Designing for Smart, Connected Products

Jim Heppelmann

In this, the second installment of a four-part interview, Jim Heppelmann, CEO of Boston-based software company PTC, looks at how the Internet of Things and smart, connected products are transforming product design.

How are smart, connects products and the IoT impacting product design? 

On the functional level, the product designers need to take a holistic systems engineering approach to design across the hardware and software layers of the physical product, and across the physical product and the related cloud services. Which new services can be enabled, and from where should they be enabled? And which existing functions can be optimized by leveraging connectivity, for example by replacing clumsy on-board displays and buttons with a Web interface which allows the operator or manufacturer to monitor, control, or configure the product from a new user interface, such as a smartphone? While enabling new capabilities, this approach dramatically increases the complexity of design and requires new design principles.

For example, to design for customization or personalization, designers need to capture the opportunity of hardware standardization through software-based customization. More and more of the variability of products today comes from the software layer, which drives down costs and enables customization later in the process.

There is also a virtuous cycle here as innovations in the software layer drive increased value in the hardware, but hardware and software development have fundamentally different “clock speeds”. We might see 10 software releases in the time it takes to create one new version of the physical product on which the software runs.

This leads to another new design principle, designing for continuous upgrades and enhancements so that smart, connected products leverage connectivity for software upgrades throughout the life of the product. Design principles now need to anticipate opportunities to add or enhance product capabilities, and allow for these upgrades to occur remotely and in an efficient manner. Basically, the product becomes a platform on which increasing amounts of value can be delivered via software over time.

We also need to understand the new capabilities required in the development organization. Formerly siloed development teams need to interact much more closely, integrating the products hardware, electronics, software, and connectivity components. Agile software development processes need to be established and co-exist with the more traditional hardware development cycles. New processes need to be defined to close the loop with product design.

Direct, continuous, and often real-time data about how the product is being used will give engineering rapid feedback on how well their design functioned in the real world rather than simply guessing based on scenario based simulation and testing. Value can be created from this data by using it to understand how to improve designs so that enhanced second and third generations of products are brought to market more quickly.

This interview has first published in Enterprise IoT, a digital book that analyzes and documents IoT use cases in various industries, including automotive, energy and manufacturing. 

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