IoT Hardware Development: Component Selection Pitfalls

Living the Dream

Developing a new product, especially an IoT hardware product, can be very exciting. The desire to start with a blank slate provides the opportunity to specify the optimal set of requirements to provide exceptional performance with robust reliability at the lowest possible cost.

And, then you wake up.

The harsh realization sets in that the new product’s requirements will be a soul-crushing, iterative exercise of compromises that, in the end, will only satisfy the most essential requirements.

Build vs Buy

Do you really need to design and build a custom IoT hardware product?


Are you sure?

If you can buy a product directly from a supplier today that meets most of the requirements, you should strongly consider this approach to reduce your time-to-market risk and to substantially lower your development costs.

However, sourcing an IoT hardware product from a 3rd party is not without its own risks as you invariably give up some element of control.

Unless you’re sourcing an industry-standard product, you will become highly dependent upon the product’s manufacturer, and potentially its distributors and resellers, too. The product quality, reliability, and cost, as well as post-sale service for support and warranty claims, should be key factors in your supplier selection criteria.

Another key consideration is the expected order delivery time. For example, if a supplier has limited stock or builds-to-order, long lead times can severely impair your ability to fulfill orders quickly for your customers.

In the worst case, the supplier may stop supplying the product at any time without advance notice which can be a nightmare.

Are You a Control Freak?

C’mon, admit it!

You’re never going to source an IoT hardware product when you can develop and build it yourself, right?

The impulse to control every minute detail of the product specification can be all-consuming. Clearly, you will have to moderate the desired level of customization to meet the timeline, the development budget, the target price, and the expected lifecycle maintenance cost goals. Unless you want to develop everything from scratch, you will need to use some off-the-shelf (“OTS”) components for your product.

Using OTS components reduces the development risk, time, and cost. However, the trade-off is that you will be dependent upon the component suppliers.

Risky Business

Ideally, you would prefer to deal with a reputable supplier with a long-established history. In theory, suppliers with brand name recognition should be ideal suppliers, but in a dynamic technology market even historically solid companies can have issues. The recent semiconductor consolidation activity will certainly drive product-line rationalization to prune similar product lines and to exit altogether ones in undesirable market segments.  Furthermore, even many established suppliers only provide new product announcements when they are released to avoid sales slowdown for existing versions.

Innovation creates not only new technologies and new components but also new suppliers.

Unfortunately, new suppliers are at high risk of going out of business rapidly. Additionally, they risk being acquired by a larger competitor who may discontinue the component lines unexpectedly with short or no advance notice.

To ameliorate the perceived risk, new suppliers will often offer long-term supply stock guarantees.

But just how good is a 10-year guarantee from a company that has only been in business for two years?

If you must use a new component supplier with a short history, you should develop a contingency plan to address what you would do if the new supplier closed its doors today.

Buyer Beware

There is an abundance of inexpensive hardware components available on the worldwide market from a bevy of discounters, brokers, liquidators, and even 2 guys in a garage in Elbonia who sell their wares on global online tech bazaars such as eBay or Alibaba.

Beware! Many low-cost components available on the global market are not sold through reputable channels. Unless they are authorized distributors any quality issues will not be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. In the worst case, the components may even be counterfeit and may not meet the quality standards of the genuine manufacturer.

Finally, even if you obtain components through legitimate international suppliers, it is highly unlikely that agreements with foreign entities can be cost-effectively enforced in case of a dispute.

If you must source components through 3rd party channels, you need to ensure a much higher level of scrutiny of these suppliers in your contingency plan.

Target Market Matters

It is crucial that you select components that are targeted at your intended market. Similar performance parts may be available for a variety of application in consumer, industrial, automotive, military, or space markets. The cost difference can be 2x, 10x, or even 100x between different grade components. Although they may be similar in appearance and the part numbers may only vary by a single alphanumeric digit, lower grade components used for applications with harsher environmental requirements will likely fail in the field.

The Circle of Life

Component lifecycles are frequently driven by the lifecycles of the products for which they are marketed. Aerospace and military-grade components have the longest lifecycles, followed by automotive, medical, industrial, and consumer.

Consumer-grade parts are targeted at high volume products that have lifespans of less than one year such as consumer electronics products including PCs, smartphones, and tablets.

The long-term availability of these components is suspect. As soon as these products are no longer in production, the supply of the cheap components incorporated in these products will evaporate quickly. Savvy suppliers, who have already amortized their development costs, will offload components to liquidators who will acquire the remaining stock at fire-sale prices. Liquidators may or may not make these parts available to the public marketplace as they seek the best financial returns for their investment. Certainly, the component availability will decrease over time and prices may quickly escalate as the remaining stock is consumed.

While the lifecycle for components for the aerospace, medical, and automotive markets is generally longer than the industrial and consumer markets, the best approach to mitigate component availability risk is different. Usually, for these markets, the regulatory requirements and qualification procedures erect significant barriers to component substitution in terms of cost and time. To overcome these barriers, it is important to build a robust alternative material list early in the development process so that equivalent components can be qualified all at once. Because higher grade components typically have smaller volumes and longer lead times, you must vigilantly monitor the component markets to secure enough stock over the product lifetime.

The Dreaded EOL

Whether you decide to source an IoT hardware product from a supplier or decide to build your own, it is necessary to review the supplier’s End-of-Life (“EOL”) policy which specifies the period of availability and the subsequent support duration after the supplier has announced the discontinuation of the product or the component.

If the supplier does not include an EOL policy in its standard terms and conditions of sale, the supplier may stop providing the product or component at any time without advance notice. Moreover, it may discontinue providing any service or support, as well.

Even when an EOL notice is provided, the response time to place last time buy orders is limited. And, there is almost always some level of price increase.  While most EOL notices from reputable suppliers will be honored, be assured that in the fine print legalese of their EOL policies there are always escape clauses for the supplier. And, no sensible supplier will continue to provide a product or component at a loss over the long-term.

For IoT hardware products, you must either identify equivalent products or execute agreements with reputable, long-term partners to secure a stable product supply.

In order to mitigate EOL risk, these agreements should include:

  • A license to the intellectual property (“IP”) to produce the product should it be discontinued by the OEM.
  • Access the native design files so that you can continue to maintain the product.
  • An introduction to existing manufacturing partners and suppliers in order to negotiate with them directly should the OEM exit the market.

It is best to negotiate this agreement well in advance of the EOL notification by the supplier. For example, an escrow agreement provides a legal mechanism by which a 3rd party can provide access to the necessary product design information in the case of bankruptcy, the sale of the company, or some other trigger event that would affect availability and/or delivery of the product.

Dealing with Reality

Products and components will not be available forever. You must diligently plan for the day when they are no longer readily available.

To ensure that you create a sourcing strategy that avoids common component pitfalls.

  • Select components from vetted, reliable suppliers.
  • Build an alternative material list for as many components as possible to enable flexible sourcing options and competitive pricing, especially if your product requires rigorous regulatory testing or onerous qualification procedures.
  • Identify any unique or single-sourced components and create contingency plans for them.
  • Review suppliers’ EOL policies for their components.

You will need to continually monitor your suppliers and the components provided by them over your product’s entire lifecycle, so you can sleep soundly at night.

A third option is to outsource the entire process to a professional third party manufacturing company experienced in Supply Chain logistics, BOM rationalization, and Value Analysis Value engineering. They can manage it all for you for less than it would take for you to put the staff and capital in place to do it yourself. Most companies find this option is well worth looking into. Learn more today by reaching out to one of our professional Business Development team members.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Market Trends Impacting IoT Hardware Lifecycle

With rapid innovation comes rapid obsolescence.

Every day there are industry announcements for new platforms, new sensors, and new wireless technologies for IoT applications. While often overlooked, these IoT hardware solutions that capture, process, and transmit sensor data have inherent lifecycle issues that must be proactively managed.

Unidentified technology dependencies can cripple an IoT solution deployment just as it’s beginning to scale or can substantially escalate the maintenance and operating costs that undermine the business case assumptions.

Either scenario is a disaster from a business perspective.

Lifecycle Impacts

Frequently IoT devices will need to be available for 3, 5, 10 years, or more which requires vigilance to actively manage component lifecycles.

Otherwise, the consequences will force costly, unplanned design iterations.

Not only does this multiply the initial development investment, but it will also greatly increase the complexity of managing a plethora of heterogeneous IoT devices comprised of numerous disparate hardware and software revisions.

There are several IoT market trends that are driving lifecycle risks for IoT products.

Standards? We don’t need no stinkin’ standards

In general, standards drive costs lower by increasing competition among suppliers and by driving volume production. However, with hundreds of emerging standards, it’s circumspect that history is littered with promising standards that never gained sufficient market traction that either died outright or that have been regulated to niche applications and never gained broad industry acceptance.

While there are over 450 platforms of emerging IoT standards and related working groups, there is no existing market consensus for IoT standards. Although there are companies working to help consolidate IoT platforms, it is unlikely that standards will converge in the near future.

Wireless – Times They Are a-Changin’

For IoT platforms, there are big changes in the wireless networking space with a wide variety of competing technologies.

On the surface, one might assume that technology which uses licensed radio standard would be the most stable choice. However, recent history demonstrates that as technology evolves and the usage for legacy applications decreases, such as for paging and wireless microphones, the FCC will move to reallocate frequency spectrum for other more popular services such as cellular data services.

For cellular networks, the sunset for 2G and 3G networks is ongoing while futuristic 5G networks are already being rolled out in test deployments. Finally, cellular CAT-1M and NB-IoT are technologies that address key IoT requirements such as minimizing power consumption, limited data rates, and aggressive unit cost targets.

An emerging challenger to cellular networks’ dominance for WAN class IoT applications is a group of competing LPWAN technologies, for licensed and unlicensed spectrum, that include both proprietary and open standards to support IoT applications with low data rates and extended ranges.

For short-to-midrange networks, Bluetooth, ZigBee/802.15.4, and WiFi will continue to dominate. Bluetooth is ready for IoT with the most recent standard adding not only low energy capabilities (BLE) but also multi-point network connectivity. Novel Wi-Fi™ modules with very low power consumption work well for IoT defined area networking applications that require low latency, higher data rates, and simple connectivity to existing private networks. While ZigBee/802.15.4 networks still find niche applications that need dynamic, mesh network configurations paired with low power sensors.

Semiconductor Consolidation

“…technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.” – the Borg

As the semiconductor industry continues to consolidate, the inevitable wave of PCN (“Product Change Notice”), EOL (“End-of-Life”), and LTB (“Last-time-Buy”) notices will accelerate as unprofitable, legacy product lines are rationalized and replaced by newer models that leverage updated process technologies.

This is not only a concern for new designs, but it also impacts existing products that are already deployed in the field. For long-lived applications with extended lifecycles, obsolete components can impair the ability to repair and to provide replacement products.

These impacts are exacerbated by product regulatory requirements from government agencies such as the FCC, FDA, or FAA of from industry bodies such as PTCRB for cellular certifications that require additional testing, filings, approvals, and documentation that increase the time and cost for each design cycle.

Knock, Knock – Addressing Emerging Security Threats

It is very likely field software upgrades will be REQUIRED for any IoT product over its lifecycle. Not only for bug fixes or feature updates but to deal with the never-ending scourge of emerging security threats.

Daily, IT security professionals update software to patch security vulnerabilities in PCs and servers. The tools and techniques to combat threats are mature, but constantly evolving to address increasingly sophisticated attacks.

Most IoT platforms are embedded systems that may not have the necessary toolsets and software to combat security threats. Unfortunately, this security through obscurity myth was shown to be vulnerable by the Mirai botnet attack as well as several other attacks.


These are just a few of the market trends that continue to impact IoT hardware development. Each trend should be fully considered and addressed for any product lifecycle strategy.

IoT Hardware 101 – The Basics

Most of the IoT (“Internet-of-Things”) hype is about a futuristic vision that has billions of devices generating massive data streams that will be fed into advanced machine learning and AI (“Artificial Intelligence”) systems to create enormous business value. However, often overshadowed in these grandiose discussions is the IoT hardware which makes it all possible.

What is IoT?

IoT is a system of sensor devices, servers, and people connected via IP (“Internet Protocol”) networks. Sensor devices capture and process sensor data, transmit the sensor data to servers where the data is stored and processed in conjunction with other data, often historical data, from disparate sources to provide operational visibility and to generate novel insights that can be acted upon by people or by automated systems.

IoT is a paradigm shift away from vertically integrated, standalone monitoring and alarm systems that silo data and that can only provide pre-programmed reports and alerts. While these legacy systems are limited to either 1:1 (one-to-one) or 1:N (one-to-many) communication pathways, IoT systems enable M:N (many-to-many) communications pathways that allow developers to reconfigure existing systems to create new IoT applications that were not previously conceived.

Sensor devices are composed of four key elements: sensors, processors, network interfaces, and power sources.


Without sensors, there is no IoT data.

At a basic level, all IoT sensors generate analog electrical signals that are proportional to a physical property. Then, these analog signals are converted to digital data using ADCs (“Analog-to-Digital Converter”).

Sensors can measure simple electrical properties such as voltage, current, resistance, capacitance, inductance, and impedance. They can also measure the strength and direction of electric and magnetic fields, especially changing ones, across the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to light to gamma rays.

For sensors that measure non-electrical properties, a transducer converts physical properties into analog electrical signals.

Common physical properties are:

• Spatial parameters such as acceleration, velocity/speed, vibration, and displacement/position/deflection.
• Environmental properties such as temperature and humidity.
• Fluid dynamics of liquids or gases such as sound, pressure, and flow rates.

Sensors may be passive or active. Active sensors emit radio, light, or sound waves into the environment and detect reflections using a receiver that processes them into measurements. Although passive sensors do not emit waves into the environment, this does not imply that passive sensors are unpowered. In fact, many passive sensors generate electric or magnetic fields and detect changes to these fields as a sensing mechanism.

Advanced digital sensors such a GPS, radars, chemical detectors, gyroscopes, or digital cameras use multiple analog sensing elements to take measurements. Then, sophisticated algorithms translate these raw measurements into useful sensor data.


Once the sensor data is captured it must be processed before transmitting the results to the cloud. The level of processing varies greatly depending upon the complexity of the sensor and the amount of data processing required to generate the resultant sensor data. A simple example is a temperature reading may be a single data value or an average of a set of values over time. A more complex example is a security camera that may not record digital video unless a scene detection algorithm flags an event.

Based on the complexity and processing power required there are four classes of processing platforms for IoT hardware: PC, mobile systems, microprocessor (MPU) based embedded systems, and microcontroller (MCU) based embedded systems.

  PCs Mobile Embedded MPUs Embedded MCU
Processor x86 (32/64) bit Varies (32/64 bit) Varies (32/64 bit) Varies (8/32 bit)
Clock Speed / Cores GHz / Multi-core GHz / Multi-core Varies MHz / Single-core
Storage HDD / SSD (TB) SSD / SD Card (GB) HDD/SSD (GB), Flash (MB), SD Card (GB) NOR/NAND Flash (kB/MB)
Peripheral Bus USB, PCIe USB-OTG USB, TWI, I2C, SPI, USART, Proprietary TWI, I2C, SPI, USART
Avg System Cost $100s to $3,000 $100 to $1,000 Varies $5-$50
Networking Ethernet, WiFi™, Bluetooth™ WiFi™, Bluetooth™, NFC Varies Proprietary RF or BLE™
Graphics Integrated Graphics or Graphics Card Integrated Graphics Varies Simple text or char display
Cooling Active (Fans) Passive Active or Passive Not usually  required
Power Line powered (desktop)

Rechargeable Li-Ion battery (laptop)

Rechargeable Li-Ion battery Line powered Battery powered

PC Based Systems

The PC is the ultimately configurable platform that enables system integrators to create custom systems easily from inexpensive, widely available off-the-shelf motherboards, processors, memory, power supplies, and cases. Terabyte hard drives or SSDs (“Solid State Drive”) can provide large data storage capacities. Peripherals can be connected via modern standards-based USB (“Universal Serial Bus”) or PCIe (“Peripheral Component Interconnect Express”) buses, and there are still options to support legacy PC peripheral buses such as RS-232/RS-422/RS-485.

Furthermore, there are even expansion processor cards that include DSPs, FPGAs, GPUs, or high speed I/O to address the needs of specialized applications.

While PCs have an excellent price-to-performance ratio, they are based on consumer-grade technology which tends to have short life cycles and may not be suitable for applications outside of the office or home environments.

An alternative to PCs are SBCs (“Single Board Computer”) that are based on PC technology, but designed for embedded applications with robust, industrial components to provide reliable performance in harsh operating environments.

Because SBCs have higher grade components and the production volumes for SBCs are relatively low, they are more expensive than equivalent performance PC based hardware. However, they usually have long lifecycles that can span up to a decade

PC-based systems usually run Windows or Linux operating systems.

Mobile Systems

Mobile systems are a specialized subset of embedded systems that are optimized for tablets and smartphones which are battery-powered devices that require frequent charging. While these inherently personal devices provide high-performance processing capabilities, they also have advanced system power management capabilities that enable them to conserve energy which extends battery life.

Mobile systems typically have many integrated sensors including 1 or 2 digital cameras, a 3D accelerometer, a gyroscope, a touch sensor, a barometer, a proximity sensor, a magnetometer (compass), an ambient light sensor, and a GPS receiver.

Unfortunately, mobile systems have very limited expansion capabilities.

While Android-based systems may allow expansion through USB OTG (“On-The-Go”) devices, Apple based systems only permit approved 3rd party devices through the MFI (“Made-for-iPod”) licensing program.

Mobile systems have a relatively expensive price-to-performance ratio. They are personal devices based on consumer-grade technology with short lifecycles. They are limited to operation in indoor or mild outdoor environments, and they are also relatively fragile and susceptible to drop damage unless enclosed in a 3rd party ruggedized case.

Although there are a few other options, Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS are the most dominant software environments for mobile systems.

Microprocessor (MPU) Based Embedded Systems

MPU based embedded systems provide the widest possible range of performance and capability options that are optimized to address specific product requirements for consumer electronics, industrial controls, medical devices, automotive controls, communication systems, or other vertical market applications.

They are usually based on application specific ICs (“Integrated Circuits”) such as SoCs (“System-on-Chip”) or SIPs (“System-in-Package”) that have integrated chip-level cores that simplify the design effort and provide cost-optimized solutions for specific product niches.

MPU’s typically run general purpose, multi-tasking operating systems or RTOSs (“Real-Time Operating System”) that provide deterministic responses for control-based applications.

While most embedded systems are fully custom designed, some SoCs are available in SOM (“System-on-Module”) form factors with standardized mating connectors. SOMs enable developers to avoid the difficult and time-consuming work to design a custom embedded system from scratch. Instead, the designers can focus on designing carrier PCBs and on developing software to customize their product.

MPU based embedded systems can run Linux or a variety of other commercial RTOSs (“Real-Time Operating System”).

Microcontroller (MCU) Based Embedded Systems

MCU based embedded systems provide very low-cost solutions for applications with limited processing requirements.

However, some advanced microcontrollers embed specialized hardware modules to accelerate image processing or security functions such as cryptographic acceleration for public/private key exchange, hashing, and TRNG (“True Random Number Generation”).

MCU based systems can be very power efficient because they have fine-grained power control of the processor, peripherals, and clocks. With power optimized internal or external wake-up sources, it is possible to create very low power products that can last for many years without requiring a battery charge.

System software may be a simple run-loop plus interrupt handler or it may run a small footprint RTOS.

Network Interface

While some IoT hardware connects via physical networks such as Ethernet, it is much more common to connect to the Internet via wireless networks such as Wi-Fi™ or cellular.

Power vs Range vs Data Rate

The classic design tradeoffs for wireless communication systems are low power, long distance, or high data rate. (Pick two!)

Network Type Range Power Data Rate Licensed Frequencies
Wi-Fi™ (802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax) Medium High High No 2.4/5 GHz
White-Fi / Super Wi-Fi (802.11af) Long Medium Medium No 54-698 MHz
HaLow (802.11ah) Long Medium Medium No 915 MHz
Bluetooth™ Short Medium Medium No 2.4 GHz
Bluetooth™ Low Energy (BLE) Short Low Low to Medium No 2.4 GHz
802.15.4 / ZigBee™ Medium Low Low No 2.4 GHz
Proprietary RF Varies Varies Varies No 868/915 MHz
LPWAN – SigFox™ Long Very Low Very Low No 868/915 MHz
LPWAN – LoRA™/Symphony Very Long Very Low Low No 433/868/915 MHz
LPWAN – Ingenu Medium to Long Low Low No 2.4 GHz
LPWAN – Weightless Long Low to Medium Low to Medium No 470-790 MHz
Cellular – 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G Long High High Yes 3GPP Regional Bands
Cellular – CAT-1M Long Low Low Yes 3GPP Regional Bands
Cellular – NB-IoT Long Very Low Very Low Yes 3GPP Regional Bands

 Licensed vs Unlicensed Bands

Governmental authorities regulate access to the electromagnetic spectrum. They may grant licenses to people or entities to operate wireless transmitters within a specified frequency band at a maximum power level within a certain geographic region.

Often a wireless network services provider that holds an exclusive frequency license, such as a cellular service provider, will provide access to its network to other users for a fee. In this case, the service provider is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the wireless network.

Access to certain frequency bands is available to users without a license if they use an approved wireless communication system that complies with the regulations necessary for unlicensed operation. These wireless communication systems must have intelligent coexistence mechanisms such as carrier sensing or frequency agility to compensate for in-band interference from other systems that operate concurrently within the same unlicensed bands.

Unlicensed networks, such as Wi-Fi™ networks, are usually operated and maintained by users at their own cost.

Power Source

The simplest power solution for IoT hardware is to use line power from the electric power grid.

However, many emerging IoT applications cannot use line power because it is not readily accessible in the deployment area and it would be prohibitively difficult or expensive to run additional power lines.

Energy Harvesting

For IoT hardware with low power requirements, novel energy harvesting technologies such as piezo-based vibrational, thermopiles, and hydrodynamic or wind turbines can be viable, but solar panels are still the most popular choice. Although it is technically possible to power IoT hardware directly from these energy sources, a better option is to store the energy for later use.

Energy Storage

While esoteric energy storage systems continue to evolve such as banks of supercapacitors or fuel cells, old, but reliable battery technologies are still the most popular energy storage choice for off-grid IoT hardware.

With a variety of chemistries and construction types, batteries offer a broad range of options for package sizes, energy capacities, voltage ranges, and current delivery capabilities. Some even offer specialized features that minimize self-discharge, support high pulse currents, operate at extreme temperatures or provide extended lifecycles of up to a decade or more.


As you can see, there are a plethora of sensor, processing, networking, and power supply technologies available to create IoT hardware to meet the technical performance requirements for applications in the healthcare, transportation, industrial, automotive, smart cities, and other niche IoT market segments.

The key is to combine the appropriate technologies that meet the essential technical performance requirements while satisfying the necessary business constraints to create a viable IoT solution.



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