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Realizing the benefits of product line engineering for wearable technology

IoT Industry Solution Executive, IBM

Will a whole new meaning of “flying by the seat of your pants” evolve from the recently announced Google–Levi’s joint venture aiming to manufacture smart sensors into a pair of jeans? Imagine operating or interacting with products and devices with just a movement of your legs or a swipe of your finger across your pants! Or how about your jeans sensing that they’re a bit too tight and advising you to dust off your gym membership card?

Levi’s has a long history of leveraging its clothing line by producing different product variants that appeal to consumers based on their individual needs, shapes and sizes, so these new sensor-packed jeans may be the next variant of the classic 501 jeans product line. I’m not yet certain whether I will be one of the early adopters of these “smart pants”—though you never know! But the evolution of a classic brand such as Levi’s to include new and revolutionary ideas is evidence that many companies want and need product variants that can appeal to both new and existing market segments.

Retail has a long history of successful product lines designed to keep consumers engaged and returning to stores or online marketplaces for the latest model of a favorite brand. I can think of many product line purchases I have made based solely on my satisfaction with a particular product brand. And I remember even more vividly the epic fails—when a product variant fell short of my expectations and got returned, sometimes earning a poor online review and causing my move to a competing product.

Apart from building customer loyalty by offering unique product lines in blue jeans, I see many other uses for smart fabric, including in medical devices, in other consumer goods, in conjunction with consumer electronics, automobiles and even airliners. Smart fabric could be used in every case with the same motives for new product lines and variants that retail has:

  • Capturing diverse and dynamic market segments
  • Building and capitalizing on positive customer sentiment
  • Gaining greater efficiencies in design, development and production
  • Increasing reuse
  • Meeting unique variant needs (including regulatory, standards and legal) more efficiently

Successful implementation of product lines and good variant management can offer competitive advantages in many industries, allowing those who succeed at implementation to more quickly evolve their products and leverage product lines to meet dynamic market demands. They can capture wider market segments with products that diverge based on cost and components but that primarily share a common core of basic functionality, making production faster and cheaper. Those who leverage product lines and variants well have already realized a variety of benefits:

  • New business opportunities
  • New revenue streams
  • New customer engagement paths
  • Greater customer satisfaction and loyalty

Experimenting with product lines and variants while increasing innovation is not always easy or fast; nor is it without risk. A product line engineering mindset is necessary at all levels: design, building and delivery, and operations. Engineering must be redesigned, engaged and empowered to produce product variants proficiently. Moreover, product variants are often software-dependent, requiring that development of software in embedded products become a managed, directed core competency even though software development and software variants or streams once might not have received so much attention.

Though wearable sensors may be the new tipping point for unprecedented new clothing product line opportunities, engineering data and research and development form the tipping point for managing effective product line engineering. Unlocking needed data across engineering disciplines—and using such data to build leverage points for reuse and construct useful variants—is the new engineering breakthrough.

Effective product line engineering, teamed with accelerated innovation, can improve your ability to engage with your customers, create new value streams and enhance the operation and performance of delivered products. IBM offers tools and services to help construct engineering organizations ready to take advantage of the market opportunities that product line engineering can deliver, particularly by helping organizations do the following:

  • Plan for reuse: Define products as components and subcomponents. Use global configurations that reuse requirements, designs, tests and implementation, as well as the traceability links between them.
  • Employ an open, federated approach to configuration management that offers the potential for other tools and vendors to participate. Take a look at OSLC: Open Services for Lifecycle Collaboration.
  • Unlock engineering knowledge using lightweight cross-tool, cross-vendor visualization and reporting (OSLC-based).
  • Use modern web-based tools with an open architecture.
  • Take advantage of guidance for implementing improved development practices using these new capabilities.

Learn more about IBM and product line engineering, including how it fits into the entire engineering lifecycle, by getting your free copy of Continuous Engineering for Dummies.

Have thoughts to add on product line engineering? Share them here, then connect with me on Twitter @kimberlymcobb.