How machine-to-machine communications benefit suppliers and customers

Paul Boughton
For many years high-value products such as aero engines have been supplied on the basis of 'sale of service' rather than 'sale of goods' - by which it is meant that the customer pays an ongoing fee for the use of an aero engine, while the supplier provides an engine and a full support service for the contracted period. Now the concept is spreading to cater for customers of lower-value products.

The 'sale of service' model is a step beyond conventional leasing, as the supplier can take responsibility for the operating costs as well as the capital cost. This means that the supplier needs detailed knowledge of how the products are being used. Furthermore, collecting diagnostic data can enable the supplier to schedule a service visit instead of having to respond in the event of a breakdown.

Whatever those products may be, from industrial robots and cars, to refrigerators and office printers, the supplier needs to collect the data without hindering the consumer's use of the products, and at as low a cost as possible. Remote monitoring using machine-to-machine (M2M) communications is becoming increasingly popular for this task.

Machine components such as programmable logic controllers and industrial drives are often available with an Ethernet port, with the manufacturers highlighting the benefits of remote communications via the factory's local area network (LAN). However, factory IT managers do not always permit industrial equipment to be connected to the network, citing security concerns.

Ethernet connections offer many advantages, including providing access via the internet so a product can be monitored automatically - or by a service engineer, regardless of where the product and engineer are located. One way to provide an Ethernet connection without accessing a LAN is by using the same data communication technology found in mobile telephones, typically GSM (the Global System for Mobile communications), which is incorporated within the second-generation, 2G, mobile telephony standard, and is the standard still supported in 3G systems. GPS now has extensive coverage worldwide and support for it is likely to continue even after service providers have introduced 4G.[Page Break]

Market growth

Berg Insight, a firm of market analysts specialising in telecommunications, estimates that the number of cellular network connections worldwide used for M2M communication will grow from 47.7 million connections in 2008 to 187.1 million connections in 2014, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.6per cent. The analysts believe that this growth will result from M2M communications being used in millions of motor vehicles, utility meters, point-of-sale terminals, security alarms and other machines.

For manufactures that want an easy route to integrating M2M communications within their products, Eseye offers a system based around SIM (subscriber identity module) cards using GSM technology. Eseye emphasises that it offers a complete end-to-end service, though customers can choose to make use of just the elements of the service that they need. This is in contrast to companies that simply issue SIM cards.

As part of the service, Eseye can help in the early stages of a project by, for example, minimising the data that is sent, which reduces the network charges payable by the customer. For products manufactured in small volumes, such as factory automation, a standard modem module can be used, together with a conventional SIM card. However, for higher-volume goods, Eseye can develop custom embedded modules. In applications where space and weight are critical, the module can incorporate a chip SIM instead of a SIM card.

Another important aspect of the service provided by Eseye is that the company takes care of which telecommunications network is used. Eseye says it works with all the major networks worldwide so can ensure that customers get the most cost-effective service. Furthermore, a local network is always used, regardless of where in the world the product is located, which can be as much as two orders of magnitude cheaper than paying roaming charges for data.

On products that only send data occasionally, Eseye can configure the system so that the SIM remains dormant and incurs no network charges. However, if the product's self-diagnostic system detects a fault, or another pre-defined event occurs, the SIM is enabled and granted temporary access to the network for 24 hours so that service engineers can interrogate the product, collect more data, perform further tests and, if need be, reconfigure settings, upload software updates or take other appropriate action. As far as the engineer is concerned, it is no different to communicating with the machine via an IP address.

As part of its end-to-end service, Eseye can also provide custom PDF reporting and/or web-based interfaces so customers can view data received or interact with the M2M-enabled products via a web browser.[Page Break]

Electric vehicles

Eseye operates in a variety of different markets but, earlier in 2011, it joined with Liberty Electric Vehicles, which specialises in electric vehicle technologies and vehicles, to develop M2M systems for electric vehicles. Drivers want traffic news and updates to satellite navigation systems; manufacturers want access to vehicle performance and diagnostic data; and passengers want Wi-Fi access for email and the internet. Drivers of electric vehicles also need to know the charging status or they may want to defrost the vehicle's windows or preheat the seats while the vehicle is still attached to the charging point. And they may want to do all this from a remote computer or mobile device. Eseye has therefore established a strategic relationship with Liberty Electric Vehicles to develop features for the electric car of the future, making use of M2M connectivity (Fig. 1).

Meanwhile, the Nissan Leaf, which is described as the world's first mass-produced, 100 per cent electric, zero-emission car, is equipped with a Carwings intelligent transport (IT) system that connects the car to Nissan's Carwings Data Centre. This system, implemented by Telenor Connexion, gives owners access to data at all times, whether they are in the car or elsewhere (Fig. 2). Features on the Nissan Carwings system that were claimed to be unique when it was introduced at the end of 2010 include electric vehicle battery status monitoring, usage history and remote control of the air conditioning.

Conventional SIM cards are often the most appropriate way to implement M2M on a product but, where space and weight are critical, a surface-mount chip SIM can be better (Fig. 3). Companies such as Giesecke & Devrient (G&D) manufacture both SIM cards and chip SIMs, and G&D's M2M portfolio also includes highly durable and long-lasting SIM cards that are suitable for use in environments that are more harsh than those in which mobile telephones are expected to operate (Fig.4, see below); for example, G&D offers SIM cards that will operate in temperatures ranging from -40 to +105° C.

We have earlier mentioned some examples of M2M applications in the automotive industry, but the costs associated with developing, implementing and operating M2M systems are reducing. Other areas where M2M is being implemented now extend from medical equipment to industrial robots, and from white goods to monitoring of food in transit (see panel). Data security is assured, as illustrated by the fact that banking systems are already using M2M technology. Although adding M2M increases product costs slightly, many manufacturers are finding that the benefits to themselves and their customers are making the investment very attractive.

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