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Vinay Malekal

Creating a connected HVAC product for the smart home is not as simple as embedding a wireless chip or adding a sensor. Designing IoT-enabled smart home HVAC products requires consideration of everything from network security to application software design, as well as how to budget for, scale, distribute and future-proof these products.

In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the multi-layered interconnectedness of the IoT changes everything about how you must approach product design. To capitalize on the new opportunities available with the IoT, start by thinking less like the maker of a ‘product’ and more like the provider of a ‘service.’

Here are a few other best practices to keep in mind when designing, building and ultimately selling IoT-connected smart home products.

Best Practice No. 1: Clarify Your Use Case

Your use cases for IoT-connected smart home products might be very different from what you’ve done in the past. Think about how your smart home HVAC equipment should work in the context of other smart home products.

When identifying use cases for your connected HVAC products, consider how to use the IoT data they generate to differentiate your products, enhance their features, and produce additional revenue streams.

Best Practice No. 2: Realize that the IoT Is Not an Add-On Feature

The expectations for smart home capabilities move fast — too fast for you to guess today what features your HVAC products will need in the future. IoT-enabling your HVAC products isn’t a singular feature, or something you can tack on later.

As you design IoT-enabled HVAC products, think about:

  • User interface placement: on the thermostat, or on individual heating systems or air conditioners?
  • Will your IoT HVAC system be controlled by a smartphone mobile app, a touchscreen on the thermostat, a control panel at each piece of HVAC equipment, a web application or some combination?
  • What communications networks should your product support?
  • What other smart home products should your product interact with?
  • Can you assume that your customers’ homes have Wi-Fi connectivity?

Best Practice No. 3: Approach Security Seriously

IoT interconnectivity introduces serious security challenges, and security is only as powerful as the weakest link in the IoT ecosystem. IoT security encompasses product and user access and authentication; networking and cloud security; mobile or web app security; and securing the IoT data wherever it flows.

Because security is invisible, it can be tempting to view it as a cost-cutting target. That approach is not only foolhardy, it can also be extremely costly. Because every link in the IoT chain must be secure, going back later means that some security links might not exist, and whole links might need to be re-created.

Best Practice No. 4: Think Ahead About Interoperability

How will your connected HVAC products interoperate with other connected products — including from other manufacturers — and with various cloud infrastructures and third-party services?

The best way to achieve interoperability is by using open, native libraries and other standards-based solutions. Choose a cloud architecture that is schema-less and agnostic to any particular data types. That way, your connected HVAC products can interoperate with existing clouds and connectivity methods as well as new methods that emerge in the future.

Best Practice No. 5: Take Full Advantage of IoT Data

Extracting and managing IoT data leads to important information about real-world performance of your HVAC products. You can use this real-world usage insight to:

  • Build better products
  • Enable new revenue opportunities by selling add-on services such as energy management, automatic filter replacements, or system monitoring
  • Strengthen relationships with your customers and supply chain
  • Make customer support staff more effective
  • Improve maintenance and establish preventive maintenance programs

Best Practice No. 6: Prepare for Different Approaches to Schedules and Budgets

Don’t expect that your experience scheduling and budgeting traditional products will apply to IoT projects. Factors such as firmware development, wireless radios, cloud operations, mobile/web application development and end-to-end security take time.

Also, allow sufficient time for rigorous field-testing, which is the only way to uncover and fix bugs, security holes or poor handoffs along the device-to-cloud-to-app spectrum. The leading IoT platform providers recommend at least three months of field-testing for simple products, up to six months for more complex IoT solutions.

Best Practice No. 7: Plan for Future Updates and Scalability

No matter what features, protocols, or new technologies emerge or are required in the future, protect your connected products from getting stuck in technology dead ends. Design for secure over-the-air (OTA) updates, which allow you to change and improve installed smart home products over time.

OTA updates let you update firmware on your connected air conditioner or refrigerator, add features based on analyzing real-world customer usage data, and keep security up-to-date.

Best Practice No. 8: Decide Whether to Build or Buy IoT Expertise

You have two choices when it comes to creating connected versions of your products: Build the expertise in-house, or purchase the expertise in the form of an IoT platform. Creating a connected product requires technical know-how in networking, embedded devices, software application development and other domains, as well as in all the standards, protocols and interconnections of these various technology areas.

Few HVAC manufacturers are experts in the kinds of engineering and technology required for connected smart home products. For the vast majority, using a ready-made IoT platform can help you get to market faster and less expensively, with a better connected product.

Taking the IoT platform approach allows your company to focus on what it does best — designing and building feature-rich and differentiated HVAC products — instead of burning time and money getting up to speed in the specialized area of IoT technologies.

The IoT is not business as usual. Being successful in the IoT entails leveraging your established strengths as a manufacturer, but approaching the process with fresh eyes. But for those HVAC manufacturers willing to embrace both the potential and the challenges of the IoT, the rewards can be significant.

Vinay Malekal is a field application engineer at Ayla Networks.

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