Monday, October 23, 2017

IoT and Product Development

People have been developing products for thousands of years.  The general process is well understood:  1) Identify a need, 2) Imagine a product concept that could address that need, 3) Create a prototype of the product, 4) Test it and refine it until it works satisfactorily, 5) Produce, market, and sell it to your customers.  There are numerous product development methodologies that are tailored to specific companies or industries, but they follow this same pattern.  The Internet of Things (IoT) will transform each of those steps.

Let me define what I mean by IoT.  I am using it in its broad context.  The IoT is a network of devices, sensors, actuators, computers, displays, and any other physical device you can imagine that can communicate on a network.  That means it either creates, distributes, displays or reacts to data on the network.  And the network could be hard-wired or wireless.

So, let’s consider what the IoT will mean to product development.

Identifying a Need

The IoT will reduce the guesswork when it comes to identifying a customer need.  First, many current products have little or no IoT presence, but they could.  So, an obvious new product development is to add IoT capability to existing products.  Then with the IoT information, look for defects, inefficiencies and other problems with existing products and processes.  These are the next obvious candidates for new products.

Imagine a Product Concept

The characteristics of the concept will be affected by the IoT.  The developers will need to consider the use of the product and all the ways that meaningful data could be generated and used, both within the product and remotely.  The communication capability of the product can dramatically expand its ability to access data and coordinate its actions with other nearby products and systems.  The product will no longer be an isolated and autonomous system. Now the concept is an integrated system with significantly enhanced capabilities.

Create a Prototype

Now the IoT moves from not just the product and product idea, but into the actual product development process.  With IoT technology, the developers can connect to 3D printers to create prototype parts in a fraction of the time that was required formerly.  In addition, since much of the product functionality is likely to be based upon the software applications and both onboard and remote processing, changes to functionality can be prototyped with changes to a few lines of code.  This will also shorten the time it takes to create a prototype. 

Many of us who have been through multiple development projects know that you seldom get everything right with the first prototype.  So you build a second or third until you achieve the performance that is desired.  This often creates delays, overruns, and eventually cutting corners elsewhere in the project.  But again, with the IoT and the 3D printing and nightly downloads of new software, many prototypes can be quickly created and the lessons from one can be incorporated into the next and so on.  Implementing the development best practice of iterative design and fast failure.

Refine and Test It

Now let’s consider how the IoT will impact the detailed product design definition, process development and verification testing processes.  Both the new product IoT capability and the IoT capabilities of the test equipment and manufacturing process equipment will be used.  The product IoT will provide data throughout testing to establish a performance database.  And with an extensive use of sensors in the product and the communication capability of IoT, this will be rich source of data for “tweaking” performance and fully characterizing the product characteristics.  Add to this, the IoT capability of the test equipment being used and the designers and developers will have immediate access to extensive data that will both uncover hidden design flaws and then demonstrate acceptable performance. 

But the even bigger benefit is likely to be based upon the IoT capability of the manufacturing process equipment – both in-house and at suppliers.  Manufacturing process development is often costly.  This is especially true do to the ongoing changes when the doing concurrent engineering – that is development the product and process concurrently.  Yet this concurrent approach is used because an even greater cost to the business is the delay in product launch that results from doing the manufacturing process development sequentially after the product development is finished.  The IoT simplifies the change process with manufacturing equipment and at suppliers by electronically communicating design changes.  In addition, the IoT provides real-time process data so manufacturing process issues – both in-house and at suppliers – are identified quickly, reducing the time needed to qualify the production process.  

Produce, Market, and Sell

The IoT will also improve our ability to product and market the new product.  Let’s talk about production first.  The IoT that is in the production equipment will enable the application of predictive maintenance algorithms that will reduce unplanned down-time and smooth production flow.  In addition, the IoT sensors on the manufacturing equipment will enable a higher degree of real-time statistical process control that will decrease defects and improve overall product quality.  And to the extent that a product is customized for each customer order, the IoT capability of the product will allow the manufacturing process to install the unique software and configuration just prior to packaging and shipping the product.  This will also serve to smooth out manufacturing flow and reduce scrap and rework.

The IoT can also enhance the marketing of the new product.  Of course, one obvious element of marketing is to promote the IoT capability of the product and the advantages for the customer.  In addition, through IoT interfaces, the marketing and sales personnel will know product availability.  Further, they can take a customer’s unique order information and communicate it right to operations in order to have a custom configured product.  Finally, the sales person, or even the customer, can track the production and delivery status of the product to know when it is coming and to be prepared for its arrival. 

IoT is not just a buzzword or fad.  It is transforming companies and industries.  It will also transform the product development process.