India Facing Lack of Competence to Design & Innovate IoT Solutions

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There is a huge gap between what is being done in the industry and what is being taught, say industry experts.  

Curated by Vinay Prabhakar Minj 

There has been a lot of hype over the past 7 – 8 years in India about IoT but the ground reality shows a different picture. Be it big organisations, startups or design engineers – nobody has been able to reach up to a level where they can proudly declare that a milestone has been achieved in the development of IoT solutions and their successful deployment. Even the users of IoT solutions are also very disillusioned as many solutions don’t work.

A panel of five industry experts sat together to discuss the challenges facing the design engineers in the IoT domain, and the competence needed to overcome the challenges to be able to get profit from IoT.  Here are some of the highlights: –

From the perspective of a design engineer

If you are working as an IT engineer, your competency is on the software side. Similarly, a hardware engineer will have a competency towards the hardware side. But for IoT, you need to have multiple skills. Everything we encounter in the real world is analogue data and on the Internet it is digital data. So, one must have the ability to deal with analogue data, designs and sensors. Therefore, for IoT, system design engineers need to have multi-disciplinary system design skills and not just one-domain skills.

The IoT sensors/device that is installed in a remote location has to have the ability to connect to the Internet and communicate. The communication can be through Internet protocol TCP/IP or could be through RF, Wireless variety of protocols. This will require one to have skills in communication, RF or mixed signals.

Coming to the digital side, IoT technology comprises of microprocessors and microcontrollers, and one needs to develop a variety of skills here too. Hardware skill is becoming less common due to the availability of multiple ready-to-use microprocessor and microcontroller boards in the market. These boards can be used for prototyping and small scale deployment. But if you are looking for large scale deployment, profit, supply chain and optimization, then hardware becomes very critical. Then you need to outsource or develop in-house skills to build highly-optimized boards by choosing the right microprocessor and microcontroller for it.

On the application side, IT side, server/PC side, the x86 microprocessor is definitely dominant. On the embedded side, ARM has become the default CPU standard nowadays. RISC V is gradually emerging as a new force in the world of embedded microprocessors and microcontrollers. So, having the ability to innovate around new architectures, leveraging these new architectures in the ecosystem could lead to optimisation of IoT solutions.

In a nutshell, a design engineer working in the field of IoT should have multiple capabilities and different design skills for analogue and digital technologies.

System design engineers need to have multi-disciplinary system design skills and not just one domain skills

IoT system design

When talking about IoT system design, don’t begin by looking at hardware and software separately. First identify the problem, see what aspects of the problem can be addressed by hardware design and which ones can be addressed by software design, and then start your work.

It is important to understand that IoT is not just limited to making a device that can run on the cloud. We need to have a very good knowledge not only on the software side or only on the hardware side, but both.

90 – 90 formula in design

According to this, you spent 90 percent of the time in completing the 90 percent of design. And then you end up spending another 90 percent of the time in completing rest of the 10 percent. Such a situation occurs simply because you did not invest (enough time and effort) in developing a structured design.

Profit from IoT

It has become really difficult to create a profit from hardware unless the scalability factor is very big. So, if a company is working in the IoT domain and trying to make a profit from hardware products, then it’s going to be very challenging. The main profit, however, will come from building services around the IoT application.

Correct way to begin a startup

One should never consider design as a way to expand a business. Instead, the design should arise out of passion or out of curiosity. The person should have a mindset to develop and create new systems and solutions. At the same time, a design engineer should not limit oneself to just “testing a piece of code”. It is unfortunate that the IT boom has converted the design engineers into doing just that. Societal expectations is another reason why many design engineers choose not to venture into designing.

In the past 10 years, an encouraging thing has emerged – many people have begun startups. This can be seen as a breakaway from the burden of unrealistic societal expectations. However, one still needs to ask whether enough competence has been built?

Most of the founders of earlier startups began by spending 15-20 years deep down in their previous companies and becoming domain experts in their respective fields. And over a period of time afterward, they came across some interesting innovations which their current organisation could not leverage (due to their business models, company focus, etc). But because those domain experts felt strongly about that innovation, they decided to part ways with their respective organisations and start work on their own.

So, before beginning a startup, one should have a clear knowledge of the basics and have strong domain expertise. And most importantly, never start with the intention to generate monetary profit.

Need to enhance the present technical education system

There has been a huge evolution in the field of technology in the past 25 years.  But it is unfortunate that the current generation is still studying the same books that was more relevant back then. This is leading to a huge talent gap in the industry today. And so it is highly necessary to bring about a change in the education system so that students are equipped with the knowledge of the latest technology.

Don’t draw a line on ‘when should I start and what should I learn’

What this means is that one should not restrict himself/herself to only a particular time or area to gain knowledge. Engineering students generally show interest in building programming skills in the language which is highly sought after in the industry. Don’t restrict in any language, instead try to learn as much as possible and expand your knowledge.

India is witnessing a software boom. As per a survey, India has produced more than 7 lakh engineers in the last three years. People from outside see India as a market, but actually India has so much resources and power that we can actually see the world as a market.

most of the institutes still teach the same thing that was taught some 25-30 years back

Where does our design engineering community stand today in the market?

As pointed out earlier, barring 5 -10 percent top-notch colleges, most of the institutes continue to teach the same thing that was taught some 25-30 years back. This has created a huge gap between what is being done in the industry and what is being taught. Most engineering college graduates (around 90 percent) are not fully ready with different domain skills (or even in one specific domain skill). And because of this, most companies hold training programs so that they can learn the right skills required for the job.

Govt initiatives can help boost local hardware ecosystem

Besides the need for developing the necessary competence, an initiative must also be taken by the government. The supply chain and component ecosystem are absolutely critical for the success of hardware. In the past many Indian hardware companies saw success in the design and manufacture of PCs and servers. But in the face of growing global competition, it all became unviable (mainly due to a lack of government policy that is focussed towards hardware industry). However, in the past two years a certain push from the government can be seen under the ‘Make In India’ initiative. The widespread growth of such policy will enable companies to start manufacturing hardware locally and this will in turn lead to the development of the component ecosystem, PCB manufacture ecosystem and much more.

Changing our qualification-oriented mindset to knowledge-oriented mindset    

It is worth noting here that despite not having enough competency, a few years back, many IT companies were launched in the country and they started hiring software engineers. This created a huge demand for software skills in the industry and parents started encouraging their children to choose subjects related to computer science. This demand software engineers also made colleges to develop competencies automatically. Likewise, if the hardware ecosystem is firmly established in the present Indian electronics industry, then everybody – parents, children, colleges will start to build competencies.

In addition, we need more comprehensive upskilling environment beyond the college in the industry that can make people competent to design something and work as a hardware engineer.

Key takeaways

There needs to be certain bridge courses to lessen the skill gap. For this, there has to be more initiatives from the industry.

At the same time, design engineers need to upskill themselves to become employable and deliver something worthwhile.

The panel members

The panel discussion was organised as part of the IOTSHOW.IN 2019. The panel members include:  Narang N Kishor, Founder, Narnix Technolabs, Chairman of Sectional Committee on Smart Infrastructure; Vivek Tyagi, Director – Business Development, Embedded and Enterprise, Western Digital Corporation – India and South Asia Region; Vinay Thapliyal, MCU Marketing Manager – Microcontrollers Division, STMicroelectronics India; B Vasu Dev, Director, Phytec and Eobin George, Director, PerfectFit Systems.  

Longjam Dineshwori

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