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Here's how Microsoft is helping companies build IoT hardware

Blair Hanley Frank | March 31, 2017
Labs in the US, Germany and China offer expertise on building connected devices.

inside microsoft iot lab
Credit: Microsoft

One of the biggest challenges with building connected hardware is getting from proof-of-concept (PoC) prototypes to devices that are ready for large-scale production rollout. Microsoft is aiming to help through labs that allow companies to come in and work with experts on building internet-connected hardware.

Companies come into one of three Microsoft Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence (IoT/AI) Insider Labs with the hardware they’ve built so far and a plan for an intense two or three weeks of work. Visitors are paired with mentors who are experts in different areas and given access to machinery that can help them quickly work through different hardware designs.

The goal of the labs is to shave months off companies' development timeline. Microsoft also provides help with configuring its cloud services for use with the hardware developed in the labs, which is how the tech titan benefits from the program.

There’s a need for programs like this because of the challenges of building connected hardware. Creating new IoT devices is often difficult, according to Dima Tokar, the co-founder and CTO of IoT analysis firm MachNation.

“Today, many enterprises are stuck in the PoC phase of their IoT journey because they are finding that it is more challenging than they expected to take that PoC and make it production-grade,” he said in an email. “It’s difficult because all components of an IoT solution need to scale, and figuring out the IoT security posture as well as management and oversight requirements can be a daunting task.”

 

Squeezing months of work into weeks of lab time

A recurring theme among lab administrators and participants is that the environment Microsoft created lets teams get done in a matter of weeks what might have otherwise taken months. The IoT/AI Labs include machines that can help with rapid prototyping of hardware, including the design and testing of printed circuit boards (PCBs).

Testing PCB designs with a contract manufacturer can be a time-consuming process. Companies have to send their design off, then wait for the manufacturing run and subsequent shipping. In contrast, Microsoft’s labs are capable of cranking out at least two iterations of a circuit board in a single day, according to Cyra Richardson, a general manager of business development for IoT at the company.

Another benefit to visitors are the labs’ dedicated engineers, who are there to help work through problems in person. Richardson pointed out that seeking answers online for engineering problems doesn’t always beget definitive or useful answers.

“Imagine if you had someone who cared about you were doing, and really was invested in your acceleration,” she said. “And imagine if they were right there in front of you.”

 

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