The End of Broken: How IoT Will Change Our Products

The importance of data analytics is intuitive to companies responsible for creating and servicing IoT-enabled products, but the topic gets short shrift when speaking to the consumers of those products. De-emphasizing analytics makes sense; the easiest way to demonstrate the IoT is with features that are visible and interactive. Of course, data analytics is invisible to end-users, so it’s harder to foster enthusiasm for petabytes of unseen data. Sometimes, big data is held up as a threat to security and privacy, and even viewed as an impediment to IoT adoption.

But I’d argue that overlooking data analytics is missing a big part of the IoT story–even for users. While we may never interact, or even see that steady stream of data, it will have a far more profound effect on our relationship to products than any snappy new IoT feature or remote app.

To compare the importance of data analytics to IoT user features, consider a “smart washing machine.” Like other smart appliances, manufacturers and partners are touting new user features—if you’re going to compete for consumer dollars with the IoT, logic argues that you do it with IoT features that users can see and interact with.

For example, Telecom highlights washers that are sending smartphone alerts to their owners. That’s an easy feature to introduce, and people immediately recognize this as a “smart product” feature. In fact, consumer-facing IoT has become largely synonymous with remote alerts. But is this really game-changing? Do you need a sensor to assist you with detergent amounts? Do you really want to be texted every time a wash load is done?

IoT products will be dramatically transformed by their own data

The accusations of hype often leveled at the IoT suggest that for many products, we don’t need, or even want these types of bells and whistles. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no value in having a smart washing machine. On the contrary, nearly every complex piece of machinery and electronics in your home can, and will be dramatically transformed by the IoT—even if you never interact with their IoT functionality.

Let’s re-imagine our smart washer as being replete with sensors and chips—dedicated to monitoring and transmitting data that is never seen by the owner. Temperature, pressure, RPM, water Ph values, frequency and duration of operation are just a handful of data points that can be captured. Why is this data so important? Collectively, this data becomes the “voice” of your washing machine. And by listening to that voice, product service and manufacturing industries can dramatically change the quality and lifespan of products. To illustrate the importance of giving products a voice through IoT, let’s compare this future washer to the one that’s currently in your home.

When your current washing machine breaks, you start by calling a customer service or repair technician. You act as the voice of your product, doing your best to describe what isn’t working (perhaps reenacting audible problems with choice sound effects). Of course, that’s not enough for the technician who must physically inspect the machine, sometimes spending hours disassembling the washer to find out exactly what’s wrong.  Then, the parts must be ordered; once they arrive, days later, the technician will schedule a second visit, hopefully resulting in a successful repair. This doesn’t even begin to address the complexity and stress that can be caused by determining warranty coverage status.

Servicing IoT-enabled products 

When something goes awry with a sensor-laden smart washer, the service rep can see exactly what’s wrong with the machine, without ever going on site. Over time, by analyzing product data, technicians can make predictions about what parts will be needed, and keep them in stock. Speaking in terms of an IoT maturity model, this is fairly easy to do, and many manufacturers are starting to innovate these capabilities—knowing that they are transforming the customer service experience by dramatically compressing the rate of repair.

Having a broken machine back online faster is great, but what if that data could be used to predict and prevent that breakdown before it happens? Using the right IoT platform, combined with data analytics capabilities, certain trends and cues could be identified as leading to a breakdown. Instead of a rep coming to repair a broken machine, scheduled maintenance could prevent the breakdown altogether.

While remedying shorted motors, worn-out bushings, or defective thermostats are great, wouldn’t it be preferable not to have those problems in the first place? This is where data analytics will really become a game changer: by improving product design and engineering. Traditionally, manufacturers of washing machines see very little of their products once they are sold. But by accessing the rich volumes of data in smart machines, engineers can see how their products are performing. Just as connected service and predictive maintenance can act on this data, engineers can use it to address design flaws, and verify if products are even being used as they were designed.

Changing expectations of products

These advances in service delivery and product reliability stand to fundamentally change our relationships to the objects around us—much more so than an app that reminds us to order more bleach.

As product owners, we will come to depend on an unprecedented level of quality. That reliability will become so ingrained in our expectations that entire industries will move to adopt IoT-enabled product improvements. We will likely even change our definition and standards for owning products, versus owning an uninterrupted flow of evergreen product capability.

We are still in the early stages of this transformation. To learn more about the emerging trend of digitally capturing product performance and behavior, watch Jim Heppelmann’s keynote at LiveWorx, where he demonstrates the potential to create digital twins for physical products. You can also reserve your copy of a new Harvard Business Review article co-authored by Heppelmann and Michael Porter, which examines how IoT data will likely become the biggest source of change across your business.

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