Avnet is now taking a serious stance as regards the market for the Internet of Things (IoT), which presently is populated by various platforms that offer both prototyping hardware and connected services in a package deal. Since many of these seem to be limited to hobbyist or consumer applications, the company is hoping to turn things around with the MicroZed Industrial IoT starter kit.

The kit leverages Avnet's existing MicroZed development module, which is based on the Xilinx Zynq-7000 SoC. The SoC combines dual ARM Cortex-A9 processor cores with numerous programmable logic cells to provide both hardware and software programmability. The substantial resources available on the SoC make it suitable for high-end applications.

Building on the module, Avnet has created a carrier board for the MicroZed to plug into, which provides developers with an R3 Arduino-compatible expansion slot, two 2x6 peripheral module expansion slots, and a header for connection to the built-in UART, SPI, I2C and GPIO interfaces. The carrier thus makes a wealth of off-the-shelf sensor and control resources available for developers to leverage. In addition, Avnet has partnered with STMicroelectronics and Maxim Integrated to include motion MEMS, environmental and thermocouple sensor modules in the kit.

EEIOL 2016MAY23 EDA RFD NT 06 Figure 1: The MicroZed Industrial IoT starter kit packs a development module based on the Xilinx Zynq-7000 SoC that combines dual ARM Cortex-A9 processor cores with numerous programmable logic cells.

On the software side, Avnet has partnered with Wind River to embed the Pulsar Linux operating system on the board. It has also worked with IBM to make the kit Watson IoT ready and provide access to IBM Watson Services with a free trial to Bluemix cloud services.

In short, the kit includes everything someone designing an industrial IoT application would need to develop and prototype their product. The kit price is $300 (₹19,970), a bit high for casual interest but low for serious developers. This is intended to be a serious product-development platform, not just a demonstration or experimenter's board.

When I talked with Avnet about their kit, I was particularly interested in how readily any prototypes developed using it could be translated into deliverable products. This is an area where many platforms fail. The quality of their base modules and the reliability of off-the-shelf shields, especially in harsh environments, essentially require a full board redesign between prototype and production in order to bring things up to industrial standards.

The kit's approach separates the processor module from the add-on hardware. Both plug into a carrier board rather than having the add-ons plug into the processor board. This means that in production, one could create a custom carrier with the desired additional circuitry hard-wired, and plug the MicroZed board into that.

Carving a smoother path for IIoT

There is still some design effort involved in going from prototype to production, but with Avnet's approach the design effort only involves the (usually) less demanding additional circuits. The processor module remains unchanged. And because Avnet makes the MicroZed board available in volume and using industrial-grade components, the carrier developer is all the customer needs to create. Further, the programmable logic of the Zynq can help eliminate the need for anything beyond sensor, signal conditioning and power circuitry on the carrier.

The hardware and software processing power that the FPGA and ARM cores provide are among the most important assets the kit offers. Many IoT development platforms aim to support simple, battery-powered sensor and light-duty control applications. The MicroZed IIoT kit provides the power to offer substantial edge processing, so that the IIoT device can handle significant local control applications without cloud support. The device can also pre-process data to reduce network traffic and perform significant analytics locally. All of these features will be useful in the Industrial IoT.

For some developers the shine is beginning to come off of the IoT, especially in consumer applications, because even though the technology has generated a lot of buzz and interest, there is not often a compelling reason to adopt it. It’s cool, fun, convenient, and the like, but not compelling.

That's not true in the industrial market. For industry to adopt the IoT, there needs to be a good business case for making the investment. And increasingly, there is. Companies embracing the IIoT are finding substantial rewards in terms of reduced maintenance and downtime costs, better resource utilisation, and the like. Consumer IoT has gotten the buzz, but industrial IoT is where the real money will be made for now.

It's good to see a development kit targeting that market, finally.