I can turn on my GE air conditioner, monitor its energy usage and tweak its settings from my cell phone. Belkin’s connected crockpot calculates cooking time and sends reminders to the chef. A Quirky egg carton in your refrigerator can determine if you need to add eggs to your grocery list. The connected home is capturing the public’s imagination because it’s so easy to relate to, but get ready, because connected devices will soon be everywhere.
Sensors, mobile, cloud, analytics and other technologies are coming up in design conversations at appliance makers, car companies and industrial machinery manufacturers as they level up the value proposition of their products. What are now purely functional objects will become devices that interact with their users, and monitor and communicate maintenance needs. Buyers will no longer buy an air conditioner; they’ll buy a room or building that’s 72°F/22°C year-round, as the vendor bundles the machine and a services contract with a temperature guarantee.
The Internet of Things (IoT) layers sensing, transmitting and analysis technologies and is already changing product design, manufacturing and operation. Rather than relying on surveys or focus groups to learn how customers might use a product, designers can gain real insight from data acquired from actual operation across a broad user base. This can be profound or simple: Do more users than not push a button too hard? Design a sturdier button. Do most drivers accelerate into stops? Change the passive restraint system.
As a designer, you’ll soon be able to gain insight into many aspects of how your products are used, abused and serviced — but only if you implement the technologies that will help you gather that data in the first place. The IoT is taking hold first in industries that already incorporate sensors into their products: cars, airplanes, printers, anything that tells its operator when something needs to be replaced, refilled or otherwise serviced. Today, an indicator light may illuminate so that you take action, perhaps by replacing the printer’s ink cartridge. Once IoT-enabled, that printer may send you a text message or email, reminding you to replace the ink cartridge before it runs out. Your car, which is constantly capturing data, really only communicates once or twice a year, when your dealer plugs its onboard computers into the service bay’s work station for a download. Wouldn’t it be better to know, before your appointment, what maintenance was needed that day? Your dealer could order the parts, schedule the work and provide a quote before you even show up. When your car is IoT-enabled, it constantly connects with the dealer to make this possible.
Which of your products, and your customers’ experience using them, could be enhanced by this kind of interaction?
Designing in the sensor is the easiest part. What action do you want it to spawn? The printer light that goes on is simple. Sending that same signal over a WiFi or wired network for downstream analysis (and possible action) requires a much more sophisticated platform. You’ll need to build data capture and analytics capabilities, and hire people who know how to interpret the important results generated from that ocean of raw data.
For designers, the IoT will finally mean a true closed loop: You’ll learn exactly how customers are interacting with what you create. You’ll be able to improve their experience with the product, creating greater quality in the attributes that matter most to the buyer. You won’t need to over-engineer, because you’ll have real data from which to build predictive simulations. You can help build services offerings that create new opportunities for your company, and optimize performance for your customers.
If you’re not currently looking into IoT, you’re not alone. It’s still very early days for most companies, and the infrastructure to really harness it is still evolving. But start looking at your products with a view towards how you’d change them to add sensors and transmitters. What’s important to track, to maintain the product in an optimal state? What do you need to know to design a better next version? You might also consider working you’re your service and support teams to understand what data you can capture to improve effective product life or reduce servicing needs — these answers may lead to whole new things to measure. Get ready now, because this is happening. Those who wait too long may not be able to catch up.
Editor’s Note: For more information, watch this brief PTC video which explains how the Internet of Things is transforming manufacturing: