Say goodbye to “reaching out for money” in the near future
In the past, we’ve always had to remember to bring the four things we should have on us when leaving the house: ID, cell phone, keys, and wallet. Nowadays, cell phones have become the only, absolute necessity, because the wallet has been replaced by various mobile payment options, and ID cards are no longer the only way to identify people because many places we go to also now have fingerprint or facial recognition. Next, keys will be fading out of our lives as the era of smart locks dawns upon us.
According to forecast by the China lock industry information center, China’s requirement for smart locks will grow from 3 million sets in 2016 to 32 million in 2020. With a 10-fold increase in just four years, saying that the market is booming is no overstatement.
The strongest backing for this forecast is that compared to developed countries such as Japan and Korea as well as European and North America, China has a lower smart lock market penetration rate; it was only 3% in 2017, and may reach just 20% by 2020. The current rate in European and American markets is 15%, while in Korea it is up to as much as 80%.
A report by iResearch Consulting Group also shows that with the rising popularity of smart living, up to 75% of citizens are now willing to purchase smart locks. It is evident that smart locks have become an important component of smart living that people will consider “bringing home.”
So, with this strong positive market trend under way, are smart lock technology and products ready for the boom?
Actually, the smart lock is a general term for an extensive range of access control options. Any lock that replaces or partially replaces traditional key-opening methods with electronic means for the sake of management and control may count as a smart lock.
The birth of smart locks can be traced back to a decade ago. The simple, standalone locks created at that time have since undergone 4 or 5 evolutions into today’s multi-functional connected locks. Smart lock functions set to become mainstream in the next 3-5 years will focus mainly on the two following aspects: NFC (near-field communication) door opening and remote (cloud-based) door lock management. All products and solutions will predominantly be designed and defined with these two aspects in mind.
NFC lock opening refers to the ways in which we can open locks when we’re standing right beside the door, and encompass the three following types:
The first is conventional standalone smart door lock opening, including password and smartcard lock opening. These technologies are both mature and have become the standard for smart locks currently on the market. Future products in this category will not feature revolutionary technology, only slight modifications in product appearance and user experience.
The second type is phone-based or other wearable door opening devices facilitated by Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and NFC. Since BLE is already a standard feature on all smartphones, it’s naturally the best and perhaps most convenient option. As such, all future mainstream smart locks will necessarily feature BLE lock opening. Neither is NFC’s market to be underrated as its applications expand; after all, NFC’s convenience and safety has been market-tested, and as it becomes an increasingly common integrated feature of smart phones, it will also become an important option for smart lock opening. Furthermore, the card emulation function offered by NFC can eliminate the use of certain smartcards by incorporating them into smartphones, bringing users even greater convenience.
The third type is biometric authentication opening. At the moment, fingerprint authentication accounts for more than 97% share in the smart lock market. Considering its technological maturity, usability, and affordable costs, fingerprint authentication’s predominance in the smart lock market will not fluctuate much in the foreseeable future. It is however worth noting is that the photoelectric sensor technology previously used for fingerprint locks is gradually been replaced by capacitive touch technology; the latter is expected to reach a 60% market share by 2018, prevailing over the use of photoelectric sensors. As competition in the market for smart phone fingerprint authentication intensifies, fingerprint authentication module suppliers are redirecting their attention to the smart lock market. This will quickly reduce associated costs, eliminate technological barriers, and speed up the prevalence of fingerprint authentication in the smart lock market.
The NFC lock opening option in today’s products usually requires the integration of several different technologies. Not only do users enjoy a wider variety of choices, the product can also be adapted to different needs in various application scenarios.
Figure 2, The Smart Lock solution developed by Avnet supports multiple lock opening modes such as BLE, NFC, fingerprint, password, and smartcards (Image source: Avnet)
Obviously, you don’t make a lock “smart” just by simply replacing keys with a different lock opening option. Cloud-based remote control of the lock and integration of the smart lock into smart living networks will be what makes the technology truly meaningful.
“Connected” smart locks opens up new possibilities for many innovative features. For instance, you can remotely open locks through the cloud, or give temporary passwords to family members who have forgotten their keys. If irregular access is detected, the smart lock will automatically trigger smart household equipment such as video surveillance or alarms to respond and handle the error. Connected smart locks can also support online updating of firmware, which is another great convenience.
To become connected, smart locks must be equipped with appropriate means for wireless interconnection communication. As smart door locks are usually equipped with low-power batteries, they are generally connected to smart home local area networks through low-power wireless protocols such as ZigBee or Thread. Cloud resources and services are then accessed through gateways. Developers are also exploring the possibility of connecting smart door locks to the cloud by direct low-power wide area IoT technologies such as NB-IoT, which will free the lock from dependency on home IoT local networks.
Smart lock developers and manufacturers will gradually find that, when it comes to connected smart door locks, it’s not enough to simply provide users with hardware products, and that a comprehensive solution necessarily includes supporting cloud-based services. Whether the cloud service is developed in-house or in partnership with others, this course is inevitable.
Figure 3, Wireless interconnection technology utilized in connected smart locks (Data source: Internet)
Smart locks have other challenges to overcome, cost for example. Mid- and high-end smart lock products currently available on the market sell for over RMB 3000. Analysts claim that future mainstream branded products must fall between RMB 1500-2500 to approach the critical point for triggering a boom in market growth.
To reach this target, on one hand chip manufacturers may reduce total BOM cost by increasing chip integration, for instance by using multiprotocol chip solutions that can run both BLE and ZigBee/Thread protocols on a single wireless MCU, fulfilling smart lock multiprotocol interconnection requirements while effectively controlling the costs. On the other hand, as the market expands in scale, smart door lock suppliers will also have more bargaining power over the supply chain and be better able to find room for downward price adjustments.
Although developments in the smart lock market were previously technology-driven, it has now evolved into a market-drawn sector. Products and solutions must now closely cater to market and consumer requirements so as not to miss out on the fast-approaching market boom.