A Better Mousetrap

A spring, a trigger, and a board — the gold standard for catching mice. So much so, that ‘building a better mousetrap’ has become a colloquialism for futility. I’d like to challenge the notion that we can’t improve the value of a mature/fully-vetted product. Maybe it isn’t something we can achieve by redesigning the core product. But, what about transforming it? Shifting value and enhancing what the product is through connectivity and the Internet of Things (IoT). Think about it. What if the classic mousetrap sent trap status alerts and thereby gave you peace of mind. Or better still, that your strategically placed trap has done its job and needs to be emptied and reset.

The 5-Layers of an IoT Connected Thing:

To start our grand journey to the engineer’s happy place, let’s run with the mousetrap example and explore the 5 layers it takes to connect any ‘thing’ to the IoT.

Layer 1 — Core Product Infrastructure

As with any product initiative, it’s important to start with a solid core product infrastructure. The standard mousetrap is both solid and elegant (and lethal) – a board, a spring and a trigger. The physical product has to function…well. But we’re adding value by awareness, so let’s build onto the first layer with a sensor circuit.

Layer 2 — A Sensor Circuit

This is where we consider what data could support analysis to determine the status of our trap. Lots of options exist – accelerometers, a switch, a photo resistor, a force-sensitive resistor, or even an ultrasonic transducer come to mind. Selecting one (or more) depends on other layers and the approach to analytic logic. Always select your sensors with end goal in mind. While it might be fun to integrate a laser of some sort, we’ll keep it simple – a micro switch with a circuit that is held closed by an ‘armed’ trap.

The next two layers help us deal with the data coming from our micro switch circuit connected to a microcontroller.

Layer 3 — Connectivity

The connectivity layer requires cost/function/environmental tradeoffs. Options run the gamut from radio to Ethernet to Wi-Fi, to Long Range vhf/uhf radio and even cellular – each with benefits and challenges. For simplicity and example sake, we’ll consider a Bluetooth connection to a home computer. It’s likely a good solution given range and pervasive connectivity.

Layer 4 — Analytics

The connectivity layer flows into the analytics layer and approach – how, where and when we determine a ‘sprung’ trap. Once it’s determined and we process any other salient information, we would likely pass that info through our connectivity layer to our Smart Application in the IoT Platform layer at the top of our IoT stack.

3 Realms of Performing IoT Analytics

Before we get carried away, however, let’s unpack 3 realms of performing analytics; Real-time, Local and Cloud.

  • Real-time analysis would typically be high-frequency evaluation of a trigger or a calculation based on multiple values to determine some sort of event before storing or pushing data to the cloud. For example, this ‘live’ processing could evaluate accelerometer data to determine if someone took a step in the case of a wearable IoT device. In the case of our trap, it could be used to ‘wake up’ the monitoring system once a mouse is sensed sniffing the trap.
  • Local Storage of data before going to the cloud provides for some short-term hysteresis, filtering or perhaps comparison to a time-based goal as in number of steps in a day — or mice sniffing our trap.
  • Cloud — Real-time and local storage data can be streamed to the cloud for long-term storage, trending, historical analysis and such. It could even be used to feed a machine-learning algorithm for predictive failure analyses.

For our simple mousetrap example, we’d likely just monitor the micro-switch at some reasonable interval and send the status to our IoT Platform – likely ThingWorx.

Layer 5 — IoT Platform

So now that our newly enhanced trap can sense, connect, analyze, and communicate its status, we can share that with an IoT platform to aggregate data and either perform additional analytics or communicate with other traps, sensors, or systems. This is where the IoT can really take off by being the refinery of crude data from various streams and start to head for a connected stream of autonomous systems of systems – but I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll address that in a future blog on IoT platforms.

Applications communicating autonomously on a defined platform are what facilitate this shift of product value. This is why a powerful, scalable and secure platform for application development is just as important a layer as the rest. It’s here that we can actually see the newfound value of our connected mousetrap – Is it still armed? – Was it tripped? Do I need to check on it? With enough sensors, good analytics, and a flexible platform, we could ascertain which of many traps has had an event, if it’s full, or just been ‘sniffed.’ When an event happens an email or text can be sent to someone with the delightful responsibility to do something about it!

And so that’s how we can make a better mousetrap, tractor, valve, medical device, etc. A “better mousetrap” is a simple example, but if we can add value to the mousetrap just imagine how you could add value to your products. Each of the 5 layers of the IoT stack plays a role — core product infrastructure, sensor systems, connectivity, analytics, and smart applications on an IoT platform.

If you’d like to build your better mousetrap, or more likely, if you’d like to transform the way you design, manufacture, connect to, or service your products, EAC would love to help. Let’s connect.