Smart appliances from Midea – A great centre of innovation in AI, IoT and Big Data

The Device Chronicle interviews Joshua Xiang, VP & CTO of IoT, Midea on smart appliances and the growth in IoT, AI and robotics in the industrial sectors.

This article is also available in a Chinese translation from here

Midea is a global industrial player which has embraced digitalization to greatly improve experiences for its customers across many different categories. The company operates 5 distinct groups – the smart home, smart buildings, smart logistics, smart manufacturing and digital technology innovation. The latter involves leveraging Midea’s experience across the categories, to help other companies in China and the rest of the world develop innovations.

Digitalization & automation in smart appliances

The company has a rich heritage built up over five decades. Joshua explains how the digitalization process started in the company 15 years ago. They began by automating the entire back end including HR, supply chain management, manufacturing. Then, 7 years ago the company started an initiative for the smart home. Joshua explains that the ambition was to digitalize to make everything smarter, so as to use AI, IoT, robotics and big data to help people improve their decision making and increase efficiency and savings in energy and cost.

Joshua continues to explain that there were two separate yet related initiatives: One was a back office initiative to make the business more optimally automated, and the other was to design and make home appliances more like computers, with their own OS and applications running on these devices. Joshua says “These devices would behave like robots and Midea would be a pioneer in smart living, smart home and smart manufacturing.”

Rich mechanical, materials & electronics heritage

Midea has a heritage of mechanical engineering, materials engineering and electronics. This is still an important part of the business but now the business is assimilating software and it is a paradigm shift. 16,000 R&D professionals in the company, 5000 are software professionals. The R&D process used to be a waterfall process. Joshua describes the typical process: “going to market to find out requirements, define products, make a prototype and then mass produce these products. You ship it to channels and sell the products.” Now the company culture is changing to be software-driven and Midea has even founded a software institution attracting a lot of talents.

In harmony with users & their smart appliances

Joshua also provided some insights into Midea’s IoT strategy. The company has just launched an operating system based on OpenHarmony designed for IoT devices with a Linux kernel typically. Joshua explains that the kernels can be different depending on the power and complexity of the embedded devices but the application development framework is the same. Joshua also explains that there are different levels of smart devices from L0 to L4 much like you will find in the world of automotive and autonomous vehicles.

Midea R&D is working on a middleware platform designed to connect many different devices: These include AGVs in the warehouse, smart appliances, manufacturing machines. Computer-controlled and wheel-based, automatic guided vehicles (AGV) are load carriers that travel along the floor of a facility without an onboard operator or driver. Their movement is directed by a combination of software and sensor-based guidance systems. Midea is also developing an AI chatbot platform that can control these devices through speech. Joshua explains that “It is software-driven, AI and robotic driven, and that we instill Agile software methodologies into the waterfall R&D process. We are open and looking for collaboration. Core components are developed in house, and we collaborate with the open source community, and global tech players such as AliCloud, Microsoft Azure, AWS, IBM, etc.” Joshua goes on to say that Midea is open in terms of ecosystem development and also active in organisations such as Matter in the US. Backed by players such as Google, Apple and Amazon, Matter is an industry-unifying standard for reliable, secure connectivity. The association works to provide a seal of approval that devices will work seamlessly together, today and tomorrow. Matter is creating more connections between more objects, simplifying development for manufacturers and increasing compatibility for consumers. Joshua also explains that Midea has innovated in other ways. The company created a classification for home appliances to determine the smartness of home appliances and has been submitted to the IEEE standards body.

Amazing AI use cases in smart appliances

Midea has also applied AI in a way that a mobile application can control the home appliances through the user’s voice. Joshua explains “Voice capabilities have also been built into AC units and refrigerators. There is an AC scenario design for parents and small children. The units can tell bedtime stories and the sensors can tell whether the blanket covers the whole child or not. Parents can get an alert if the child is uncovered and cold.” All home smart appliances can be connected and work in symphony in different connected scenarios which have been developed by the company. “Big data technology tracks the usage behaviour of the water heater. The times of the showers are different, and based on different behaviours, the water temperature is adjusted. The temperature goes down if the family leaves the house to save energy. These are the so-called IoT native applications.”

Joshua explains that Midea wants to build an IoT operating system as they do not want to rely on a 3rd device such as a phone to control the devices in a home. Joshua says “The home is a heterogeneous environment with devices from many different brands, and so we need to use the same native IoT open source operating system with common protocols to allow for frictionless communication and control.”

Importance of OTA software updates

Joshua believes that OTA software updates is a very important consideration as a feature as Midea wants to create a comprehensive product based on hardware, software, service and content. He says “If you release a new product, it is the start of the engagement with the customer. Once the product goes into the home, we want to perform software upgrades, monitoring, and remote service calls. We launched a multipurpose AC product called the AirNEXT – it has a modularised design with OTA, a couple of slots for hardware modules that can do purification, and another card that can control moisture. The home appliance is a computer or maybe even a robotic device.” The R&D group is also working on a distributed intelligence concept so that a software upgrade can be stored on the larger device in the smart home, and then use the Local Area Network to update smaller devices in the same smart home.

We wish Joshua and his colleagues at Midea well as they continue on their journey to enabling smart experiences through IoT, AI and big data.

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