Engineering connected products for the Internet of Things

Director, Product Management & Design, Internet of Things, IBM

We all know and touch connected products every day: cell phones and smartphones, thermostats, automobiles, televisions and more. Even appliances are getting smarter; for example, some can signify when service is needed because a part is showing signs of deterioration. Clearly, products are becoming more sophisticated and complex than ever before. What were once simple, stand-alone products are now smart and can communicate with users—and each other. All these products shape the Internet of Things.

Developing smart products is a complex process that begs for a learn-as-you-go model. This model needs to allow for change throughout the process and account for consumer feedback and real-time impact from development and testing. To prevent stoppages and manage changes, the engineering process needs to be a continuous flow that allows for and even welcomes feedback, learning and change.

What does this process look like? How can complex products sense and react to their environments? The answers come down to three critical practices that are fundamental to the concept of continuous engineering: unlocking engineering insight, applying continuous verification and achieving strategic reuse through product line engineering (PLE). engineering insight

In its simplest form, the smart product connected with the Internet of Things is a thing that generates data and can be acted upon by processes, people and businesses. Ongoing engineering ensures that engineers can access and derive insight from data generated by the product to make the right decisions. That insight comes from using either customer sentiment and market data to create the right requirements for the product design or leveraging operational information for product improvements.

The data, and the insight it can provide through analytics, is a fundamental, natural resource for engineers of all organizations. As a result, IBM announced partnerships with Twitter and The Weather Company to merge data from other sources that can provide new engineering insights never before considered.

Applying continuous verification

In this practice, all aspects of a product’s physical and systems behavior is modeled early in the product development lifecycle. The simulation and test technologies then continue to be applied throughout the product’s lifecycle, even after it’s in service. Continuous verification is exciting because it takes into account operational data generated by sensors that can now be captured and analyzed, helping engineers verify that the product operates as designed and provides insight for future improvements. Using the product’s real-time data and models, engineers can compare expected behavior from models with actual behavior to understand how the product is behaving in the field. This interpretation can help improve predictive analytics for maintenance, prove the designs are robust or identify new design improvements based on unprecedented usage or environmental impacts.

Achieving strategic reuse through product line engineering

In the early days of manufacturing, many products were built exactly alike, or with very minimal option lists. Manufacturing was efficient because there was very little product variability: designs were simple, parts inventories were manageable and the assembly process was standard. That approach worked in the past, but not in a society that today demands customizable options—from leather seats to an embedded global positioning system (GPS).

Strategic reuse enables engineers to plan, design and deliver a product so that most of the pieces are the same, yet there are different variants based on specific options. The common pieces then can benefit from economies of scale; because they are reused everywhere, expensive processes such as safety certification can be applied across a much larger product base. Engineers can then focus on sensible options and dependencies to manage the explosion of permutations and complexity enabled by mass customization. This PLE process helps engineers manage the immense complexity that can result when delivering many customized product options to a large number of consumers.

Innovating with no boundaries 

Engineering the connected products of the future is possible by implementing IBM Continuous Engineering solutions. These solutions are based on a vision for engineers and their ability to work without being constrained by tools, infrastructure or information access. Instead, they can operate within a seamless flow of need, concept, design, simulation, manufacture, test and operations. Sharing collaboration and knowledge among engineering disciplines and across the rest of the business is made effortless. As a result, thinking, creating and sharing have no boundaries, which helps keep the focus on creating innovative, connected devices and services for users.

This week I'm presenting on IBM Continuous Engineering solutions at NIWeek 2015 in Austin, Texas. Y’all come down and see us!