Apr 9, 2016 | By Alec

Futurists often talk about the Internet of Things (IoT), the complete integration of our surroundings, including accessories, clothes and even kitchen appliances, to the internet. 3D printing is often seen as an important tool in realizing that future, as it makes scaling down and customizing production of electronic goods commercially viable. But there is another, more practical problem: our connective technologies, such as the 3G/4G internet and Bluetooth, are relatively expensive. Luckily, there is an alternative, known as LoRaWAN.

According to Dutch specialists who have just installed the first LoRaWAN antenna in Zwolle, this alternative network is far more suitable for the adoption of low cost, energy efficient 3D printed devices and sensors, and could therefore help usher in the era of IoT.

If you frequent a lot of tech websites, you probably have heard about LoRaWAN before. First released in the summer of 2015 and quickly installed in Amsterdam, it is essentially an alternate internet network for small-scale and efficient communication between devices. LoRaWAN is short for Long Range Wide-Area Network, and is a low power, long range, and low bandwidth networking option that is often called the first step towards smart cities. At its heart is a small, low-cost chip by Semtech that generates very meager internet: just bi-directional data at a rate of around 0.3kbps and 50kbps. In no way capable of competing with today’s internet, but you can best see it as an alternate channel that we won’t personally use. Instead, it takes devices off the main network, and onto its cost-effective, long range little brother.

It’s adoption rate is currently quite low, but many beleive that in just a few years, we won't be able to imagine life without it. Unlike the large data processing Wi-Fi and 4G networks, it has a massive range of up to 15 km (10 miles), requires very few antennas, and uses very little power. While our smartphones are drained in a matter of hours, a sensor connected to LoRaWAN can generate data for about three years on a single charge. This cost-effectiveness makes it the ‘next big thing’ in connectivity and is a perfect option for integrating sensors into our clothes, watches, even in dog collars and bicycles to prevent them from running away or being stolen.

The first antennas are already up and running in Amsterdam, but a new one has just been installed on the roof of digital developers Netivity in Zwolle, the Netherlands. According to the company’s project leader, it’s an absolute necessity for taking IoT integration further. “A few years ago, we could hardly imagine a washing machine or thermostat to be connected to a WiFi network. LoRaWAN is the next step in that direction,” project leader Jouke Schaafsma explains to Dutch reporters. “LoRaWAN is intended to send and receive very small quantities of information, which means it consumes very little power and that it can be sent over very large distances. WiFi and 4G require far more antennas and energy, so this provides a very new range of possibilities.”

And that’s where 3D printing comes in. According to Dennis Freië, the owner of Dutch 3D printing service provider Tricas 3D Print, this remarkable network is a perfect match for 3D printing and could give a huge boost to the development of 3D printed wearables and sensors. “We develop a lot of new, physical products intended for the consumer market. Often, these products are packed with new technologies and materials, and electronic components that communicate with other products or users. That LoRaWAN network gives us a lot of new opportunities to do so,” he says.

With 3D printing providing the means to scale down and customize sensor equipment and wearables, a low-cost network like LoRaWAN would make this technology even more commercially interesting, Freië argues. Showing an example of a small 3D printed plastic card with battery and sensor, Freië explains that it monitors the temperature in its surroundings. “You can place that card with a supply of meat, for instance, which allows you to keep an eye on its freshness. Through a computer connection, you can see if the meat has ever crossed a certain temperature threshold which renders it inedible. LoRAWAN is perfect for the integration of sensors into packaging.” Could this be the technology 3D printing needs to enforce a commercial breakthrough?

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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