunch, AT&T recently announced it will be shutting down its 2G network by 2017, using that spectrum to better enhance its 3G and 4G networks. Since the 1xRTT network is used for voice calls for both Sprint and Verizon, both networks have said they will keep their 2G network up until at least 2020.
Some organizations already have 2G M2M devices deployed, while others are exploring their options. Regardless of how far along an organization is in an M2M deployment, looking toward newer network technologies is undoubtedly the next step.
Choosing an embedded module or add-in hardware
Prices for 3G cellular hardware have decreased a great deal in the past few years, and it is no longer as cost-prohibitive to develop devices around these technologies. However, 4G cellular technology still comes at a high price. Most industrial systems except those dealing with security and video surveillance have limited need for the high-bandwidth applications that 4G networks enable. Additionally, if an application requires a reliable connection in a remote area, 4G networks currently do not offer the widespread coverage available with legacy technologies. If the application requires frequent or constant connectivity, then the 4G M2M system must include some combination of GSM, GPRS, EDGE, HSPA, or UMTS as fallbacks.
The most effective design strategy at this point is to develop 3G applications around hardware that offers backward compatibility with 2G network standards. When designing with an embedded cellular module, for example, this means selecting a module from a manufacturer that develops its products with unified form factors. Therefore, only a single design is needed, and the module can be replaced with a newer version once the technology costs have decreased and an application upgrade is economically feasible.
Another option is to use a plug-in module in lieu of embedded hardware such as a PCI Express (PCIe) card equipped with a cellular module (see Figure 1). Mini PCIe option cards are ubiquitous and popular in laptop computers, industrial machines, embedded computers, and networking equipment. The Mini PCIe form factor is also used for other computing accessories, including wireless LAN and solid-state storage.
Mobile applications and embedded machines are also using Mini PCIe cards. The flexibility to build a laptop or embedded machine with connectivity makes the interchangeability of Mini PCIe cellular modems appealing. Mini PCIe cards are an efficient choice for end customer applications because they are easier to certify and result in time-to-market advantages that significantly reduce cost and risk. Just as easily as a PCIe card can be leveraged to enhance an existing system with connectivity, it can also be switched out and upgraded with newer technology standards.
When choosing between an embedded module and plug-in hardware option, the key factor besides ease of integration and future-proofing potential lies within the deployment volume expected for the M2M system. Designing an application around an embedded module is ideal for systems that will deploy between 10,000 and 1 million devices in the field. Below these volumes, using a plug-in card or purchasing an end product from a third party is the most cost- and resource-efficient avenue to M2M deployment.
M2M beyond the hype
Above all, it is crucial to understand the unique needs of the M2M application that will be deployed. The need for reliability and network uptime, widespread geographic cellular coverage, or a long lifespan will largely guide design considerations and deployment strategy. With knowledge of the available technologies and the help of experienced partners to guide designers through the process, M2M success is attainable and will go far beyond the current hype to provide operational efficiencies and cost benefits for organizations of all sizes and in a wide range of industries.