How Covid-19 has impacted requirements of smart home tech

Simon Vogt, CCO, P2i talks to HiddenWires about how consumer attitudes towards smart homes has changed due to Covid-19.

The market for smart home devices was a dynamic one, even prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Smart Home Device Tracker, released in September 2019, the worldwide market for smart home devices was expected to grow 23.5% year over year in 2019 to nearly 815m device shipments. Worldwide shipments were forecast to be more than 1.39bn in 2023 with a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.4%.

"Driving the market's growth over the next few years is a combination of downward pressure on prices from intensifying competition, rising adoption of smart assistants, and rising consumer awareness of the conveniences, costs savings, and energy reductions that smart home devices provide," said Adam Wight, senior research analyst, Internet of Things: Consumer.

Those trends still hold true in the new Covid-19 era. According to ABI research, global shipments of smart home voice control devices are predicted to increase by 30% in 2020 as 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 for example. 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 consumers’ need for health and safety. 

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All this is driving 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 which 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.

We typically see every year a peak in people ‘googling’ about how to clean their consumer devices in the week after Christmas, 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 itself. Manufacturers are even issuing guides on how to clean these devices safely without damaging them. Most such guides highlight the obvious points around 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 receive 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 which 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.   

We are also seeing regulations emerging which 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. 

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Finding a solution 
All of these factors combined mean that manufacturers will increasingly be looking for devices that protect against both environmental damage from moisture, humidity and rain but also against cleaning agents such as Isopropyl alcohol (IPA). To be effective in protecting against damage to electronic devices, solutions need to offer protection against all of this. Yet, the best solutions 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 the functional perspective but the aesthetic one also.

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 contaminates out, whilst allowing superior acoustic performance. But it does not 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. Conformal coatings inhibit electrical conductivity and are prone to cracking and delaminating. They also typically degrade when exposed to heat or vibrations. 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 from everyday life.

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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 it provide a variety of levels of protection as required, from splashes and spills up to full immersion, but it can also be used to treat a variety of surfaces and materials, giving manufacturers the flexibility to protect everything from printed circuit boards (PCBs) to whole devices, against a variety of liquid threats both inside and outside the home. 

Smart homes founded on the latest electronics devices are rapidly becoming a reality, but for this vision to be successfully realised, putting in place a robust, yet flexible, method of water protection will be crucial. Additionally, the pandemic has also highlighted to consumers 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 such as IPA.

These solutions further support the ‘smart home vision’ by enabling smart technology providers to reduce their maintenance call out requirements and minimise the need for costly repairs but more broadly by significantly improving the lifetime of sensors extensively used in a wide spectrum of smart technology applications, thereby significantly extending the longevity of many smart home devices. As such they act as a key building block of the smart home of today and of the future.

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