Double-edged sword of smart home tech’s Covid boost
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The coronavirus lockdown has accelerated uptake of gadgets that reduce the stress of spending more time at home. Now manufacturers are having to think carefully about how to make their products resistant to the hazards posed by a typical household environment.
The market for smart home devices was a dynamic one even before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the IDC's 'Worldwide Quarterly Smart Home Device Tracker' report released in September 2019, the worldwide market for these devices is expected to grow 23.5 per cent year over year in 2019 to nearly 815 million device shipments. Worldwide shipments are forecast to be more than 1.39 billion in 2023, with a five-year compound annual growth rate of 14.4 per cent.
Those trends still hold true in the Covid-19 era. According to ABI research, global shipments of smart home voice-control devices are predicted to increase by 30 per cent in 2020 compared with 2019. Growing fears of germs caused by the coronavirus pandemic are likely to play a part in this.
Implementing smart technology throughout the home can enable users to avoid commonly touched areas such as TV remotes and light switches. In addition, devices such as smart locks and doorbells can ensure deliveries are securely received with no face-to-face interaction required. Not only is this growing sector now being driven by consumers’ desire for devices that conserve energy and enhance security, it is also largely unpinned by a need for health and safety.
All this is boosting demand for smart home technology, of course, but there are other drivers too. People are looking for convenience, and with miniaturisation and the reduction in the cost of manufacturing they can increasingly have these kinds of convenient devices in their homes without having to spend a fortune to get them there. Yet, despite all this, the simple fact that people are working from home so much more today is probably the greatest driver of usage.
Taken together, this increase in usage and expectations is also bringing an increase in levels of risk. Smart devices in the home are often prone to corrosion and water damage that can significantly reduce their operational life. However, consumers are increasingly using them in risk-prone locations such as bathrooms and outdoor spaces. Some are even taking wet cleaning products to everything from TVs to games consoles and controllers, and from earbuds and headphones to remotes, speakers, phones and tablets.
Every year, the week after Christmas sees a peak in people searching for advice online about how to clean their consumer devices, with the expectation being that now they have received a new electronic device as a gift, they want to clean their old one in order to sell it on. This year though, we have seen just such a spike in searches during the pandemic and manufacturers are even issuing guides on how to clean devices safely without damaging them.
Most highlight the obvious points - don’t get your device wet, avoid moisture; don’t spray chemicals, don’t use wet wipes etc. Yet the reality is that there are many ways in which electrical devices will unavoidably suffer water damage in the home environment. Smart locks and external CCTV cameras will inevitably be affected by rain, salt fog (in coastal areas) and even sprays of water and disinfectant that some people use to clean their front doors. Smart thermostats can be affected by humidity and steam from kitchens or bathrooms. E-picture frames and TV remotes are often vulnerable to drink spills, while smart blinds or curtain rails can be vulnerable to condensation or rain splashing through an open window.
All these devices could therefore benefit from some kind of water protection, so that manufacturers can avoid the financial cost of replacing a damaged device, as well as the potential impact on brand reputation and likely loss of future revenue in these competitive markets.
Regulations are emerging that cover these kinds of electronic devices. In China, for example, the GA 374-2019 standard outlines testing procedures for burglary-resistant locks. This includes environmental testing, such as high temperature, high humidity and salt fog testing, to ensure the smart lock is corrosion-resistant and not at risk of failure from everyday environmental conditions
All of these factors combined mean that manufacturers will increasingly be looking for techniques that protect against not only environmental damage from moisture, humidity and rain, but also cleaning agents such as isopropyl alcohol. To be effective, solutions need to offer protection against all of this. Yet the best will add extra flexibility by being able to protect any form, any shape, any design of electronic device and also a wide range of materials used – well beyond just a simple plastic box - thereby helping to support the vision of the future smart home not just from a functional perspective but from an aesthetic one too.
Traditional water-protection methods often fall short. Typically, they require compromise. The best possible outer surface for a smart speaker, for example, would be speaker fabric. This is great at keeping dust and contaminants out, whilst allowing superior acoustic performance, but it doesn’t prevent the device being stained or spoiled by splashes and spills or the internal electronics being damaged by humidity and environmental conditions.
Conformal coatings or mechanical solutions can only be used to protect the internal electronics of the device, but are known to be problematic. They inhibit electrical conductivity and are prone to cracking and delaminating, and typically degrade when exposed to heat or vibration. Mechanical solutions are unwieldy and can be unreliable if they are assembled incorrectly during construction, compromised during use when dropped, or perish through exposure to the elements and a wide variety of liquid challenges associated with everyday life.
On the other hand, the latest nano coatings can be used to provide water protection to smart home devices and are far more flexible and reliable. Not only can they provide a variety of levels of protection as required, from splashes and spills up to full immersion, but they can also be used to treat a variety of surfaces and materials, giving manufacturers the flexibility to protect everything from printed circuit boards to whole devices against a variety of liquid threats both inside and outside the home.
Smart homes founded on the latest electronic devices are fast becoming a reality, but for this vision to be successfully realised a robust yet flexible method of water protection will be crucial. Additionally, the pandemic has also highlighted the need to adequately clean surfaces and devices which they come into contact with but that may have been previously overlooked.
The latest nano coatings offer a positive route forward here. Not only do they offer robust protection to the smart devices that are increasingly prevalent in our homes from a vast array of different kinds of water damage, from bathroom humidity to splashes and spills and weather-related corrosion, but they also provide enduring protection to internal electronics against corrosion or damage from cleaning agents.
These solutions support the smart home vision by enabling technology providers to reduce maintenance call-out requirements and minimise the need for costly repairs. More broadly, they significantly improve the lifetime of the sensors that are extensively used in a wide spectrum of smart-technology applications, significantly extending the longevity of many devices. As such they act as a key building block of the smart home of today and of the future.
Simon Vogt is chief commercial officer of P2i.
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