Home How to Bring an Agile Approach to Hardware Development

How to Bring an Agile Approach to Hardware Development

It didn’t take long for the once extraordinary idea of having a supercomputer in your pocket and a network of voice-operated devices in your home to become the new normal. As the Internet of Things has become more commonplace, the hardware used in IoT has turned into a commodity that most people take for granted. Here is how to bring an agile approach to hardware development.

Much like the stunning innovation of a toaster oven — that is no long stunning — the hardware in IoT is acting as a platform for the rapidly advancing software that people commonly expect to use every day.

In many ways, this is a good thing. There’s a significant amount of technology that goes into a piece of hardware — even for something as simple as checking the weather or taking an order at a restaurant. When people forget that, it means the hardware is doing its job.

However, it also means that as technology continues advancing, companies that leverage dedicated hardware to deliver their software are going to have to keep up if they want to continue offering that seamless experience. If they don’t, other companies will be more than happy to jump into the fray and become the next go-to smart device in the always-expanding list of industries and use cases leveraging IoT.

Consumer use cases tend to get the majority of the headlines.

Use-cases may get the headlines, but there are also enormous markets for smart hardware developing in healthcare, retail, transportation, logistics, and more.

As more companies recognize the opportunity of getting to market faster, the fight to become an industry’s go-to hardware is only going to become more fierce. Understanding the need to pick the best-dedicated hardware becomes even more critical.

In a world where building hardware can traditionally take 12 to 18 months, a product can be technologically ancient by the time it is brought to market. The length of time to bring a product to market is why companies are going to have to find new approaches to hardware development to stay competitive.

For companies looking to up their game and increase their development speed, one of the best options may be the agile method.

Take One Thing at a Time

The agile mindset comes out of the world of software development. Agile teams focus on doing bite-size amounts of work and iteratively adding value.

Instead of spending months on a piece of software — only to find out that you’ve built the wrong thing after you ship — this iterative method provides developers with immediate feedback along the way. The end result, then, is something people actually want.

At first glance, the agile development approach may not seem ideal for the world of smart hardware development.

After all, it’s a little tougher when your product is something physical that has to be constructed. However, manufacturing challenges are what makes this approach so appealing.

In software, if you build the wrong thing, it just costs you engineering hours. Building the wrong hardware, however, can cost you a lot more than time.

Translate Agile to Hardware Development

While the value of agile in hardware may be clear, how do you iterate on something physical? Simple: You hack it. In most cases, your software is your biggest differentiator, not your hardware.

Understand that hardware is really just a software delivery vehicle.

Knowing that hardware is a software delivery vehicle that allows you to find creative ways to test the features of your product without investing millions in upfront capital for custom hardware development.

How do you do this? The easiest way is to use available hardware.

There are plenty of powerful devices that can easily be adapted to different use cases. For example, let’s say you want to build a smart dashcam for vehicles. With a traditional approach, you’d spend months (or even years) on research and development and manufacturing before ever getting a product out that people can use and provide feedback on.

In other words, you’re spending months in the dark with no real way of knowing whether you have all the right features for a successful product. All you can do is hope the first version is successful enough to warrant a second, improved edition.

With an agile development approach, it’s almost like you can cheat.

You create an app for an off-the-shelf smartphone. Your app will have the camera, GPS, and screen needed for a dashcam, and you test out what works and what doesn’t.

Not only will this experimentation lead to a more viable product, but it might even open up new avenues and markets you hadn’t thought of before.

Once you’ve tested and validated the software on existing hardware, you can evaluate whether investing in custom hardware will add significant value.

This agile hardware approach certainly won’t work for every use case. Many products require custom hardware or at least some slight modifications. When this is the case, then off-the-shelf solutions are not the answer. Additionally, this approach can create challenges when you’re scaling.

The agile method in software has proven that speed and feedback loops are extremely valuable.

There are ways you can bring that to hardware development as well. For example, while other players were wasting time building custom hardware solutions, Square went to market using consumer tablets with a simple credit card reader plugged into the headphone jack.

It wasn’t until Square had a significant market share and scale that it decided to invest in building a custom point-of-sale solution.

3 Ways Agile Can Help Hardware Startups Scale

Agile requires a significant mental shift, but it will be worth it in the long run. For many in IoT hardware development, agile could mean the difference between a flop and a massive success.

1. Allow for faster growth.

Speed to market means more revenue — which means the ability to grow. The faster you can get a solution deployed, the quicker you can snatch up market share.

This creates quicker feedback loops to let you understand your customer needs better and make better decisions in the long run. Your initial traction should also drive revenue, which can then be invested back into growth.

2. Rethink your infrastructure.

The agile development approach changes how you understand your entire product and the supporting infrastructure. Building an agile hardware company means considering not just the physical device, but also all the supporting infrastructure, such as fulfillment and logistics.

Thinking about everything holistically means you can create a better device, develop a more efficient operations team, and create a better customer experience. Dutch bank ING already uses the agile approach in this way and is using it to reshape its entire organization for the better.

Ultimately, adopting an agile approach to hardware will flow into other parts of the business, which will help you scale faster and more efficiently than competitors.

3. Build a better product.

Being nimble and adapting to change will help you survive in a market that changes continuously. By focusing your resources on software development instead of hardware development, you can quickly add new features through over-the-air software updates that will keep customers excited about your product.

Tesla improves its vehicles with significant software updates every few weeks. Not only do these updates add functionality, but they also improve how the car drives, with updates to its autopilot features and improvements to its cameras. This way, Tesla stays ahead of the competition without having to manufacture entirely new vehicles.

The agile development approach is a path forward for IoT hardware development — one that ensures it can keep up with the rapid advances of technology and consumers’ changing desires.

For companies willing to take on agile adoption challenges, this approach could very well change their fortunes and put them at the head of the hardware pack.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Dylan Swartz
Product Lead at Mason

Dylan Swartz is the product lead at Mason, which provides smart product infrastructure-as-a-service. Swartz is a software engineer and product developer with a passion for learning and building things.

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