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Smart City tech needs protection, as well as a flexible design

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Simon Vogt, chief commercial officer at P2i, discusses the need to protect smart city sensors and how a flexible design is vital to the future of smart cities.

Talked about for years, smart cities are fast taking shape, driven by advanced, high-capacity mobile connectivity and networks of thousands of sensors.

When McKinsey Global Institute assessed the world’s cities for their progress towards “smartness”, the use of sensor technology was one of its three indicators. Cities such as Stockholm in Sweden and Yinchuan and Shanghai in China rated highly on this count, along with London.

Sensors, along with communication networks and access to open data are the foundations on which the smart city is built. If they fail, smart transport networks, traffic management systems, pollution-monitoring, flood-protection, street lighting and toll systems are all imperilled. It is why manufacturers know they must invest in protection for the thousands of sensors required for the smart city.

This will be a huge market. According to a recent report from MarketsandMarkets, The Internet of Things (IoT) in smart cities market is projected to grow from US$ 79.5 billion in 2018 to US$ 219.6 billion by 2023. It is a sector fuelled by innovative applications.

Not one or even two sizes to fit all, but many

Yet as McKinsey said in its 2018 report: “’Smartness’ is not just about installing digital interfaces in traditional infrastructure or streamlining city operations. It is also about using technology and data purposefully to make better decisions and deliver a better quality of life.”

Aesthetics are critical as is the ability to match products to their location. How things look is important in infrastructure and street furniture design. This includes everything reliant on sensor-technology, from dynamic, sensor-guided traffic and streetlights, to public transport monitors and displays, telecoms cabinets, fire and flood-detection.

Very few cities in the world today have had only one architectural designer such as Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil’s federal capital Brasilia. Instead, they have evolved over centuries and one district or suburb does not want to look like every other, because each has its own character, of which its inhabitants are often very protective.

So, in designing smart city infrastructure, manufacturers need to be mindful that multiple designs of the same product will be required for data-collection and synthesis. Failure to be flexible in design could lead to annoyance and rejection.

With tens if not hundreds of designs of the same product necessary, however, the need for individual designs could quickly increase manufacturing costs many times, hitting profits or driving up prices. The solution is for electrical components that include sensors to be designed so they are easily mass-produced and reused across multiple designs, while also reducing their housing costs. Miniaturisation can also help in saving space, reducing costs as well as allowing for greater flexibility in design.

Rain, water, salt fog and humidity protection must be paramount in designing sensors

The necessity to protect sensors from the elements, however, could be a severely limiting factor for manufacturers seeking production diversity. Sensors especially need protection from water ingress, otherwise the smart city will malfunction whenever there is heavy rain, burst pipes or flooding. Such incidents are so common that the importance of water-protection cannot be underestimated. In many climates ambient humidity is a significant problem, while in coastal areas, salt spray and fog causes corrosion.

But in reducing sensor-housing costs, greater care must be taken to provide water-protection directly to the components as opposed to relying on the housing to act as a barrier. Mechanical solutions can be used to help the housing provide water-protection, but these will increase production costs considerably.

The advantages of nano-coating technology

Conventional methods of water-protection such as conformal coatings will not allow for miniaturisation necessary within sensor housing. The more densely packed the printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs), the less space there is for physical seals. More PCBAs mean more connectors for communication. As these cannot be protected by traditional conformal coatings, they are often very vulnerable, or need mechanical seals built into the connectors themselves.

Nano-coatings by contrast, provide protection directly to the electronic components, enabling them to last a lifetime. These coatings are ultra-thin and can protect every part of the PCBA, including connectors, and do not crack and delaminate with age as conformal coatings do. As it is a plasma process the coating is chemically bonded to the surface of the PCBA, meaning that it becomes part of the product. Today, the use of nano coatings is growing across the electronics industry as an effective way to protect PCBAs.

Without nano-coatings, there is a danger that the importance of water protection will lead manufacturers to produce unattractive, highly standardised, utilitarian designs. The mission to make the street scenes of smart cities attractive and distinctive will fail.

Designers must have access to advanced water-protection technology in order to free their practical creativity and to realise the full potential of smart cities.

For manufacturers it makes competitive sense

Manufacturers adopting advanced water protection technology such as nano-coatings will have the ability to produce more individualised street infrastructure designs that meet the aspirations of their customers – the public authorities and infrastructure companies.

In an age when there is heightened attention on design and how it improves the quality of human experience, their products are far more likely to win approval from the public. But they will also be durable and effective. Style, attractiveness or near-invisibility will be achievable without any compromise on protection.

We can already see that the Internet of Things and miniaturisation are making the smart city dream a reality. Yet in order for that dream to be fully realised worldwide, suppliers that support and simplify the implementation of design freedom are essential.

It is critically important, therefore, that manufacturers are not hindered by outdated weather protection technology. This will be essential if the future vision of the smart city is to flourish.

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