Accelerate product development with Bluetooth® low energy modules

Pre-certified modules let developers skip the byzantine process of Bluetooth qualification and focus on building better products.

Takeaways

  • Wireless connectivity can differentiate your products in the marketplace.
  • The wireless/regulatory certification and qualification process can add eight to12 weeks and more than $100,000 to the product development process.
  • Pre-certified modules eliminate that part of the process while delivering high functionality with customizable analog and digital blocks to simplify product differentiation.

 

There’s a mad rush in the consumer electronics space to capture customers’ mindshare by being first-to-market with new-fangled products for the Internet of Things (IoT). Not to be left out, white-goods manufacturers are busy producing an array of connected home appliances such as wireless-enabled washers that text you when your laundry is ready for the dryer and coffee machines that start brewing when your cell phone alarm rings in the morning. Just over the horizon is a refrigerator that can let you know when you’re running low on milk. In this furiously competitive market sector, first-mover advantage cannot be overestimated. Unfortunately, building an innovative product is just the start. Devices need to be certified for compliance to a bevy of standards, from the Bluetooth® wireless technology standard to government communications regulations. It’s a byzantine process that can increase time-to-market by weeks or even months (see figure 1).

 

V2N2 BLE fig1

 

Figure 1: The process of moving a product from design through qualification requires multiple steps and can take many months.

 

Pre-certified Bluetooth Smart modules provide a solution. These fully self-contained wireless systems make it much easier to go from product prototype to commercial-grade production. Best of all, they carry the added benefit of pre-qualification and certification by all necessary standards and regulatory authorities.

 

Why Bluetooth Smart?

Bluetooth Smart has emerged as a very popular wireless standard for newer IoT products, mostly driven by its simplified protocol stack (simplified compared to classic Bluetooth wireless technology or WiFi, but still not very simple) and an architecture defined for low-power radio communication. Bluetooth Smart is typically associated with portable devices for which operating time per charge is of paramount importance. You might question why it would be appropriate for use in home appliances operating off of wall plug power, but there are multiple reasons why it is a good fit.

 

Bluetooth Smart is ideal for device-to-device communication, such as connecting your cell phone to that coffee machine directly without having to go through a wireless router. It is built around privacy, requesting explicit permission before accessing data or controlling the appliance via an app on a user’s phone. In contrast, a WiFi connection may be always on, making the unit available to anyone with access to the network. From a developer perspective, Bluetooth Smart is cheaper and easier to implement than WiFi, which has a complex protocol stack. Low-power Bluetooth wireless technology can be used for proximity detection, enabling it to respond appropriately to user position or even track the person’s movement around the home. Finally, energy usage remains a concern even for devices operating on wall-plug power. Bluetooth Smart significantly reduces power consumption for devices in idle mode.

 

The challenging aspect of the technology is that the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) mandates that developers making Bluetooth Smart products test and qualify their parts using a complex multistep process. Manufacturers must jump through similar hoops to meet government regulatory requirements for countries around the globe (see figure 2).

 

V2N2 BLE fig2

 

Figure 2: Products with wireless capabilities must demonstrate regulatory compliance for each geographic area in which they are to be sold, including Canada, the European Union, Japan and the United States.

 

It’s a long and difficult process. Even if you’re successful, at the end you may realize that you set out to build innovative white goods but have instead spent a large chunk of your resources on understanding and perfecting the intricacies of voodoo wireless communication standards and certification.

 

Speeding time to market

One common approach to navigating around the pains and pitfalls of wireless qualification and certification is to use pre-qualified and pre-certified modules. They offer a great alternative to designing your own wireless systems and taking them through the long and expensive qualification and certification processes. The drawbacks to using modules may be around restricted form factors and features, but it’s amazing how easily those can be accommodated when you’re faced with the challenge of the ticking clock.

 

Modules commonly include the wireless controller IC, any crystals required for timing purposes, an RF antenna, and the circuitry required to complete the antenna-matching network and power system. Besides offering integrated hardware on easily solderable packages, modules often also include pre-loaded firmware on the wireless IC; this typically consists of the supported wireless protocol stack and a command-set to simplify interfacing with the wireless controller. The modules almost always carry the wireless standard’s qualification such that the end-product developer can easily refer to the pre-qualified ID rather than go through the qualification process themselves.

 

A product declaration still needs to be completed for the end-product to get the appropriate marketing symbols and logos from the governing standard and regulatory bodies, but the requirements for such declarations are typically much simpler than for a device built from scratch. Certain modules that feature an integrated RF antenna of various types (for example, a ceramic chip antenna or a PCB trace antenna) include additional regulatory certification and approval. Having an FCC ID on a pre-certified module has the added benefit of freeing you from worrying about whether or not your wireless system will pass the required stringent tests as regulated by the FCC. Your end-product may still require FCC certification for other parts in the system that radiate waves, but having the primary wireless subsystem of your product pre-certified saves a lot of time, money, and headaches in the long run.

 

Choosing the right wireless module

With Bluetooth Smart becoming a very popular choice in low-power wireless for IoT products, there are several prequalified modules available for this standard in the market today. A lot of these modules are offered by companies who specialize in the design and manufacture of modules, as it takes specialized expertise in wireless design and reliable small form-factor manufacturing. Although this gives you the confidence of knowing that your module is designed by an expert company, it often has drawbacks when it comes to support—or the lack thereof. In the worst-case scenario, you may find yourself going  to a different vendor to troubleshoot issues with the wireless controller IC (from the chip manufacturer) or the wireless protocol stack (from the software vendor). Few companies in the industry today offer in-house end-to-end solutions with IC design, software development, and module manufacturing capabilities.

 

In addition to pre-certification, vendors offer product differentiation by integrating more features into their modules. The most commonly available devices are simple communications modules, that is, they rely on your system having its own microcontroller (MCUs) and simply latch on to it over a standard serial communications interface such as UART/SPI/I2C to manage the wireless communications in the system.

 

Other vendors offer modules with integrated MCUs for a higher degree of functionality. They deliver expanded feature sets with the aid of peripherals like analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) to change analog sensor data into digital format and pulse-width modulators (PWMs) drive LEDs or simple buzzers. These devices typically offer only limited configurability and interface choices, however, and at the expense of a larger package size. True product differentiation requires a module that offers more options and greater flexibility.

 

The PSoC solution

To bring a more comprehensive offering to the market, Cypress Semiconductor recently extended its successful touchpad module manufacturing capabilities to its wireless offerings. The new EZ-BLE PSoC programmable system-on-chip controller module from Cypress presents an ideal combination of size, feature integration, and programmability (see figure 3). At 11 mm x 11 mm x 1.8 mm, the module is not the smallest available, but it offers the highest amount of feature integration per square millimeter. It’s pre-qualified for Bluetooth Smart compliance and regulatory approvals for a range of locations, including Canada, the European Union, Japan, Korea, and the United States.

 

V2N2 BLE frontis sm

 

Figure 3: The  EZ-BLE PSoC programmable system-on-chip controller module is prequalified for wireless performance, reducing development costs and speeding time to market.

 

The integrated PSoC 4 BLE wireless controller IC features a 48MHz ARM® Cortex®-M0 CPU with a plethora of communication interfaces (UART/SPI/I2C/I2S). The wireless controller also includes a programmable analog front end to eliminate the need for any external ICs to interface with analog sensors, a very common requirement for products that feature on-board sensors. In addition, the EZ-BLE PSoC module features Cypress’s CapSense® touch-sensing technology, making it easy to add sophisticated user interfaces to your end-product. Cypress’s module has another key advantage—it is built by one of the only vendors in the industry that has its own in-house MCU and wireless-IC, protocol-stack software, and module-manufacturing capabilities.

 

You’re in business to develop the best, most innovative appliances possible. You should be focusing your efforts on adding functionality for your customers, not on interfacing peripherals or chasing regulatory approval. The pre-certified and pre-qualified EZ-BLE PsoC Bluetooth Smart module can enable you to shave off anywhere from eight to 12 weeks of product development time and upward of $100,000 that would normally be spent on the wireless qualification and certification process. Find out what the EZ-BLE PSoC can do for you today.

 

Further reading

Also in this issue:

AS-MCUs bring TFT HMIs to cost-sensitive home appliances

RCCA turns failures into future success

Answers to your data-retention specs and testing questions

PSoC controllers speed design of smart home appliances

Prequalified APIs and software keep white goods safe

Bus Analyzer uncovers root cause of failure in flash-enabled systems

How to implement liquid-level measurement using capacitive sensing technology

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