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Internet of things key to fast product design improvement, says PTC

Products are becoming smart and connected – and product lifecycle management software has to change to support that, says PTC chief Jim Heppelmann

The internet of things (IoT) is taking product lifecycle management (PLM) to a different level, according to Jim Heppelmann, president and CEO of PTC.

Traditionally, digital 3D models have been transformed into physical products, but there has been no feedback loop, he told attendees of PTC LiveWorx Europe 2015 in Stuttgart, Germany.

“Typically we do not learn much about the customer's experience, how a design operates, what parts are used and not used,” said Heppelman.

“In most cases you don’t know anything about how your product is being used or how it is working, unless a customer calls – but that usually happens when there is a problem and they are already angry, which is a bad situation.”

However, he said industry is going through the biggest metamorphosis in decades, with products changing quickly to become smart and connected.

By incorporating software in the design of farming equipment, for example, harvesting equipment can track yields. That data can be stored in a database and sent to the tillage equipment in the spring.

“In this way, farmers can adjust fertiliser according to the previous season’s yields, and ensure seeds are planted only where the fertiliser has been put,” said Heppelman.

“So different products working together in a product system produce a lot more output for a lot less input, and that is a big new idea.”

He said that system could be tied to the irrigation system and linked to external data from weather forecasting systems, to achieve more effective crop production.

As a result of this kind of thinking, Heppelmann said products are becoming increasingly sophisticated, digital and capable of sharing data to deliver more value.

“This means that the notion of a product has changed. It is not just a physical product anymore, but a fairly complex technology stack,” he said.

Opportunities and challenges

In this new world, Heppelmann said the physical product is like a client connected to a server in cloud, where there are associated databases and tools for building applications.

“We will probably add analytics to help make sense of the data and build new applications to run on a variety of devices and use augmented reality,” he said.

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This will require tapping into information systems such as internal CRM and ERP systems, as well as external data sources such as the weather forecast systems.

“But as we build a product like this, we have to be careful because the identity and privacy are critical – we are not just talking about the potential compromise of data, we talking about the potential compromise of control, which is a bigger problem we have to defend against,” said Heppelmann.

However, despite the challenges, he said most companies understand that the change is “probably unstoppable” and want to be part of it.

Because products are fundamentally changing, Heppelmann said companies such as PTC, that supply technologies for creating and servicing products, need to change their technologies accordingly.

Investing in the unstoppable

For this reason, he said, PTC had invested $600m in the past 24 months in acquisitions and research and development to help other companies realise their visions for this type of product.

PLC’s acquistions include cloud connectivity firm Axeda, application development platform ThingWorx, machine learning and predictive analytics firm Coldlight, and augmented reality firm Vuforia.

“When you take augmented reality, and you bundle it with the internet of things and with predictive big data analytics, then incredible possibilities begin to materialise,” said Heppelmann.

PLC has amalgamated and integrated all this technology under the ThingWorx brand, although Vuforia will continue to exist as a standalone brand.

To illustrate the capabilities of ThingWorx, Heppelmann showed a downhill racer mountain bike equipped with seven sensors and internet connectivity to the cloud.

“A ThingWorx dashboard brings all the data together to show what is happening with a bike during a race, enabling the creation of a digital twin that can be used to optimise design,” said Heppelmann.

Product lifecycle management evolves

He then demonstrated an augmented reality app developed using Vuforia that superimposed real-time data from the sensors on an image being captured by a tablet computer running the app.

“So this is a big idea, this closed loop – a whole new way of thinking about a bicycle being digital and physical at the same time,” said Heppelmann.

“At PTC we are realising that things are changing, our customers are changing, they are changing the organisation, they are changing the type of work that they do and that we need to change our technology to support them.”

As an example of how PTC is doing this, Heppelmann announced announced PTC Windchill 11 product lifecycle management software aimed at achieving connectivity and process improvement across the entire, closed-loop product lifecycle.

“This is the world’s first smart, connected PLM system, that has fundamentally been reconsidered around the notion of the internet of things. It is the first product that does closed-loop PLM,” he said.

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