There are many overlapping business usage scenarios involving both the disciplines of the Internet of Things (IoT) and edge computing. But there is one very practical and promising use case that has been commonly deployed without many people thinking about it: connected products. This use case involves devices and equipment embedded with sensors, software and connectivity that exchange data with other products, operators or environments in real-time.

In this blog post, we will look at the frequently overlooked phenomenon of connected products and how enterprises are using them to their advantage. This is especially true in manufacturing and industrial engineering. From strategy to design, development and deployment, there is a lot of thought that goes into connecting physical products. While we examine this from the perspective of edge computing, it also has major implications for Industry 4.0.

We assume readers are familiar with Industry 4.0, which involves the integration of advanced digital technologies and IoT into manufacturing processes and connected devices that transmit and receive instructions and data. This allows for greater automation and optimization of production processes, leading to increased efficiency, productivity and flexibility in manufacturing. For more information about the concept, see the link below.

Learn more about Industry 4.0

Please make sure to check out all the installments in this series of blog posts on edge computing:

Elements of connected products

There are three core elements when it comes to connected products:

  1. Physical components (industrial, mechanical, automotive, home appliances and electrical parts).
  2. Smart components (phones, tablets, sensors, microprocessors and analytics).
  3. Connectivity components (antennae, ports, protocols and networks that can send data to the cloud).
Figure 1. Core elements of connected products.

As we see in Figure 1, data is the lifeblood of connected products. That said, why are connected products becoming vital to enterprises? With connected products, customers expect to not only buy the latest and greatest cutting-edge devices, but they also expect these devices to continuously work, improve and be updated with newer features over their lifetimes. Over-the-air (OTA) updates of Tesla cars or Apple products are good examples of delivering new software, firmware, features, safeguards, etc. to connected products.

Connected products and services

There is more to connected products than just over-the-air updates. Connected products can enhance support by monitoring and optimizing usage. In industrial settings, they provide the health status of machines and can predict/prevent failures or downtime by anticipating service needs. Robots on the manufacturing floor are programmed to be aware of and work with other robots. Fueled by data, a product can be connected interactively with a broader ecosystem, offering an enhanced customer experience (CX), optimized product performance and services, and an agile supply chain that can deliver new sources of value to the customer.

Figure 2. Connected products and services across a manufacturing enterprise.

Companies have connected products and services that span business and technology strategy, connectivity enablement, intelligent edge connectivity and computing, and more. Figure 2 provides IBM’s view of components that will provide a competitive advantage for today’s manufacturing enterprises. In the Connected Products and Services domain, we see the three main aspects:

  • Intelligent Automation of IT and Business Operations
  • Zero-Trust for Manufacturing and Connected Products
  • Efficiently Manage Engineering Data

IBM also has an offering that includes IBM Cognitive Assistant for connected products which leverages data and learns from the customer interactions across all aspects of connected products lifecycle.

With connectivity comes security concerns as products become more and more software-defined and data-driven. Connected products are built on multi-faceted platforms running on multiple operating environments that include the combination of custom compute platforms, traditional compute platforms and cloud. It is paramount to transform current security approaches from point solutions to an end-to-end, cross-platform solution that protects connected products and related services.

Connected products vs. edge computing

Many of the features that we just alluded to are also seen in edge computing solutions.

One might argue that connected products are just a manifestation of an edge computing use case specifically related to the domain of customer experience (CX). The difference is found in the definition of edge computing, which states that data is analyzed at the source where data is generated. Connected products, on the other hand, are driven by responses received by sending the data to the cloud.

In some cases, smart connected products can operate independently. If a smart robotic vacuum cleaner can return to its docking station, is it far-fetched to envision autonomous vehicles driving themselves to a charging station? Vehicles are evolving into connected products with connections to smartphones, other vehicles and surrounding infrastructure via advanced sensor technologies with both remote and on-board processing capabilities. Such capabilities require frequent OTA updates from the manufacturer. We can make the case that edge computing and the supporting ecosystem are paving the way for autonomous vehicles to become the ultimate mobile edge devices and prototypical connected products.

Figure 3. Connected products/edge.

As we have described in previous blogs in this series, IBM Edge Application Manager (IEAM) is best suited to deploy and manage applications on edge devices and far edge devices.

Data as the currency of connected products

One of the past blogs in this series—“Data at the Edge”—talked about handling all the data that is generated at the edge. Those same requirements of data compliance, data privacy, data sovereignty, data governance and data residency are just as relevant with connected products.

Connected products send and receive lot of data to the cloud. There are laws dictating the collection and storage of all this data. When adding connectivity to products, designers and manufacturers should understand and take steps to mitigate the threat radius. The IEC 62443 and UL 2900 families of standards apply to connected products used in the home or commercial settings, medical devices, and security and life safety systems. The State of California, for example, has a law called the “Teddy Bear and Toaster Act” that purports to provide increased security to avoid malware attacks and protect consumers who use connected devices.

While connected products vis-à-vis IoT and edge generate a lot of data, neither offers a data plane. To that end, the IBM Cloud Pak for Data offers many options to handle and store data for operational purposes, analytics and auditability. We envision it being a part of the connected-products solution.

Wrapping up

From a customer experience perspective, we see connected products having a major impact in automotive, medical technology, consumer products, Industry 4.0, and energy and utilities. To harness the full potential of connected products and services, organizations must put customer experience front and center while also ensuring data and network security.

We view connected products as devices operating within and helping humans in an edge computing domain,  with data being the lifeblood of such solutions. Enterprises can offer many personalized after-market services via connected products and expand industry boundaries.

Let us know what you think.

Thanks to Joe Pearson and Charla Stracener for reviewing the article and providing their thoughts.

Please make sure to check out all the installments in this series of blog posts on edge computing:

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