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Energy Harvesting for Low-Power Networks

Wireless Energy Harvesting Opens Market for Devices on the Internet of Things – and PLM Helps it Grow

As many “things” on the Internet of Things become smaller, more mobile and even wearable, they proliferate in the billions. The opportunities are immense, but in a world market with hugely diverse suppliers and users, an appropriately scaled product life cycle management system is essential.

BY MARLEE ROSEN, ROSEN ASSOCIATES

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The Internet of Things is part of the evolution of the Internet where items are interconnected—from your stove to your toilet or shoes to your shirt—and the future may be found in connecting parts of our everyday lives.  But how do we power these devices? Energy harvesting is a terrific solution that derives energy from solar, thermal, kinetic and other sources. It captures it and stores it for small, wireless autonomous devices, such as those used in wireless sensors networks and wearable electronics.

From a product design perspective, the opportunity is immense. Imagine these sensors embedded in everything from structures to vehicles to clothing. An office in a skyscraper might alert someone that lights have been left on; a vehicle might alert you if the child safety lock has been tripped, or your favorite radio talk program starts in 5 minutes; sneakers could let you know when you’ve reached their optimal mileage threshold. Or what if tunnels could be capable of alerting someone if stress-related cracks formed; or couches could sing out after they’ve swallowed your keys; or you had the option to send text messages or emails with “wearable” technology that is battery-free?

Wearable Technology Opportunity

Wearable technology is forecast by Juniper Research to hit $1.4 billion this year, and they predict that figure will hit $19 billion by 2018. This industry is a prime example of the opportunity that energy harvesting brings with the additional layer of complexity and coordination within the product design process. 

More and more electronics are being integrated into clothing, either for functional or fashion reasons. For example, music players are being integrated into coats, and fashion designers are using electroluminescent and LED displays, often linked to music, to create active clothing.

Much of this requires power, and being able to harness vibration, thermal or solar energy to power displays and wireless links directly, or to recharge thin, light lithium polymer batteries, provides a key step forward for the technology. No one wants to have to plug their shirt into the mains to recharge it, and providing that power from the environment can significantly extend the charging cycle.

This also needs a step forward in some of the energy harvesting technology, particularly solar cells. While the efficiency of such cells has increased so that they can generate useful power from indoor lighting, glass or crystalline silicon-based devices can be heavy. However, a new generation of amorphous flexible cells is becoming increasingly popular to integrate into clothing to supply power.

One such example comes from researchers at the Australian National University, who have developed a thin, flexible solar panel called Sliver Cell. The technology has been developed for military use as wearable solar panels to power equipment, and it creates a step to more rugged yet flexible cells.

TEGwear technology is another example of a unique thermoelectric energy harvesting technology designed to power body-worn electronic devices. It gets integrated into wearable form factors, such as wristbands or clothing, and absorbs heat from the body, which is converted into electrical energy that serves as an always-available renewable power source (Figure 1). Similar to sunlight exciting electrons in a solar cell, body-heat absorbed by TEGwear technology excites electrons and optimizes this energy for body-worn medical, fitness and safety-related electronics.

Figure 1
The TEG shirt illustrates energy harvesting wearable technology with the shirt’s fabric to turn the body’s heat into energy.

While the clothing design is not in need of support of a Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system, the 16 one-stage thermopiles, each sandwiched between 2 cm hot and cold plates, could absolutely benefit from PLM in the design of the cold plates that are glued onto a carbon fabric. These cold plates usually will be sewn on the inner side of the shirt to carry heat away and provide the temperature difference. This two-layer construction makes the shirt comfortable and means it can be washed and ironed. Any changes to the engineering of the thermopiles are tracked and carefully audited within the PLM system.

This is why device manufacturers in communication, fitness, sports and health industries that have an interest in wearable technology combined with energy harvesting technology will have great interest in how PLM has the task of supporting, managing and often controlling the entire product creation chain. Expect to see exponentially growing energy harvesting usage for such wearable applications in telemedicine systems and m-health or mobile health initiatives in the form of bracelets, watches and headbands.

Medical Devices Applications

Providing a constant energy source is a key design challenge for implantable medical devices.According to the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, energy harvesting and power delivery for implantable medical devices will utilize different state-of-the-art mechanisms that are becoming more and more available to do “in-body” energy harvesting as well as “out-of-body” wireless power delivery. 

For medical devices, energy harvesting technology would eliminate the need for bulky batteries and the risk of battery-related defects. “Energy harvesting is becoming an increasingly viable source of power for a variety of devices, especially where the environmental and economic costs of maintaining batteries is untenable,” says Bob Gohn, vice president of Pike Research. “Consumer products such as laptops and mobile phones are already being powered by energy harvesting technology.” Gohn believes medical device will be the next market to capitalize on the benefits of energy harvesting.

PLM to Bring Energy Harvesting and Smart Technology to Market

With these cutting-edge products comes an opportunity for emerging startups and a wide variety of small and medium size businesses to deliver new or enhanced products and gain a competitive advantage. Software in the form of PLM can help to efficiently develop these products for a successful launch. Omnify Software is one PLM provider that quickly saw how it could help these SMBs do just that by providing an alternative to traditional PLM designed for larger companies. Manufacturers of electronic devices, sensors and some of the newer cutting-edge products are looking to PLM to streamline and optimize their design process and ultimately help them get to market faster. However, they may not have the budget of a Boeing or Ford, so a PLM solution geared to address an SMB’s needs would be more appropriate (Figure 2). 

Figure 2
Product Lifecycle Management software brings product information together in a central location to efficiently manage the product development process.

One example of this is emerging wireless electricity provider WiTricity’s use of Omnify Software to bring their technology to market quicker. They are using this software to automate engineering change orders and product documentation management as well as to centralize information for design teams. They estimate that they could not fully function without this PLM tool, as it is essential to keeping electrical and mechanical design teams in sync, and engineering processes controlled and transparent. This in turn allows WiTricity to bring safe, efficient operation of wireless electricity over large distances to their customers (Figure 3).

Figure 3
PLM is helping to bring WiTricity’s cutting-edge wireless electricity to market faster.

In addition, energy harvesting companies like Lord MicroStrain Sensing Systems are using Omnify Software for managing the product lifecycle of their smart, wireless sensors that are in use in such applications as advanced manufacturing, off-highway vehicles, commercial and military manned and unmanned vehicles, civil structures and downhole tools. Lord MicroStrain’s design and engineering team was able to enhance and enforce business processes using a PLM system, as well as develop advanced integrations with their engineering design and manufacturing environments.

The PLM software implementation has resulted in a decrease of MicroStrain’s BOM processing time from two to three days to just minutes. The engineers can access approved parts stored in PLM from within their CAD program. The BOMs generated from the engineering systems are imported into PLM for approval, and the released BOM data is sent directly to the ERP for a completely automated and streamlined process. They found their PLM solution helped them to get to market first, stake a larger market share, and maximize profit margins.

Demand Grows from Industrial to Consumer Market

Device designers will be looking at using energy harvesting technology for wireless, battery-less storage devices. Existing energy harvesting applications include vibration-based wireless train measuring systems, wireless sensors distributed citywide to implement smart cities, oil field monitoring systems and windup laptops for use in remote regions.

This will be augmented with consumer demand for smartphones, tablets, laptops, digital cameras and home entertainment devices. However, this is a price-driven and time-driven market. To help them ensure a first mover advantage, they have also come to realize that it is absolutely paramount to invest in product lifecycle management to be able to invent while at the same time accelerating their time-to-market. PLM really helps minimize costly product errors and manufacturing delays, which for the consumer electronics sector is critical, since their product innovations are typically complex and have frequently changing parts. 

Manufacturing for consumer electronics and wearable devices is taking place in shifting global locations, with components coming from possibly anywhere around the world along with sales happening everywhere. PLM enables manufacturers to streamline and manage global supply chains by providing visibility across the enterprise’s entire product lifecycle, even in other countries.

Future Projections

Keep your eyes peeled for business opportunities as this new market emerges. Powering small electronic devices such as wireless sensors, smart-building and industrial equipment controls, wellness and wearable monitors, will proliferate the market and create a positive impact. Not only does it protect the environment by reducing CO2 emissions, while eliminating batteries and power cabling, it will also finally enable the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem and ignite the creation of many new products.

Not too far in the future, we will see hundreds of millions of these kinds of devices deployed in environments such as office buildings, houses, hotels, industrial sites, transportation infrastructure and electric vehicles. Analysis shows that the energy harvesting market will grow to $4.2 billion within five years including the emergence of thousands of developers and design engineers involved throughout the value chain. The development cycle for devices will shorten even further. PLM will be a tremendous benefit to managing the design and production process for companies to stay competitive and bring these timely devices and technology to market in the quickest manner possible.

Rosen Associates
Tampa, FL.
editor.assistant@gmail.com