The phrase “hardware is hard” is tossed around every time some gadget startup closes its doors. But business is hard as well, which is why most startups will fail whether they are shipping software or hardware. To give your gadget startup the edge though, it makes sense to hire the right team.
In last week’s Internet of Things Podcast I had Elecia White, a embedded systems engineer and host of the Embedded podcast come on the show to discuss what it takes to build a connected device that can scale to 100,000 units. I asked what she needed if budget were no object, to make a product that was secure, manufacturable and profitable. First off, she says you need a systems engineer to look over all the pieces to make sure that they’re all going to fit together at the end. That person will talk to a mechanical engineer who designs the device and makes sure that the electronic boards fit into the device.
From there you’ll want an electrical engineer who will design boards and make sure that they’re manufacturable, and that their parts are all going to be available in time to ship this product when planned. Then you’ll need an embedded software engineer who works on the software inside the product to make sure that the security, the connectivity, the firmware updates, as well as all of the features that you’re actually building into this product are there. Plus, they will make sure those features fit on a processor that is cheap enough to build them on.
And when it comes to that processor, she says she loves prototyping boards like the Raspberry Pi, but not for a project that needs to scale. “If you’re going to build 100,000 of something, you want something more efficient, more direct,” White says. “Something may be resource constrained, because it only needs to do the things you want it to do. You’re building a product, you’re not building a computer. The Raspberry Pi is a computer, and you can hide it inside a product, but your product’s going to be cheaper if you actually build the product.”
You’ll also need a manufacturing engineer, the person who at the end makes sure that you can build 100,000 of your products on the line. That person is going to optimize the product and process so a firmware update step that might take 20 minutes now only takes five, and that means your throughput is faster and your whole system can cost less.
Finally, on the other side, you still need the software engineer, plus the back-end developers and web developers so you have a good app and a good product. That’s a lot of people, but if you can’t hire them all, there are other options, such as contract manufacturing firms like Flex or Jabil.
“If you want to build this, you’re going to have to at least be that systems engineer who can talk to everybody,” she says. “That means knowing a little bit about all the pieces: Enough mechanical engineering to know where the problems are, enough electrical engineering to use the right words, and enough embedded systems engineering to hire somebody who can balance your needs for speed, efficiency, power optimization, cost, and getting it to market on time.”
After explaining what a fully developed IoT product team looks like, White emphasized some of the other challenges associated with building connected devices, such as the cost of security. Security is expensive, she says, but if you can optimize on your hardware costs, it’s possible that you can build a secure product that sells closer in price to the cheap knockoffs that have zero attention paid to their security.
“I keep bringing up cost because it is something that is very important with the internet of things,” she says. “It’s why we choose the $4 poorly secured systems instead of the $30 well secured systems. The amount of software in them, the amount of hardware in them isn’t that different. It’s just how well it’s designed. If we can get these $30 designs to be $10, then maybe we can start convincing people to use the good stuff.”
One can only hope. Click below to listen to White’s interview.