This week, Silicon Labs held its annual Works With event, covering all aspects of the IoT. While many of the sessions were aimed at engineers trying to learn specific skills for product development, the event held a few panels with a larger focus that included elements worth noting. Silicon Labs also made three big news announcements that are pretty exciting for an IoT observer.
So, let’s run through what you may have missed.
Sub-gigahertz radios are maturing in the IoT: Silicon Labs launched a few modules that operate in the 915 MHz band, which is commonly called the sub gigahertz band. This band is used by common household devices like baby monitors and microwaves, but it’s also a big feature in several IoT standards. Amazon’s Sidewalk radios for long-range wireless coverage use this band, as do the Mioty and new Wirepas 5G radios. It’s also used by Wi-SUN, an emerging smart cities standard, though the new Silicon Labs modules aren’t supporting Wi-SUN. Silicon Labs isn’t the only provider here, but its new modules make it much easier than it has been to design a low-power device that uses the sub-gigahertz radios. This means we should see more devices — and cheaper devices — that support standards such as Sidewalk to Mioty.
Silicon Labs will address security in its manufacturing process: Silicon Labs introduced a concept called Custom Part Manufacturing Service. Using a web portal, customers can tweak their chip orders to program the silicon as it rolls off the manufacturing line. This is a big deal for a lot of reasons. On the security front, it enables the programming of specific security features, such as certificates and unique parts numbers, on the chip in a scalable way at manufacture. Doing so will meet the requirements of certain security regulations that require individually secured devices, as well as help device makers track chips that may end up on the gray market. It also means that companies can stamp the chips with their own logos and hide the name of the chip firm producing the part. Plus, Silicon Labs will charge for these features, which will give it a source of revenue that it will need as the chip market becomes commodified again once the supply and demand for silicon matches up.
Sustainability is gaining ground with manufacturers: One of the most exciting companies I saw at the event was called Dracula Technologies, which in June launched an energy harvesting solar sticker and sensor. I’m always excited to see new energy harvesting technology, but I was positively gleeful to learn that Dracula’s sensors are self-powered and designed from materials that are easily recyclable. One of my fears about the IoT is that we’ll put a bunch of toxic metals into tiny sensors and just leave them to rot or get tossed as they run out of useful life or are made obsolete. When talking about billions of sensors, that feels untenable.
Batteries are still a problem: Whether it was a panel on the industrial internet or the panel I moderated, which focused on medicine, the challenges associated with power consumption were always a topic. Lithium-ion batteries have lost their luster thanks to difficulties getting materials, concerns about explosions, and general worries about the environmental impact of mining and disposal. And yet, there’s still little in the world of batteries that have changed. Meanwhile, energy harvesting is getting better, but nothing has really delivered the number of watts needed to run anything more than sensors with energy-efficient radios. I was not surprised to hear industrial engineers mention this, but when medical professionals on my panel asked about it, I realized it had become a mainstream concern.
People now understand what a semiconductor is: This was my favorite line of the entire conference. It was uttered by Jodi Shelton, CEO of Global Semiconductor Alliance. Unfortunately, people only understand what a semiconductor is because of the chip shortage, which is expected to last until 2023 and has made new cars, some smart devices, and other electronics hard to buy. The entire panel discussion devoted to the chip shortage was good, but I especially liked how it covered things that often get overlooked in mainstream coverage, such as the fact that many of the chips that are holding products back use smaller, older technologies (such as fabs that produce on 200 mm wafers as opposed to 300 mm wafers), and how the lack of investment in old tech has led us to this point. But it wasn’t all bad news; the discussion also included the fact that demand for chips has risen in part because COVID has sped up the timeline for investment in digital technologies, even across old industries that until recently were still mostly analog. This is good for the chip sector, but it also changes what for a few years had been a historic cycle of a few years’ worth of growth followed by a slowdown. That’s why we’re here today. Because after a few years of growth, forecasts would anticipate lower demand, and manufacturers would produce accordingly. But thanks to digitization, demand keeps going up. So we’re now setting a new baseline for growth that takes into account increased demand for the foreseeable future.
Silicon Labs is still trying to make Wi-SUN happen: I don’t know, y’all. Call me when it does.