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The open world of IoT: opportunities and challenges for engineers

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On Tuesday, 15 November morning 400 clients, partners and IBMers climbed aboard The Queen Mary, moored in Long Beach, California, to begin three days of discussion, debate and demonstration of how the Internet of Things is shaking up the product design and engineering profession. The attendees were joining The IBM Continuous Engineering for the Internet of Things 2016 event with its focus on engineers.

Amit Fisher, Program Director of Watson IoT Cognitive Product Management, kicked things off with an honest and provocative overview of the state of IoT for engineers. He asked, what’s really new? After all, we’ve had sensors, actuators and analytics technologies for a long time. What’s changed? To Amit, a large part of the answer is economics. Hardware, compute, communication and storage costs have plummeted. It used to be expensive to buy and install sensors to attach to things – and it no longer is. Analytics technologies have become significantly more sophisticated, and at the same time more easy to consume. In fact, Amit argued, its viable for a startup IoT company to get going with a $0 investment, just latching on to the freemium platforms and technologies available now.

IBM’s clients are asking us what they should do. How should they act. And the key question: what will be the outcome. Amit highlighted that IBM clients are seeing outcomes in three areas. First, operational performance: improving areas like maintenance, supply chain visibility, inventory optimization and so on. Second, engagement. Using connected products to offer new ways for consumers to engage with machines, and some of the new services and opportunities that can result. Third, new business models. Here, Amit was at pains to stress that it really is happening. IoT is an enabler for manufacturers to shift from traditional product based pricing to service pricing, their customers to move from capital to operating expense, and for both to use data and analytics as a differentiator and value added service.

Engineers Thinking Outside the Box

Amit showed one of the usual ‘big numbers’ charts we associate with IoT. Billions of connected things, trillions of dollars of potential impact. And to his audience of experienced engineers he asked: should we be skeptical of the grand claims for IoT? Amit argued that the hype is justified in this case, because IoT is built on proven and enduring technical foundations that are here to stay, and because IoT now has an ROI that makes sense. He cited the work we’re doing with Kone, the major elevator company, as an example of an organization that is using IoT to go from making a basic ‘thing’ – a box, essentially – to an organization that works on real time feedback, dynamic maintenance schedules and that is building the data and analytics smarts to be in the ‘people flow’ business. Thinking outside the box indeed.

But IoT does bring challenges, particularly for engineers. It’s a new opportunity that comes with significant new complexity. Designing products for an IoT world is different. Amit characterized it as moving from a closed world assumption to an open world assumption. Engineers used to think that everything they enabled or designed for happens, just the way it should, and everything they don’t want to happen, doesn’t.  But in the open environment of IoT everything in the system is open to interpretation, usage patterns are less predictable and everything that happens to a connected product is captured and can be understood and learned from. New issues also come to the fore, security being the most visible, and also safety. With many more interaction points, millions of messages and hundreds of interfaces and interdependencies security and safety are tough nuts for the engineering community to crack.

Amit also discussed how IoT is turning the process of design into a closed loop, as long as data and analytics are built in to the connected product. And this, he said, is a challenge for most engineers who are used to designing for features and functions, but not for data capture and analysis. More than just dashboards, analytics needs to assist the engineer as a trigger for action to improve a product, fix a defect or to help design the next version. Through IoT we are able to create a continuous and actionable feedback loop of data and insights from deployed products, empowering and informing engineers in entirely new ways.

Continuous Engineering in Action

We then saw a worked example that brought this to life. The demonstration centered on a new connected washing machine. Previously the moment the product shipped was the last moment the manufacturer had anything to do with it. Not today! A dashboard showed engineers that the machines were using more water than expected, and that particular wash cycles were attracting negative sentiment from customers on Twitter. We also saw how analytics linked the water usage and customer sat issues with certain usage situations and water types. Then we saw how the engineer acted on this feedback – by understanding the original requirements when the product was designed, by looking at test conditions and potentially untested combinations that the machine was experiencing in use in people’s homes. Rules and software were updated, and new software updates pushed out to the connected washing machines. This avoided expensive warranty problems, recalls and further negative consumer sentiment. It was a simple and brilliant way of bringing to life for the engineers in the room exactly how the Internet of Things is changing the work they do every day. And from a consumer perspective, it made me wonder if we’ll get as excited in the future about software updates in our washing machines as we do today about updates that get pushed to our cell phones and tablets.

The IoT Platform

Amit wrapped up by stressing the importance of having an integrated IoT platform to underpin this new approach, connected to engineering software through open adapters.  He described that the platform should pull together connectivity services, with information management and analytics capabilities in a secure way. His speech coincided with the release today of a Forrester Wave that names IBM as a leader in IoT Platforms, and learn more about continuous engineering for the Internet of Things. here.

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