How will the communications revolution affect the design engineer?

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:

Last month saw the 25th anniversary of the internet. During that quarter century, we have witnessed a communication revolution that is likely to be viewed by history with the same significance as the industrial revolution before it.

Since its inception, the internet has reached ever further into our daily personal and working lives with detailed information on almost anything just a touch of a button away.
Difficult questions are now simply answered by the phrase, 'Google it'. So what next for the communications revolution and how is this going to affect design engineers?

The Internet of Things and big data are two concepts that are certainly going to impact. As the cost of communications hardware falls, it makes sense to embed sensors, diagnostics and data capture into products to make them 'smart'. From trainers to kitchen appliances to cars; will capture data about real-world use. Besides the more gimmicky aspects (such as your fridge texting to remind you to buy some milk) the real effects are likely to have a genuinely profound effect on our daily lives.

Trainers will be able to advise on running style, and capture all sorts of information that will then be captured by sports companies who will be able to make a trainer specifically for your usage, gait and typical impact force. Kitchen appliances will monitor efficiency and record any component failures, and cars will be able to self diagnose problems and make routine services a thing of the past. Instead, cars will continuously analyse the condition of engine oil, tyre tread and other key components and advise the owner as and when they need changing.

However, to realise this vision of the future fully, a feedback loop to the designer needs to be created. It will also mean more effective designs, as nothing will be based on estimates and assumptions, instead real-world data from products already in the field will send back detailed load cases, wear rates and points of failure.

Robust data flow
PLM and design software provider PTC has been keen to encompass more robust data flow between service, supply chain and design for some time. While its Service Lifecycle Management (SLM) software has been successful in extracting CAD information and repurposing it for the service of products, it now wants to enable in-service data to be used in the design of products.

Indeed, chief executive Jim Heppelmann has been outspoken in his view on the future, talking about 'products as a service' and how the thin line between products and service is about to disappear. He uses examples such as aircraft engine manufacturers selling power by the hour rather than the engines themselves and Caterpillar moving towards a model where it sells capacity to move rock and gravel, rather than wheel loaders and excavators.

While a change in revenue and business model is one thing, hardware will still need to be designed, made, shipped and maintained. And that will still be down to the engineer to design. So, will a shift in a company's service model significantly affect design?

"It will fundamentally impact the design engineer," says Lee Smith, divisional general manager of the SLM Segment of PTC. "The design engineer will start to become more aware because of the requirements that need to go in to the equipment to maintain, monitor and operate it more efficiently in the future.

"So, how we select and use that information for failure mode and effective analysis will move to the forefront because the requirements of the business and revenue model are going to force it."

Making it happen
Key to this philosophy is making products, or 'things', smart by connecting them to the internet and allowing the communication of data. It is this ability that saw PTC acquire technology start-up ThingWorx late last year. ThingWorx is essentially an application builder that looks to facilitate the development of the Internet of Things by allowing designers to leverage connectivity during the development of mechanical hardware.

"It is using the data in the systems to better operate and service them," says Smith. "And this has to start in the engineering process. That is where we see things are going: to smart connected products. But what has been lacking is a ubiquitous connection for these devices so you can create platforms and applications.

"The companies that survive and grow are the companies that will embrace this idea of connectivity and use the information to do useful things and optimise what they are doing from design all the way through the supply chain. If you think you can design and make products and then get a separate service organisation to pick them up then you are going to be in trouble."

While the Internet of Things is an exciting prospect and the thought of Googling your missing running shoes, or having a look at the health of a bearing on your washing machine is intriguing, the practical impact on the design process is more difficult to decipher.

One of PTC's predictions is that it will be a product's functionality, facilitated by software, that will become a more significant selling point. And this can already be seen in the smartphone market. While aesthetics are of course important, it is the operating system that is at the heart of many people's choices, i.e. Android, iOS or Windows. PTC expects this to go further and software to play a much more central role in the business model of manufacturers and the way they operate, maintain and upgrade.

However, it is less clear how the mechanical parts of products might be affected by all of this. One thought is that it might lead to more modular designs that allow key components to be replaced more quickly and easily.

"You will definitely see more efficiency in the overall supply chain and have better first-time fix rates," says Smith.

However, at first glance this appears to be at odds with the overriding philosophy that is being pushed by PTC of 'products as a service'. Is the Internet of Things about designing products that minimise the service requirement, or is it about changing the business model toward servicing?

Actually PTC believes the future is both and that the two are not alternatives but part of the same story. And many commentators agree. Exploiting big data to leverage product advantage and the service that goes with it is about driving efficiency throughout the whole business. More efficient serviceability, service at the most appropriate time – so just before a bearing fails for example – adds the most value to both users and to companies.

More data means more control and the ability to drive efficiency in to the supply chain, aftermarket service business, and critically in to the design process, which will be the driving force for the whole system. And it's this that's at the heart of the Internet of Things and is what PTC is keen to integrate in to its current software offerings.

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