Once upon a time, products consisted of mechanical components. Much thought and brainstorming went into the best ways to design these components to make them function better than competing products. Life for product designers and engineers became more complicated when products began including electrical parts, as mechanical design and electrical design are often done on disparate systems that typically don’t speak common languages.
Today, in the era of the Internet of Things, products are not only becoming more complex but “smarter.” Products have evolved into complex systems that encompass hardware, sensors, data storage, microprocessors, software, along with the means to “connect” to the outside world via wireless connectivity to the Internet. Complex? You bet.
These smart, connected products are demanding sea changes in the way companies do everything, from how they design products to how they use and manage all of the “big data” that will be captured by these smart devices. The expanded capabilities of smart, connected products and the data they capture is creating disruption in how companies operate and compete.
Information technology (IT) has now become a key player in new product design. Embedded sensors, processors, software and connectivity in products, combined with cloud-based platforms where product data is stored and analyzed, are driving major boosts in product functionality and performance. These improvements have and will continue to be driven in large part by the product-usuage data captured by the “smarts” (sensors, software, processors) now embedded in products.
What Are Smart, Connected Products?
Smart, connected products have three core elements: physical components, “smart” components, and components that enable connectivity. Smart components amplify the capabilities and value of the physical components, while connectivity improves upon the capabilities and value of the smart components and enables some of them to exist outside the physical product itself.
In the November issue of the Harvard Business Review, an article entitled, How Smart, Connected Products are Transforming Competition, uses a car as an example to illustrate the core components of a smart, connected product. The article explains that the physical components comprise the product’s mechanical and electrical parts. In a car, these include the engine block, tires, and batteries.
Smart components comprise the sensors, microprocessors, data storage, controls, software, and, typically, an embedded operating system and enhanced user interface. In a car, these smart components include the engine control unit, antilock braking system, rain-sensing windshields with automated wipers, and touch screen displays. Connectivity components comprise the ports, antennae, and protocols enabling wired or wireless connections with the product.
Connectivity takes three forms, which can be present together:
* One-to-one: An individual product connects to the user, the manufacturer, or another product through a port or other interface. For example, when a car is hooked up to a diagnostic machine.
* One-to-many: A central system is continuously or intermittently connected to many products simultaneously. For example, many Tesla automobiles are connected to a single manufacturer system that monitors performance and accomplishes remote service and upgrades.
* Many-to-many: Multiple products connect to many other types of products and often also to external data sources. An array of types of farm equipment are connected to one another, and to geolocation data, to coordinate and optimize the farm system. For example, automated tillers inject nitrogen fertilizer at precise depths and intervals, and seeders follow, placing corn seeds directly in the fertilized soil.
Connectivity serves a dual purpose. First, it allows information to be exchanged between the product and its operating environment, its maker, its users, and other products and systems. Second, connectivity enables some functions of the product to exist outside the physical device, in what is known as the product cloud.
How IoT will affect product design
Smart, connected products dramatically expand the ways in which manufacturers can differentiate their products. Knowing how customers actually use the products enhances a company’s ability to segment customers, customize products, set prices to better capture value, and extend value-added services. Smart, connected products also allow companies to develop much closer customer relationships.
These so-called smart products will also enable companies to tailor products to more-specific niche markets, and even customize products for individual customers.
Though smart products offer manufacturers a better way to differentiate their products and meet more specific needs within their user base, it also brings a host of challenges. These include the higher fixed costs of more-complex product design, embedded technology, and multiple layers of new IT infrastructure that will be required to manage the data being produced by smart products.
PTC jumps on board IoT bandwagon
At the very end of last year, PTC announced its acquisition of ThingWorx, a tech developer of an application platform designed to rapidly build Internet of Things and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) applications. The PA-based company develops what it calls the “1st Application Platform for the Connected World,” one that combines the key functionality of Web 2.0, social media and Connected Intelligence, and applies to any process that involves “things.”
The goal of the platform is to reduce the time, cost and risk required to build M2M and Internet of Things (IoT) apps. The platform is comprised of ThingWorx Composer, a modeling environment; a drag-and-drop Mashup Builder for creating apps, real-time dashboards, collaborative workspaces and mobile interfaces without coding; an event-driven execution engine; 3D storage; collaboration capabilities; and connectivity to devices via third-party device clouds, direct network connections, Open APIs and AlwaysOn using the ThingWorx Edge Microserver.
PTC gave editors, analysts and users some glimpses of the next-gen technology that might be developed with the ThingWorx platform at their Live Global event in Boston this summer but have yet to introduce a specific product that leverages this platform.
The bottom line
Increasingly smart and connected products can generate value in several key ways, as streams of real-time operational data are captured, analyzed and shared to increase a company’s understanding of its products’ performance, use and reliability. The technology will provide companies with a wealth of information to feed back into their respective product pipelines, which will in turn will increase competitiveness and their ability to customize products for niche markets and specific customers.
Though there are still technical hurdles to be overcome, the era of smarter, connected products is here and we will continue to cover the topic as it evolves. Stay tuned.