This article is part of the Internal Disruptors Series, a special edition of our blog where DT thought leaders contribute with their expertise.
In 2013, myself and a team of experts with decades of experience in low-power, high-end semiconductors set out to revolutionize how data was collected from the real world by creating the world’s smallest wireless sensors.
Since then, we have been recognized with a Sustainability Award, Verdantix award, and have been praised as pioneers in easy-to-use, accessible, and sustainable IoT.
But the road to get there was not easy. Many doubted the initial vision and we were hit with unimaginable logistical roadblocks.
This is the story of how the disruptive technology that gave us our name was born.
No shortcuts or compromises.
When I left university with my Master of Science in Microelectronics, I started working for a start-up company that was developing Complementary Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor or CMOS technology.
CMOS technology is used for constructing integrated circuit chips such as microprocessors, microcontrollers, and memory chips. But we were working on developing the world’s first digital radio transceiver/receiver using CMOS technology, a radio on a single microchip.
Development progressed well, in fact so well, that the company was purchased three years later by Texas Instruments (TI), who are best known for making the world’s first handheld calculator.
The chip was further developed by the same team, who continued their work while employed by TI, and it became an important part of the TI chip portfolio.
After 3 years at TI, I joined another venture, Energy Micro, which set about developing an energy-sensitive microcontroller, effectively a computer on a single chip.
We realized that to deploy any type of equipment in a remote or difficult environment, it was extremely important to have a long-lasting, energy-efficient, and cost-effective solution. You don’t want to be servicing devices, changing their batteries, or replacing them in a hostile or geographically distant location.
Simplicity was our motto.
At Energy Micro, the microcontroller that we developed required 4 to 10 times less energy than comparable products. This made it ideal not only for remote sites but also for use as part of a distributed solution, where many similar devices could be installed and used in parallel. Low energy usage is an important factor when planning energy requirements for any site.
Again, it was acknowledged as being a ground-breaking solution, which led the company to be acquired by Silicon Labs in 2013.
Energy Micro Wonder Gecko STK showing EFM32WG990F256 (ARM Cortex-M4F).
We saw a need for a revolution in how sensors are made, deployed and maintained. IoT technology was cumbersome, expensive, and limited. And it came with a range of privacy and security concerns, hindering its adoption. There was an opportunity for a major disruption.
In 2013, building on low energy controller and radio technology, Disruptive Technologies was born with the aim of creating the world’s smallest, most reliable, long-lasting, and cost-effective temperature sensors.
Temperature monitoring is required everywhere including offices, factories, shops, and homes. Developing a small autonomous temperature sensor would reach an ever greater number of operational components, with data encryption as a core priority.
Finally, safe, cost efficient and sustainable operations would allow people to unload the ordinary for more rewarding pursuits.
To develop a tiny, robust, and autonomous temperature sensor and IoT infrastructure we identified that several key elements were needed:
We had the efficient wireless solution, which was well known to us, but were missing the ultra low power processing unit, manufacturing process and capabilities, and cloud infrastructure.
In the days before “the Cloud” was a commonplace concept, we decided to develop our own, centrally located, data storage or “private cloud” solution. This included an API to allow for easy retrieval of the information. Since this was early, we sought advice from the Netflix CTO.
A custom-designed solution, using proprietary DT Silicon microchip technology, our own radio protocol, Secure Data Shot (SDS), was built and included resilient designs, such as for the battery connection, which we are welding instead of soldering.
SDS provides end-to-end encryption and seamless roaming and is designed to allow up to 100k sensors to operate in a small, geographical area.
Secure Data Shot, proprietary Sub-1 GHz wireless communication protocol
Finding a suitable manufacturer and casing for our evolving temperature sensor proved to be a major issue.
A well-known manufacturer was extremely interested in the solution, recognizing the potential of the devices, and a contract was signed with them agreeing to manufacture. However, the resulting chips were of low quality and unreliable – which did not fall in line with the initial vision.
We therefore decided to take manufacturing in-house, initially going from one machine and tooling vendor to another, iterating on solutions and improvements for how we should manufacture. In the beginning, months were spent to get one single sensor through the unfinished line.
Eventually, a supplier was found for the production of the semiconductors in one of the most reputable manufacturers in Germany.
Tailor-made, innovative manufacturing methods.
There were still questions about the sensor “casing”, the shell that would protect the microchip. To ensure that the sensors were durable and robust, we were clear that we wanted a fully molded solution rather than a pre-fabricated case.
This caused us a number of problems, including:
After much analysis and testing, which was further hindered by a change of color to the casing, the correct manufacturing process was found. DT now has its own manufacturing company that ensures the production of high-quality sensors, with the sensors themselves undertaking self-testing during production.
The first sensors off the production line were subjected to ½ year of testing, during which time a search was made to find early adopters of the technology. Feedback was received and appropriate changes were made.
In February 2019, the temperature and proximity sensors were released to the market to critical acclaim, and we have now sold more than a hundred thousand of the devices worldwide.
The sensor range has been expanded to include water and humidity devices, with a range of others in the pipeline for release in 2022.
I believe that IoT and sensor technology will mature, together with applications and AI, such that the data that is collected will lead to autonomous escalations, predicted changes, and automatic issue resolution.
With the help of our partners, we are confident there will be Disruptive Technologies sensors in all buildings in the world.
As I look back at the things that shaped the Disruptive Technologies products, tiny size, no-hassle connectivity, ease of use, long life expectancy, robustness, and quality, follow me on my journey.
I’m proud to say that these objectives still hold true today and will also be core values for the company as we evolve in the coming years.
From the microchips that power the sensors to the communication protocol and Cloud service that securely manage sensor data, we have innovated the entire system to deliver what was once thought to be impossible.
The key to that disruption? Hard work, skilled and passionate people, and an initial mission that still defines our identity.
Follow this blog for a peek of our future!
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