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Designing IoT products for many years of service

Designing IoT products for many years of service

When electronic devices stop working, our immediate reaction tends to be to bin them and buy something new. But this throwaway culture is not good for the planet, and we need to think differently. If devices lasted longer and were easier to fix, they could provide many years of good service before recycling. That saves precious materials and the energy needed to manufacture new products.

The problem is that most consumer products are not designed with long life or repair in mind. Consider the smartphones in our pockets. These have been designed to be feature-packed, sleek, and aesthetically pleasing, things that don’t make for easy repair. Instead, consumers are encouraged to upgrade to new versions every few years. So what’s the point of making them last longer?

Making products repairable

The good news is that change is afoot. For one, global tech giant Apple has indicated a desire to make its products more repairable. The company announced last year it would allow users to repair some iPhones, and in April, it released iPhone repair kits for several of its latest models.

Samsung has also started allowing users to self-repair their devices with kits available for select models. Other major tech companies, including Google, are anticipating the release of self-repair services. And the iFixit website, among others, provides free user-submitted instructions on how to repair thousands of consumer electronics devices.

Beyond consumer electronics, there are already billions of IoT devices across the globe that would also benefit from being ‘designed for repair.’ And tomorrow, there will be billions more. Robust design, upgradable software, and very long life from batteries are already helping IoT products based on Nordic technology last for a very long time. Making those same devices easy to repair when they finally do fail would see them remain in service for even longer.

Time for a rethink

Both consumer electronics and IoT devices need semiconductors to support on-device processing and wireless connectivity. And before the pandemic, it was assumed there would be an unlimited number of chips to satisfy this demand (and the demand from all the other places silicon chips are used). This made production planning relatively simple for manufacturers. But a skyrocketing appetite for electronics coupled with production constraints during the pandemic has resulted in a squeeze on supply.

At the same time, extraction of lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite—the raw materials at the heart of the batteries powering most portable electronics—is struggling to meet soaring demand, according to a report by business data and analytics firm, GlobalData.

BCS, a global IT industry body, argues that a primary driver of the strain on semiconductor supply has been the constant demand for upgraded products every few years. According to Alex Bardell from BCS, the underlying challenge that must be addressed is the very short life span of the devices themselves. If developers prioritized longevity and repairability in their designs, fewer chips would be needed.

Sustainability advantages

The constant demand for new gadgets has implications beyond chip logistics. Today, smartphone manufacturing alone has an annual carbon footprint equal to that of a small country. Moreover, smartphones comprise 10 percent of global e-waste – which contains toxic substances that can be dangerous to human health and the environment if not disposed of properly.

The call from bodies like BCS for more durable products, supported for longer and more suitable to repair, engenders an approach not only for more sustainability in chip supply, but also for the health of the planet.

A report commissioned by Microsoft found that repairing a product instead of replacing it can reduce potential waste and greenhouse emissions by 92 percent. While the study partly focused on devices being taken to an approved service center or shipped to a factory, this projection was also based on designing devices in ways that make them easier to fix.

Durable chip architecture

Chip companies are taking a positive approach to sustainability. Nordic Semiconductor, for instance, is committed to contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It actively supports customers looking for alternatives to one-time or minimal usage solutions and enthusiastically supports IoT applications to optimize resources in energy, travel, transport, agriculture, manufacturing, waste handling, and smart cities. Nordic strongly favors trying to extend the lifetime of products using its chips for as long as practical.

The company’s technology is designed to help end-product makers meet this goal. In the first instance, Nordic creates technology with the future in mind. Its chip architecture is designed with powerful processors and lots of memory to cope with not only what innovative designers come up with today but also to cope with what they might come up with tomorrow. That means today's Nordic-powered devices could still be doing their jobs in ten years.

Better yet, firmware can be easily upgraded over the air, extending the life of hardware and allowing in-situ IoT devices to be upgraded to new applications. Nordic also makes its products backward compatible so that tomorrow's products will seamlessly connect with today's.

The outlook will be even more promising if we continue towards a battery-free IoT world through energy harvesting from the environment, which promises to eliminate battery replacements in IoT sensors.

By designing electronic products so they can be fixed rather than discarded and equipping them to last for a long time, manufacturers will be making a big difference towards a sustainable future.

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