Want a Lot of Fans for Your IoT Product Designs? Learn from These Fan Makers
When it comes to the product design of an IoT device, engineers can learn a lot from something as simple as a ceiling fan. Though useful, practical and a necessity in low airflow rooms, the average user of a ceiling fan will typically forget the device is even there. And in some cases, that is precisely the point.
Often, the best-designed products just blend into reality and are taken for granted. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. When it comes to fans made by Haiku Home from Big Ass Solutions (yes, that is its real name), the company uses its expertise of blowing air around to not only optimize the design of fans, but also to add them to the Internet of Things (IoT).
Starting with a Good Disconnected Product Is the Key to a Great IoT Product
“If you don’t get the product right then, you might as well not bother with the smart piece,” said Landon Borders, director of Connected Devices at Big Ass Solutions. “If done correctly, adding connectivity to the product is just an incremental improvement.”
Detail of a Haiku fan design shows its ring of LED lights, diffusor lens, thermal transfer module, balanced aerodynamic airfoil blades, Fresnel lens, environmental and infrared sensors, Wi-Fi chip and predictive learning microprocessor. (Image courtesy of Haiku Home.)
He explains that the start of any good IoT product is the product itself. You can’t just slap connectivity to any old design and call it a day. You need to think how you have improved the product for your customers. Not all products lend themselves to the IoT. Similarly, no amount of connectivity features will improve a bad design.
“A lot of the challenges with designing an IoT device comes down to not having a playbook,” said Borders. “A lot of this is very new and we’re all learning as we go. But it starts with the product. I see so many smart devices out there, and they are really not solving any problems for anyone. I shake my head sometimes. So one of the challenges is learning what customers want and translating those needs into specifications and requirements.”
When it came to classic fan designs, there were many things Haiku Home discovered it could improve upon from a user perspective. First, take those noisy motors. Borders explained that Haiku works on brushless motors that reduce the noise and improve the life of the product.
Next, the dangling lights and chains often associated with ceiling fans had to go. The chains were always confusing to use, they fail or break frequently, and they are difficult for those who aren’t especially tall to use. And the dangling lights could become a literal headache inducer for those who are tall. These interesting design changes were all crafted in a SOLIDWORKS CAD model.
Control for the fan went to an IoT app, while the lights were replaced with LEDs that are built into the fan’s sleek frame.
To really see how much energy Haiku Home puts into the design of its IoT products, before even adding IoT, look no further than the blades.
Traditionally, the blades on fans are a little more than a plank. However, Haiku Home designs its blades into airfoils. The company even performs computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations to optimize the fans’ design. These simulations are also used by Haiku Home’s sales team to ensure that a fan is properly sized for a room and the contents within it.
A computational fluid dynamics (CFD) assessment of a Haiku fan in a room. The room includes a chair that will interfere with the airflow. These models can help with designing fans and properly sizing fans to rooms. (Image courtesy of Haiku Home.)
“We also simulate the air movement and how light is distributed into a facility,” said Borders. “Our design engineers can simulate the air movement and then calculate how a specific pitch or angle on a foil might produce a particular cubic foot per minute (CFM) [flow], and this is normally spot on when we get to the physical prototype.”
In other words, Haiku Home wanted to make a product that people would want because it was already an optimized stand-alone product. Adding IoT just became the cherry on top.
I Have a Good Product Design. How Do I Make It a Great IoT Design?
“A lot of people get caught up in the connectivity and interoperability piece,” mentioned Borders. “But If I were the one designing the product, I would think first about use cases and what the customer would want accomplished that they don’t have today. Ask what sucks about a product, and figure out how to make it suck less. But in our case, we blow air.”
Haiku’s IoT control app for its fan can optimize the heating and cooling of a room to a specific temperature. Adding IoT to a product isn’t a big challenge at the end of the day. The real challenge is adding meaningful IoT features that improve the user experience. (Image courtesy of Haiku Home.)
In fact, Borders noted that adding the connectivity to a product itself isn’t the big challenge when designing IoT products. After all, many products already incorporate electronics.
“Electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and industrial designers have been fighting over space in products for years, and that hasn’t changed,” explained Borders. “The only exception to that might be antenna placement, which often leads to material decisions.”
Therefore, answering why your product needs IoT is a lot harder and more important than answering how you will add the connectivity in the first place. As an example, ask yourself, will your product need to be a part of a larger IoT ecosystem? Will the user experience of your fan improve if it can talk to the stove and know to speed up to help cool the kitchen while you are cooking?
“It’s one thing to be connected, but it’s another thing to have something to say,” said Borders. “I think about these things in terms of ecosystems of products. Your blender and your fan and thermostat really don’t have much to say. They can be connected, but they don’t need to be connected to one another. When I think of our ecosystem of comfort and energy conservation, I’m thinking about products that have something to say to one another, and when they do, they can sense environmental conditions and react accordingly.”
Communication between products on the IoT can become complicated. Take ecobee’s smart thermostat. It has coin cell battery sensors located around the home and a wall-mounted thermostat with a battery backup. Due to these power limitations, the thermostats will need to be strategic when communicating data. In contrast, Haiku’s fans are plugged in and do not have a limited power supply. As a result, they are continuously connected.
“For us, that means we can only pull the smart thermostat for information at certain intervals and because of that there is some latency. This latency isn’t that perceptible to our customers, but you do have to think [during the design] how this latency affects the user experience.”
I Have a Great IoT Design. What Do I Do with All This Big Data?
“People see value in data, but they don’t know what it is,” remarked Borders. “Oftentimes, they will jump to ‘How do I monetize this?’ But that’s not how we look at it. For us, the data gives us insights into how our products are being used at a macro level.”
Monetizing your big data right away might be as bad an idea as turning the anti-establishment Matrix film into a cash grab trilogy.
Borders joked that they don’t have an employee looking at the data come in like some operator in the Matrix movies. Instead, Haiku Home aggregates the data, sterilizes it from personal information, and looks for patterns in customer usage.
“Looking at the data at an aggregate view gives you an idea of how products are used and how you can make them better and create new features for customers,” explained Borders.
For instance, Borders explained that by looking at the data, the company discovered that over 90 percent of the time users were using their fans at 60 percent of maximum speed. In other words, the vast majority of the fans were over-engineered for their purpose.
As a result, the company was able to design a fan with a smaller motor and lower profile without affecting the performance expectations of users. The added benefit is that this design translated into cost benefits for both Haiku Home and its customers.
I’m Collecting This Useful Big Data. Now How Do I Secure My IoT Connection?
Security is dependent on the product and the service it provides. As a result, engineers need to take into consideration the product and what might be on the network it is connected to. They then must theorize what might go wrong in the event of a hack.
You want to make sure your customers’ data is secure? Maybe ask a hacker to help. They aren’t all scary and ominous like the one shown here. Some make a living trying to hack into company systems to help find vulnerabilities.
In other words, security means something different for those who are designing IoT deadbolt locks than an IoT fan. But once that fan connects to the deadbolt, then things can get fishy.
“People look at the scenario at Target, which was a very high-profile security breach,” said Borders. “There was a lot to lose there, and I can’t believe how there was a loophole where the hackers hijacked the air conditioning and somehow ended up with a bunch of credit cards.”
“That was a massive failure on many fronts, not just smart devices,” he added. “Security means a lot of different things, and you need to think of the consequences if someone hijacks the control of a smart [device]. They might turn on and off a light and it might be annoying, but if someone hacks a security system, the repercussions are a lot greater. So we look at security at a bunch of different layers at the security stack.”
Another thing Borders notes is that security and privacy are not the same thing, although they are certainly connected. When collecting customer data from the IoT, it is important that the data that goes to sales is different from the data that gets to the design engineers. Engineers don’t care about your name and zip code. They care about how you use the product. As a result, it is best to use firewalls to separate this data to ensure the privacy of the users and to ensure that their personal information is secure.
To help ensure that no alarming errors exist in an IoT product’s security, Borders suggests that a company use third-party security audits on a regular basis. The last thing you want is to release a product that accidentally saves the Wi-Fi log-in information in plain text somewhere in the system. Mistakes like this can happen if you are not careful and you don’t look into your system. Performing regular audits of the product and company will help reduce the likelihood that these vulnerabilities will occur. So get in contact with a good white hat.
Finally, Borders suggests that security doesn’t rest solely on the engineers creating the products; users need to think about their own security as well. He suggests that users should use Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) 2 encryption for their networks and ensure that their passwords are complicated enough to limit hacking. He explained that it’s difficult for hackers to crack such an encryption. And if they can’t get into the network, they can’t control anything. He said, “WPA 2 is very important. That’s a layer of security that you just can’t overlook. So there is some fear mongering in the media.”
About the Author
Shawn Wasserman (@ShawnWasserman) is the Internet of Things (IoT) and Simulation Editor at ENGINEERING.com. He is passionate about ensuring engineers make the right decisions when using computer-aided engineering (CAE) software and IoT development tools. Shawn has a Masters in Bio-Engineering from the University of Guelph and a BASc in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo.