From coffee vending machines in Italy to household appliances in Turkey to irrigation systems in Australia, engineers are beginning to find real, practical ways to use Internet connectivity to enhance the functionality of products outside the traditional bounds of the PC and telecom world.
On the front lines are firms marketing off-the-shelf Internet-enabling solutions. They indicate that industrial applications are launching this year, with consumer applications hitting the streets in two to three years, once standards are established.
The market for smart appliances is expected to grow steadily. Home networking standards, expected to be completed this year, should help spur sales.
"There are business segments for which the value added by the Internet connectivity is so important that adoption will be quick," notes Marc Berrebi, CEO of eDevice, and creator of SmartStack™, an Internet-enabling solution for non-PC devices. In particular, he sees vending, metering, and industrial control applications leading the way.
Bulent Celebi, CEO of Ubicom (formerly Scenix), a leading supplier of Internet processors and networking software, sees power management a driver, with smart meters a priority, along with commercial installations and building automation.
Others, like Cindy Wolfe, research analyst with Cahners In-Stat, see major opportunities in smart appliances, which require direct access to the Internet. Leading the charge will be consumer audio products. With elimination of the PC gateway, she says, audio can stream right into the unit. Beyond that, she cites dozens of major companies with projects underway, including LG, Samsung, Whirlpool, and Sunbeam/Thalia, and start-ups pushing everything from Internet picture frames to alarm clocks.
But stumbling blocks remain—especially in the consumer sector. "The cost of development is astronomical," laments Joy Weis Daniel, senior manager for product development, Sharp Electronics. The "back-room" supporting infrastructure for a Web-based system is where it really adds up, she contends.
Nonetheless, an increasing number of companies are making "Internet-enabled" a reality today—as evidenced by the variety of applications described here.
Remote monitoring and data collection for coffee vending machines
Company: Lavazza (Rome, Italy)
Design project: Add Internet connectivity to an existing commercial coffee vending machine.
Connectivity function & value add: Via a standard analog phone line, wireless GSM connection or Ethernet LAN, the Lavazza e-espressopoint coffee vending machine automatically e-mails maintenance calls and consumption records, and receives e-mails that automatically update unit configuration parameters. When the rollout is finished at the end of this year, Lavazza and its distributors will have real-time consumption information on over 10,000 machines.
Design challenges: Add Internet functionality to an existing coffee machine that did not have any re-programmable microprocessors or microcontrollers, with minimal mechanical changes or industrial redesign. Keep costs minimal.
Design solution: The existing Lavazza machine had a motherboard to manage coffee-making operations (pump controls, temperature sensing, etc.) and the user interface. To add connectivity, engineers chose SmartStack™, a DSP-based Internet-enabling technology from eDevice. The SmartStack technology reads sensor data from the motherboard, and accepts input via either an RS-232 connection or e-mail. SmartStack also integrates a supervision layer, which polls the motherboard for fault detection and stock levels, then e-mails necessary service information; gathers and e-mails consumption records to Lavazza management and distributors; and regularly checks a specified e-mail account for e-mail messages containing vending unit configuration updates.
SmartStack from eDevice: Enter 550
Remote monitoring and energy management of household appliances
Company: Arcelik (Istanbul, Turkey)
Design project: Internet-enable Beko brand appliances under company's Intelligent Home Concept program. Widespread market penetration planned for 2003.
Connectivity function & value add: Connectivity adds control and data communication for Beko appliances directly by the user or through a controller, either locally or remotely. The nature of the specific application dictates the nature of the connectivity. Service calls, for example, trigger e-mail messaging, while remote servicing and control may require Web access. Security is the most important issue. A prototype refrigerator has a touch screen monitor and built-in PC components, capable of full Web access. The goals include comfort for the user, home energy management and remote after-sales service.
Design challenges: The appliance should not become more complicated to use; no additional wiring for connectivity; sufficiently high bandwidth; ease of installation and ease of use for the end user with minimal additional cost; organizing services to take advantage of connectivity; lack of standards in home networking.
Design solution: For ease of installation by the end user, the Arcelik application and design team opted for connectivity through wireless communication (Bluetooth) and PLC (power line communication). They add a wireless home network access board, which includes a connectivity-enabling chip from Ubicom, to each appliance. The Arcelik R&D group worked with Ubicom engineers on the wireless connectivity solution, to enable the Ubicom chip to convert the appliance's internal data format into the Bluetooth wireless network format. The single-chip solution provides protocol conversion, physical interface capabilities, Internet connectivity, device management, and networking capabilities. The appliance control board communicates with the wireless home network access board through proprietary protocol software. Arcelik engineers opted for a central residential gateway through which all appliances are connected for Internet access.
Connectivity enabling chip from Ubicom: Enter 551
Networking of household appliances
Company: Merloni Electtrodomestici (Rome, Italy)
Design project: Create a home network for core business of white appliances including washing machines, dishwashers, stoves, ovens and refrigerators.
Connectivity function & value add: A home network is created over the power lines and controlled by "Leonardo," an Internet-enabled web-pad, which has full Web access and is connected to the Internet via an analog phone line. A project now under development will allow access to the Internet via a PC or WAP phone, enabling the end user to program appliances remotely.
Design challenges: Enable household appliances to be controlled, programmed remotely, and to communicate with each other without extra cables or wiring, using the home's regular electrical lines for the physical network. Direct appliance-to-Internet connectivity was deemed too impractical for reasons of insufficient bandwidth in powerline networking and final cost.
Design solution: Each appliance has a networking board, making it a node on the home network, and onboard electronic controls capable of generating data. The nodes are connected over the power lines via a proprietary networking protocol called Wr@p (Web ready appliances protocol), enabling the appliances to communicate with each other and the Leonardo web-pad. Leonardo, which is built around a 486 processor and Windows CE, is the centerpiece of the Ariston Digital system. It connects to the Internet over regular telephone lines, and can be used to download and display the cooking cycle of recipes stored on the Merloni website, for example. The cooking cycle is displayed on Leonardo and can be downloaded directly to the oven via the power line. Beyond the Merloni site, Leonardo has full Web access and can be used as a standard browser. The remote access project underway will require an "always on" ADSL Internet connection, a personal Web portal for each home, password-based security, and Web pages dedicated to each appliance, indicating its current state and offering programming options.
Digital system from Ariston: Enter 552
Remote monitoring of irrigation systems
Company: Holman Industries (Perth, Australia)
Design project: Develop an Internet-enabled irrigation controller, HAND (home automating network device), for the domestic mass market that allows feedback information to be e-mailed back to an irrigation service provider when fault situations occur or when maintenance is required.
Connectivity function & value add: HAND will primarily send and receive e-mails. However, it will have the capacity to be dialed up and then browsed like a common server. This will allow the consumer or service provider to remotely change data such as start times and watering duration. The goal is to provide professional landscape services with value-added features they can provide to consumers.
Design challenges: Although Holman is a professional engineering firm specializing in electronics, design engineers realized that writing and implementing a full PPP system with a TCP/IP stack and Internet high-level protocols would be expensive to develop, and also ex-pensive to maintain as the Internet evolves. Although the company had all the necessary intellectual properties to cope with many aspects of the project, they realized that the Internet and the associated protocols were an issue for specialist software houses.
Design solution: Holman chose the iChip from Connect One and formed a partnership for the Internet implementation. The result was a modular pack to which Holman engineers could add specialized functionality. Update downloads are available for the end user. Although not strictly necessary, Holman decided to also implement a new custom touch LCD screen, a low-speed modem (Silicon Labs Si2400 ISOmodem), and GSM phone technology to provide customers with a new look and a much greater level of user friendly control. Issues pertaining to power requirements of the GSM phone system were "fairly easily addressed," and the lead engineer describes the entire project as "fairly painless."
i-Chip and iModem from Connect One: Enter 553