Power and automation are two areas that stand to see significant gains from modern sensor, processing and communication technology.
Vivek Sharma, regional vice president, greater China and South Asia region – India operations, director – India design centres, STMicroelectronics, speaks with Dilin Anand, senior assistant editor at EFY.
Q. How has sensor technology changed?
A. The beauty of this element is not that a sensor like the accelerometer is something very new; it was indeed there since a very long time. What has changed is that it has been miniaturised and the volume production has made it is so cost-effective that you can put it almost everywhere. It started as a component in numerous applications such as mobiles and tablets, but you can now see it in industrial equipment, toys, medical electronics, wearables and even safety in vehicles.
Q. Automotive infotainment seems to be a very exciting segment too, what’s happening here?
A. This is the most vibrant, where lots of activity is going on and it has definitely migrated from what used to be just a compact disc (CD) player, to something that provides all the navigation you need on your car – like global positioning system (GPS) and connected cars. You no longer just monitor car conditions, but also transmit them online. This means that if you have given your car to your friend, you will be able to see what is happening apart from where the car is through GPS. You can also see how he is driving, like whether he is aggressive in using it and get all those usage signatures. This will be most helpful for people who are running fleets of buses or trucks. Even the fuel consumption could be monitored and optimised through this. So connected vehicles are going to be very important.
Q. What is the most exciting thing about Industrial Internet?
A. The Industrial Internet is a very beautiful thing. Because the industrial cycle is like a supply chain, you can let these devices communicate among themselves and thus be able to reduce a lot of burden on humans. It will help to enable part requirements and production management to be done by computers, thus speeding up the process and enabling humans to work on the more intellectual challenges. For instance, if a machine’s health is deteriorating, you can have the machine communicate to you when the health hits a set low and it will let you know exactly when to interfere and not before.
Q. What is the difference between the automation we previously had and now?
A. Even in the old air conditioner at home, the thermostat is communicating with the air compressor. It checks the room temperature and when the temperature goes down from a particular limit, it stops the compressor. It was previously happening within the machine, but the real change between the past and today is that the Internet flattens everything and allows all machines to come on to the same platform.
Q. Could you give an example of the current automation system?
A. Let’s take a fictitious process. In the whole manufacturing process, there are some areas where parts are depleted because of a higher rejection rate or some other event. This has caused the inventory to go down. In the past what happens is that someone needs to notice this and communicate it so that the person in charge works on improving the supply. However, with modern technology, this will be done automatically because the sensor counting the inventory is connected to the supply chain and will let the department know instantaneously when there are more goods required.
Q. A captive machine network is considered more secure than the Internet. What are your views on this?
A. A network of only machines would be a captive network, and there would be security benefits here. One big challenge when we step into the Internet of Things via the open Internet would be the security aspect. Things are communicating with other machines, and this inherently enables them to communicate with external entities also. If they are making the decisions based on the information coming from someone else then it could be used to sabotage the system by providing the wrong information without even having to command the system. However, security is improving. Ten years back we were very shy on doing banking transactions online due to security issues, but today the technology has matured and people use Internet banking on a daily basis. We can expect a similar shift in this space too.
Q. What role has integration played to help the Internet of Things?
A. We have always gone towards higher and higher integration. We started with small chips and kept on integrating more features and blocks into it. We had sensors in the beginning, after which we then brought in more sensors into the mix to create a sensor hub for engineers. Bringing embedded microcontrollers and a communication system to it followed this, and the result is the self-contained unit we see today.
Q. What effect do you feel open source hardware has had on engineers?
A. What inspires any human race is freedom. We do not like jails for that same reason. So our inherent direction is to be free. Today the biggest motivation for these engineers to be excited with electronics would be the freedom that they have with these few building blocks. They can virtually create whatever they want using these building blocks. They are not a limiting factor now. For me as an engineer this would be the highest motivation – to be able to think widely and free. When I was a student the microcontroller was not so cost competitive that I could put it anywhere, which inhibited my interest in wanting to use it for development.
Q. Is there a possibility that this might trickle from circuits on to chips too?
A. Let’s say we have a microcontroller that is based on open hardware. Now even if I changed a block to suit a design of mine, the challenge will be that I would still need to manufacture it — and manufacturing is a volume game. If I am getting the current microcontroller from STMicroelectronics at 32 cents, it is because the company manufactures it in the millions. The moment I change a block, it will have to be manufactured separately and this going to cost me a bomb if the volumes are not there. Therefore the open hardware in chips is affected by the high production cost of low volume chip manufacturing.