A Bridge to Everywhere
How RF Digital connects people, places, and things.
It’s now been several years since the Internet of Things first promised to create seamless, ultimately invisible interactions between our physical world and the digital world we now rely on so heavily. Every device with a circuit board should be able to talk to each other, fusing their electronic world with ours.
That vision is becoming more real, but perhaps not in the way you might think.
The Internet as we know it — servers, routers, mobile apps, and Wi-Fi networks on every corner — only gets us so far. Sending all our data through millions of unknown nodes and hubs has its limitations (and headaches). A truly interconnected web of machines, and people, needs something better to hold it together.
This was the challenge that was taken up by Armen Kazanchian, founder and CEO of RF Digital, and his team. Mostly unknown outside the field of wireless and radio communications, RF Digital has spent the past 16 years working behind the scenes creating high-performance radio-frequency products for many companies up and down the Fortune 500, across various industries.
Now RF Digital is developing a potentially revolutionary new product: a hardware-plus-firmware solution that simplifies the process of allowing devices to talk to each other. In other words, it’s a framework for the Internet of Things.
“If you really want to take large leaps forward, you need to step back to technical primitives,” says Kazanchian. “Secure a strong footing based on science and have a complete understanding of the goal.”
Kazanchian is a man who understands the needs not only of his engineering customers but also of the people and environments they build for. RF Digital has taken a great leap forward not just by coming up with a new gadget or game-changing app but by creating a new way of interacting with the world around you.
RF Digital is looking to put its wireless communication technology in the hands of the people — on their feet and wrists; in their homes, cars, clothes, and stores; in their phones and lamps; and just about anywhere else its new, innovative, intelligent microchips can fit. The goal: Make them so small they can fit almost anywhere, and make them so technically simple it drastically speeds up development time and reduces cost.
Meet Simblee™, a tiny chip that can be installed in any product, allowing developers to build application behaviors right inside their devices. Simblee (as in “simple BLE,” for Bluetooth low energy) can then share those behaviors with any phone or tablet using the Simblee For MobileSM app, with no additional software required.
Here’s just one example of how it works. Say you walk into your favorite coffee shop and want to order a latte. If you go there often, you probably have the shop’s app installed on your smartphone. You order your drink and pay using the app; you’re in and out without much trouble.
Now, say you walk into a different coffee shop that you’ve never been to before. It has the same drinks for sale, but if you want to bypass the line, you have to go to your phone’s app store and search for the coffee shop’s specific program. You’ll have to download the app to your phone and set up the payment method before ordering. Oh, and you’ll also need to get your mobile phone carrier or ISP involved because a solid wireless connection (either a cell signal or a Wi-Fi hot spot) is required.
Kazanchian believes that has to change. “On your phone you may have 10 or 15 apps that you consciously really needed and downloaded,” he says. “Then you have the other 50 or 60, or maybe more, which you don’t really use that frequently and maybe even forgot you had. It’s just a hassle to go find and use them when you need them.”
Simblee can put an end to that tedious app hunting. With a Simblee For Mobile-equipped phone and Simblee chips installed in a store’s cash register, the two devices speak directly to each other. The user interface and its associated behaviors are displayed on your phone. You just see what you need in order to do what you want. You order, you pay, and when you walk out of the store, the UI simply disappears from the phone. It’s a secure transaction, no new software was needed, and best of all, no Internet connection was required. Your phone and the store’s cash register communicate seamlessly with minimal effort required.
Your app store benefits from this interaction as well. Simblee reduces the cost of reviewing hardware-based apps, which are predominantly non-revenue generating. In addition, it’s expanding the marketplace for its phones and tablets.
And what about security? Even when you’re on a network that is ostensibly private, passing data between two computers means sending it on a journey through potentially dozens of unknown nodes. There’s no way to know who could have seen it, lost it, or possibly intercepted it.
What Simblee does is close the distance between devices, seriously restricting the ability for anyone to intercept your communications. “If you show me a bigger lock, I’ll go find you a smarter lock pick,” Kazanchian says. “Isn’t it a lot easier if there’s really no door to begin with?”
Mobile payments are just the start, too. Imagine a car installed with Simblee that lets you wirelessly control everything from the air-conditioning to the radio to the audio system to the navigation, while paying tolls and parking meters and finding an empty spot in a crowded parking lot.
Then when you get home, your Simblee-powered phone unlocks the front door, turns on the lights, and warms up the oven to start dinner. Your phone is now “talking” to every device in your home, as well as thousands of other products and machines wherever you go, effortlessly and continuously interacting with the everyday objects you encounter. It’s a true ecosystem of all things.
Oh, and you’re included in this ecosystem, too. “People are currently existing alongside the Internet of Things,” Kazanchian says. “Even though we are talking about the things, it’s still really about the people. So how do we actually get humans to live with the things around them? We make the things smarter.”
To do that, RF Digital had to chart its own path. But it had its own challenges to overcome first.
It had the technical know-how to build this new technology. But turning the idea into a physical product to realize the potential of the Internet of Things in a way that was both reliable and reasonably priced presented significant challenges.
“The industry is hungry for technology like the one we’ve developed here,” Kazanchian says. “And this technology is only applicable if we’re able to deliver a complete solution. We need seamless integration of hardware and software.” In other words, RF Digital needed a single product that satisfied the needs of businesses and their customers, something that anyone could set up and use with little fuss.
The demand for this kind of technology has been growing steadily for decades, but product makers have been caught off guard. “The industry may appear to be moving fast, but what’s really moving very fast is the demand,” he says. “Desire is so high that people are willing to settle for any solution, whether it is well designed and functional or not. Up until now, they had no choice.”
For most companies, shipping products filled with software bugs is par for the course these days. It’s a challenging task to build wireless products that are efficient, cost effective, reliable, and will scale to the billions, while maintaining consistency for peak performance. “Everyone in the industry knows RF Digital for wireless products that simply work. Anything we produce has to be functional and highly reliable. And that’s where Flex came into play,” Kazanchian says.
RF Digital first approached Flex in the summer of 2014, according to Venkat Iyer, an engineering manager at Flex. RF Digital had the patents and the design but needed a manufacturing partner that could help it grow the chip in scale — while shrinking in physical size.
“We needed to scale with someone who we know can actually scale,” says Kazanchian. “How do we as a small company handle receiving 10 million-piece orders for a device that costs several dollars? How do we go from a small size to handling that?”
Iyer says Flex invited RF Digital to spend a few days at its innovation lab, where Flex could demonstrate the equipment and processes available. “I basically told Armen, ‘Look, it’s possible that you can do it in this particular manner, you mold it in this manner, you cut it in this manner, we can miniaturize it, and we can also do it cost-effectively,’” he says. “That is basically what sold them.”
That became the start of a true partnership between the brand’s idea and the partner, something that Kazanchian says you don’t see often enough.
“When you use the product, when you hold it, and you interact with it, do you feel that the designer really understood you as a user? Well, that’s only true when the manufacturer and the designer have an intimate relationship. Because what a designer designs and what a manufacturer builds are often mutually exclusive, simply because the designer is a visionary and the manufacturer is a realist,” Kazanchian says.
“What it really is,” he continues, “is having the muscle plus the mind-set. You gotta have the right mentality. Flex allowed for the creative process to take root and grow the best solution.” In the end, both sides were thrilled with the results.
Ultimately what matters most to RF Digital is not the cost or even the scale of the job, but whether or not the company can deliver a product that does what it claims. When Simblee is out there in the real world, will it live up to its promise to truly connect people to the things around them?
The challenge for Simblee was twofold. The first was to shrink the hardware down physically, and the second was to blow it up in numbers. Flex addressed the first challenge by giving RF Digital the capacity to bring Simblee down to the level of medical-implant-size miniaturization, while maintaining the same high quality RF Digital demands — two things that rarely go together, in Kazanchian’s experience. Flex helped RF Digital to scale down the packaging so that everything — including the chips’ sophisticated circuitry — could fit into a single, tiny, secure, hermetically sealed chip, with no components exposed. This makes Simblee a compact piece of hardware that can be installed in almost any product and fast-track production.
But now that it could be installed anywhere, it had to be available everywhere. That required a partner with worldwide presence that could mass-produce and quickly reach into the tens of millions of units. Finding a manufacturer that could handle these requirements without sacrificing quality control was the next step.
“We couldn’t just go to any manufacturer and say, ‘Build this for us.’ Some of the inquiries RF Digital has received are in the double-digit millions of units, and we had no concern that Flex could actually produce without impacting quality as they ramp up. This is usually where most companies fall apart — and we knew Flex wouldn’t,” says Kazanchian.
After just nine months, RF Digital had taken what it knew about Flex’s capabilities and developed a working prototype. Production is under way and Simblee will begin shipping to customers this fall.
If you really want to take large leaps forward, you need to step back to technical primitives, Kazanchian says.
“Right now,” says Iyer, “we are talking about 2.5 million units over the next five to six months. And then after that, it’s scaling up to 20 million or more units.”
Will the public be ready? Kazanchian believes demand is already growing, and once people see what Simblee can do, the demand will explode.
But convincing people this product is the future — or the Internet 3.0, as Kazanchian has alluded to it — is yet another big task.
Simblee’s built-in mesh can connect, transfer, and disconnect things in just 3 milliseconds, making it fast enough for real-time motion tracking in everyday scenarios. And with 10 microsecond over-the-air timing accuracy, Simblee is suitable for high-grade medical products, for example, which help improve quality of life and reduce health care costs. “With Simblee, RF Digital is just getting started,” says Kazanchian.
RF Digital began introducing Simblee to potential customers this past February, and their response has been enthusiastic. The companies that have experienced Simblee firsthand can’t wait to incorporate the technology into their current and future products.
RF Digital has been relying on word of mouth and its 16 years of solid reputation to spread Simblee around the globe. This is precisely why it all keeps coming back to quality, which has become the backbone of RF Digital and Flex’s special partnership.
Says Kazanchian: “Really, we’re making a bridge. And making that bridge may sound like a trivial task, but it’s far more complex than ever imagined. For it to be a bridge to everywhere, it must be solid.
“What we’ve done with Simblee is really enabled the Internet of Things everywhere, for someone who’s selling clothing and retail, to someone who’s embedding it inside of medical devices and cars, to someone who’s putting it onto an aircraft. All of these users have the same problem in that they don’t have a reliable bridge to be able to connect their devices in a way they want that’s meaningful to them, to the Internet, which can then interface with other devices and eventually people. So that’s really the function that we’re filling. And it’s a very, very monumental need that Simblee aims to fill.”
Originally published at www.theintelligenceofthings.com.
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INTELLIGENCE explores the concept of co-innovation and the “Intelligence of Things,” that Flex sees as the building blocks of the post-Information Age era. More at flex.com