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Time to Rethink What’s Possible with the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) disruption has been described by some as a wave that’s predicted to be much larger than the previous two information technology waves—the automation of an individual’s activity through computers introduced in the ’60s and the integration opportunities provided by the Internet in the ’90s. This third wave embeds connectivity into products themselves, which transforms the way products create value, the nature of competition, and the definition of ‘value chain.’

In many respects, companies will need to transform their business to take full advantage of the IoT opportunity. Companies like Kalypso, NI, and PTC are investing heavily in this area, and partnering to provide end-to-end IoT solutions that help companies develop, deploy, and service their smart, connected products. We spoke with John Graff from NI, Mike Campbell and Andy Timm from PTC to get their take on smart, connected products, and the things companies should keep in mind as they move forward.

What Are Smart, Connected Products?

When companies first started developing smart products—such as cars, refrigerators, and medical devices with built-in software—it was considered revolutionary. Now it’s ubiquitous.

According to Timm, connectivity, or what we now refer to as the IoT, promises to yet again revolutionize the whole concept of what a product is, as well as the whole concept of product lifecycle management. That’s because after we connect to the product, it can act as part of a system. And we’re starting to see the emergence of systems of systems like smart factories, smart cities, or smart farms.

There are things we can do with smart, connected products we’ve never been able to do before. Consider a simple example of a car. Your car is probably smart and has an internal computer that alerts you when it’s time for its 50,000 mile maintenance. But it can’t tell you if parts are dirty or worn out. A smart, connected car knows exactly what needs to be replaced before it breaks, and can communicate this to your local repair shop so they can call you to schedule an appointment.

Campbell says the capabilities of smart, connected products can be grouped into four areas: monitoring, control, optimization, and autonomy. Each area helps drive new value both for the maker and the user of the products, and each builds on the preceding one. After we connect the product, we transform our relationship to it. We give it a voice. And there’s an incredible amount we can learn from it.

According to Graff, when we share data between systems and products, the insight that can be gathered is a true multiplier in terms of value for manufacturers and end users. For example, a smart motor with embedded software may be able to tell us if it’s running or not, but a smart, connected motor can gather what NI calls ‘Big Analog Data’ on vibrations, feed that information into a system used to predict if a bearing will soon fail, and schedule preventative maintenance to avoid failure. And what about all the existing ‘dumb’ motors in plants and factories around the world? Instead of replacing them with new smart motors, we can augment them with instruments that provide a new level of intelligence about their use within the plant, and this data can be fed back to our engineers designing the next generation of motors. Even an incremental impact in motor efficiency could mean substantial savings.

The idea of closing the loop for product manufacturers is important. Many companies develop new products based on what they think customers want, but have no idea how they are actually used. With smart, connected prototypes and products, engineers can fully understand how products are used and how they behave. This provides real-world validation of needs and requirements, gives end users exactly what they want, and prevents over-engineered products with features or capabilities that simply aren’t used.

If companies can connect their products, they can analyze the information gathered using machine learning, and quickly create new applications to take advantage of this new information.

Making It Real—The Smart, Connected Mountain Bike

At PTC Live Global 2015, PTC created a smart, connected Santa Cruz mountain bike. For NIWeek 2015, Kalypso, NI, and PTC collaborated to recreate the project using NI instrumentation. The mountain bike is a good example of a smart, connected product because it’s relatable to many. According to Graff, the bike is outfitted with sensors connected to an NI myRIO device, which provides data acquisition and communication. The myRIO device measures important parameters such as fork travel, wheel speed, pedal speed, and steering angle. The data is then sent to PTC’s ThingWorx platform, which test engineers can use to build a web-enabled dashboard for use trackside during test runs.

Campbell says that by streaming data gathered from the bike via ThingWorx into the CAD (PTC Creo) model from the bike’s original design, we give life to a ‘digital twin’. Now, we have a 3D visualization that shows exactly what’s going on with the bike and provides much greater context to the data being captured. This is a relationship to the product we’ve never had before, and it’s especially useful if we can’t be near the product. With the digital twin, we have digital proximity and can know exactly what’s happening thousands of miles away or just across the worksite.

According to Campbell, the NIWeek demo also shows how augmented reality can leverage this information even further to enable smarter servicing of products. The demo shows the bike on an iPad so we know which model it is, uses information from the bike’s digital twin, and overlays real-time information from myRIO and its sensors. We can see statistics related to wheel speed, shock tension, and more. It might not be obvious in the case of a bike, which is a relatively simple product, but for a service technician standing in front of a complex machine for the first time, this data is invaluable.

Developing Your Value Prop for the IoT

Graff notes that we’re in the early phases of the IoT wave, which builds on fundamental trends that have evolved over the last decade. There are many greenfield opportunities (new things that have never been done) as well as brownfield opportunities that deliver the benefits of smart, connected products to existing infrastructure.

But there’s also a lot of hype. Gartner’s recent Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies puts the Internet of Things (IoT) at the top of the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations.’ This makes a lot of people tune out. But if we look closely at this trend to what is actually changing—computation, sensor technology, communications, connectivity, memory, and cloud analytics—we see support for a true wave that will transform product development. So even if we don’t call it the IoT because of the hype, we still have to think about how we will transform our processes and systems.

As engineers and scientists, we know that staying on the leading edge, creating breakthrough innovations, and optimizing business is already difficult, and the demands will only increase as this new wave accelerates. One-off product solutions will be unsustainable. The first step to embracing this new trend and moving forward is to understand more about the technology and software available to help you, and how it all works together.

According to Timm, if you haven’t already started thinking about the changes your industry and company will face in the coming years as smart, connected products displace today’s products, now is the time to rethink what’s possible.