The Internet of Things (IoT) has a rich history, deep-seated in the earliest communication machines from the 1800s. Officially coined in 1999, it was not until the past decade that the importance of IoT has truly emerged.
Its evolution is concurrent with the development and prevalence of other technologies that have placed connectivity at the centre of our lifestyles. These embedded devices are now in homes, vehicles, medical devices and almost everywhere.
IoT describes "Things" meaning physical objects or groups of objects embedded with sensors, processing ability, software, and other technologies that connect and exchange data over the Internet or other such communications networks. Though ubiquitous within the definition, 'Internet' is a misnomer, as devices only need to be connected to a network and be individually addressable.
This technology allows physical objects to communicate with the digital world via low-cost computing, the cloud, big data, analytics, and mobile technologies with minimal human intervention, creating a connection that has led to improvements and advancements in multiple fields.
Meytis IoT team: our approach
Our team is comprised of IoT engineers working in collaboration with Front-End and Back-End Developers, to bridge the gap between hardware development and the application layer.
When examining IoT, it is logical to begin with a formula that succinctly sums up the technology in practice: sensors, connectivity and purpose.
Sensors are prevalent in everyday life, applied in almost innumerable contexts to produce an output signal to measure physical phenomena by detecting events or environmental changes. For example, this could determine position, measure temperature, or measure the amount of pressure in a car tire. This information is then transmitted from its environment to other electrical devices.
Here is where connectivity becomes crucial. It is the most beautiful part of IoT, containing an element of magic. A constellation of devices transforms the recorded measurements by connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the Internet or other communications networks. The data is then sent to a cloud via an IoT gateway or similar apparatus, where it is read, processed, and displayed to the end-user.
This analysis is the essential component of the formula; it gives purpose to the wealth of information that, once understood, can be combined to gain deeper insights, provide vital health monitoring and create business leverage. When utilised proficiently, The Internet of Things demonstrates its invaluable application as a resource for objects to communicate.
Our Metyis teams are experts at extracting data to deliver business advantages to partners by increasing efficiency, improving decision-making, offering a real-time look into system inner workings and machine performance and providing opportunities to cut down on waste whilst enhancing customer experience.
Team capabilities: our nine-step journey
The Meytis team's work focuses on several specialised capabilities such as Schematic Design, PCB Design, Firmware Development, Prototyping and Testing. Equipped with these skills, we can then progress with a nine-step journey that delivers impactful solutions to a wide variety of projects, from conceptualisation to fruition.
1. Requirements definition
Each IoT network is unique in its specifications, requiring the manufacturing of custom technology, called embedded systems, a combination of computer hardware and software. Together with our clients our team helps frame the requirements definition, working closely with our partners and implementing our technical skills to address the business needs with a system solution.
2. Block Designs
The first step is to create the whiteboard block designs that form the architecture for the device, depicting the different components and how they will function together.
3. Firmware Development and Prototype assembly
The team then develops the firmware that will run inside the device, determining its behaviour and communication protocol. Firmware development is an ongoing process; though all boards are prepared to be fully functional, certain functionalities are added at various stages depending on the project needs. This stage of prototype assembly is carried out in our development lab in Porto, manually soldering components before testing in preparation for the prototype pilot.
4. Prototype Pilot
Prototyping is what distinguishes the Metyis team from other IoT teams. During the prototyping phase we work with a low investment from the client, developing in an agile way a device that can behave as an industrialised product. This is what demonstrates to clients the possibilities of connecting their resources to the Internet.
5. Schematic Designs
The team then draft schematic designs, which provide a more detailed view of all the components in the system, and how they are connected. It also includes the data flow and definition of which signals have been assigned. A schematic can also contain a list of revisions indicating alterations to the original design.
6. Printed Circuit Board Design Phase
Advancing into the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) design phase, our team translate schematic designs into physical connections by taking pre-existing chips and transforming them into electronic boards, installing and distributing the components on the board, and defining their sizes. Samples are then made with industrialisation in mind, working with several local and European hardware producers, whose close proximity helps speed up the manufacturing process.
7. Printed Circuit Board Production
This is where production of the PCBs begins. The PCB is the bed that will receive all the components; these are compiled and customised, readying it to undergo an industrialised pilot.
8. Functional Tests
The system then goes through rigorous testing, debugging and validation phases to ensure the efficiency of the device and its safety. Trust is of the utmost significance to Metyis. We recognise that security can be a cause for concern in data sharing and so we are vigilant in our ongoing assurance that any information will remain responsibly protected by experts in the field.
9. Industrialised Pilot
The pilot validates whether what is produced is capable of industrialisation, if it will work in the desired environment, and if the device can be mass-produced.
The practicality of scaling and development: pros and cons
Depending on the project scale, some projects only go through the prototype phase, which can be advantageous as it takes a short period to get the prototype onto the market depending on its complexity. Revisions can also be made quickly and require only a small initial tooling investment. The process, however, can be labour intensive, prone to human error, and result in a less compact unit. There is also a more significant cost involved. If the need is to produce up to 50 or 100 units, then the final product might as well be a prototype. Otherwise, the system progresses to industrial development.
Industrialisation can offer many advantages. It allows large quantities of uniform systems to be produced repeatedly with fewer errors. The economy of scale is also a factor as unit price and labour costs can drop dramatically. Units can also be more compact and receive components on both sides of the PCB expanding potential functionality. However, this process has some disadvantages as development time has a much longer duration, in part to ensure initial requirements have been met and well defined. If this is not the case then when problems occur, revisions can become challenging and result in backwards steps to solve issues. Industrialisation also needs an initial investment in tools and paying a third-party company to prepare the production line.
There are many reasons we opt for the nine-step-journey rather than buying an off the shelf device, namely the lower cost of production, the capability of creating a customized solution according to the client's needs, and the adaptability of the hardware size based on each use case. In the PoC phase we can use off-the-shelf devices to validate the concept but overall, it is a question of economy of scale.
IoT in practice: communicating with Things
The following case studies expound on the application of IoT, giving examples of the diverse and engaging solutions that this auspicious technology provides.
How we deconstructed beer consumption
One of the major beer producers and distributers in the world reported that many bar owners complained that they had no visibility on their beer consumption. The only information they had was the billing system, which often doesn't correspond to the reality of usage. In addition, technicians and sales personnel could not understand what was happening in the pubs between periodic visits. It was unclear whether the beer they sold one week was at an optimum quality on any given day. The company also had no visibility into how the sales were working for the product they were selling and could not correlate the type of sales and the type of bar.
The solution was for specialised engineers and technicians to install a whole system onto the beer kegs, where the hardware is responsible for performing beer consumption measurements and processing the data. The information is then wirelessly communicated to the beverage company's cloud and sent to various applications used by bar staff, managers and technicians. NFC antennas next to the kegs allowed for real-time indications of what type of beer is in each keg, its serial number and expiry date, tracking the lifespan of a keg from the time it's filled up to the moment it's collected for recycling.
This dramatically cut down on wastage, theft and malfunction. Bar staff can now have keg level readings, indicating when keg change is required. Managers have real-time information on consumption, metrics and access to data-driven decision making. The app provides an administration page of the system, where supervisors or country heads can access the various bars to gain real-time insights. There's also the technician's app, one of the most utilised apps that allows system configuration and technicians to perform predictive maintenance and control cleaning functionalities in one of the beverage machines.
How we improved a logistics strategy
In this case, we worked with a leading provider of laundry, catering, HVAC & fire safety solutions, focused on care, hospitality & higher education sectors. They supply machines and provide repair and maintenance services to care homes, hospitals, and university residence halls. The goal was to acquire and use data and maintenance as an asset to drive improved customer experiences, reduce costs and develop commercial leads.
The approach was to identify critical use cases, machines and sensors to define stakeholder requirements and then implement a new data and technology architecture to connect machines and sensors. The main point of the architecture was a gateway created with a ZigBee network. Zigbee is a protocol similar to Bluetooth or WiFi that creates a mesh network in which some end devices can route the connection. This allows expansion of network coverage. All the devices communicate through ZigBee to the gateway, which in turn sends the data through 4G communication to the clients' cloud. For example, sensors can provide information about the ambient environment to ensure machines wouldn't overheat or monitor if boilers are heating the water effectively. We connected our devices to existing washers and dryers from different suppliers to read the data directly from these machines' motherboards and forward this data to the cloud.
We also developed an analytics platform to process the data and generate insights that are integrated into client visualisation and operational tools to provide more intelligent data use.
Some benefits became immediately apparent. Predictive maintenance calls meant fewer failures and engineers had to make fewer visits. In addition, we provided technicians with error codes and part recommendations prior to a visit. This greatly improves first-time fixes and reduces repair time. The system also allows for customer equipment usage, behaviours, and energy efficiency analysis, which identifies commercial opportunities.
For example, the company has several types of washing machines, each in separate categories according to varying technical specifications. Appliances are recommended to the customers based on their needs. However, difficulties can occur if the information provided is inaccurate. With the Metyis system installed, the company can utilise the data to generate advice to clients based on which machine will perform best in the required environment, such as: "will wash faster", "consume less energy" or "suffer fewer breakdowns".
An integrated future of constellations
Connecting "things" to the digital sphere has very tangible benefits. It works as a nervous system for the world, becoming the sensory organs that assist us in finding locations through GPS and enhancing our eyes and ears with cameras, radars and microphones. Perhaps this assimilation comes as no surprise. Communication has always been integral in all facets of life. Now, objects are part of the team that can share knowledge to create success in even the most challenging circumstances.
Teamwork is at the heart of the Metyis ethos, integrated into our unique form of partnership and multidisciplinary model that works as a well-connected network, valuing communication, diversity, and ingenuity.
Metyis' inherent analytics and business strategy capabilities are what set the ground upon which our IoT team can build, which opens up whole new possibilities with data that was previously unavailable and exclusive to clients. Our expertise and knowledge in innovative domains like IoT place Metyis at the forefront of the industry.
About the authors behind the article
Ricardo Teixeira is a Director. Also based in Porto, Ricardo Silva is an IoT Engineering Manager, Fernando Fontes and Gabriel Pinto are IoT Engineers, and Henrique Sousa is a Frontend Developer. Micaela Serôdio is a Data Engineer based in Faro.