Thailand as the next destination for IoT development for makers
In recent weeks there have been a surge of updates and activities by tireless geeks, hackers, makers and developers, burning up all their midnight oils in trying to wrap their heads around a latest cool product in the attempt to make it perform its very first blink or get the first “httprequest”. Popularly known to its own fans as the “ESP32”, it is already a product that thousands of hardcore followers worldwide are waiting patiently for. Since its release in early September, the development activities to create new development boards and porting of the software releases have certainly went on high gear.
This ‘wonder’ chip is the latest Internet of Things (IoT) incarnation released by Shanghai-based, Espressif Systems. It combines both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (BT) capabilities within its dual CPU core and a rich accompaniment of hardware peripherals. Designed as an ultra low power chip using TSMC 40nm technology, it employs a customised CPU design based on the Cadence® Tensilica® Xtensa® Dual-Core 32-bit LX6 600 DMIPS. Like its popular predecessor the ESP8266, this chipset is a low-cost alternative to other existing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth solutions in the market. The popularity of the ESP8266 especially among the maker and hacker community has certainly raised the expectations for this product. Not only that it has more processing power, more GPIOs and other peripherals, it also feature standard BT and its low energy (BLE) modes. This allows it to be used from making wearables to secure low latency media applications.
While a lot of attention has been on Espressif System’s own development board, known as the ESP32-DevKitC, something is concurrently being brewed up north in the land of many smiles: Thailand. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the Thailand Science Park to witness the first production run of the Nano32, the first third-party development board for the ESP32. Designed and produced jointly by two well-known names in Thailand (if not the world), Gravitech and MakerAsia, the Nano32 offers another refreshing design alternative to the development kit. Both founders of Gravitech (Dr Sharnon “Pan” Tulabadi) and MakerAsia (Dr Panutat “Jimmy” Tejasen) have been instrumental in bringing the likes of Arduino Nano and Espresso Lite microcontrollers to the mainstream embedded electronics market.
The production run of the Nano32 that took place at Gravitech’s Home of Makers 200-sqm R&D and manufacturing facility located at the Thailand Science Park (in Pathum Thani province near Rangsit, about 6o km north of Bangkok city) is significant for a few reasons. Firstly, it establishes Thailand as not only producers of electronics for the maker market but also demonstrates the ability to co-innovate and co-develop head-to-head with a chipmaker (Espressif) at a very early stage. The Nano32 project spares no effort bringing together the talents (not limiting to Thailand only) together to design something different that can even rival Espressif’s own reference boards. For instance, Espressif’s version of its development board uses the ESP32 as a packaged module. On the other hand, the Nano32 uses the ESP32 in its tiny QFN package, assembled separately with other peripherals such as 40Mhz CPU crystal, 8Mb flash memory, USB to Serial FTDI231 and a ceramic antenna. As a result, the bill of materials (BOM) costs for Nano32 may be higher, but it is also boasts a more superior design e.g. more robust and resistant to frequency detuning or interference as a result of environment and human factors.
Secondly, the rapid speed of development involving a tripartite collaborative relationship between the chip maker (Espressif Systems), third-party board manufacturers (Gravitech x Makerasia) and independent hardware and software developers/makers within the open-source community is almost unprecedented. Espressif was very generous in giving out earlier prototypes to almost anyone who is willing to tinker with them. By working closely with this loyal fanbase, Espressif is able to quickly test, modify and reiterate, making changes that are thoroughly tested and backed their its own users. This is almost a replay of how tech companies like Intel share their reference designs with third-party manufacturers in their early days to grow market share and mass adoption. Being able to design and produce the Nano32 in breakneck speed with Espressif Systems not only affirms Espressif’s high-quality and robustness in its own design specifications but also able to generate a richer pool of options and design possibilities that will mutually benefit all parties within this nascent ecosystem.
Thirdly, it affirms what proponents of the maker movement have suspected all along — that is high-tech manufacturing for the makers’ market can be profitable in this region, following the footsteps of manufacturers like Adafruit. The rising opportunities in the emerging IoT space thanks to the introduction of affordable wireless chipsets released by companies like Espressif System serves to fuel the boom in amateur making in electronics. Dr Tulabadi believes that his facility is able to help anyone — from hobbyist makers to established electronics manufacturers to build actual-scale prototypes much faster than previously, where most fabrication works tend to be outsourced overseas.
After tirelessly working on the Nano32 for several weeks now, Dr Tejasen remains bullish about the prospects of the ESP32 for the IoT market:
Two years ago, the ESP8266 has helped to create a huge demand and interest in IoT with its dollar Wi-Fi chip. Now with the ESP32, there will be major paradigmatic shift in the IoT space. We are about to enter into the next phase of the IoT revolution — affordable, powerful ubiquitous computers in every devices, every where.
The making of the Nano32 is a testament to Thailand’s ability to build quality global products in their own backyard to serve a specific niche market. With proper strategic positioning of its products to fit a particular value market, Thailand is a compelling alternative destination for IoT development and manufacturing.
Both Drs “Pan” Tulabadi and “Jimmy” Tejasen will be in Singapore this weekend from 14–16 October 2016 for the InnovASEAN Makers Summit. In addition, there will be a workshop on “Programming the ESP32” being organized at the OneMaker Group’s ProtoypingLab@National Design Centre on the evening of 14 Oct.