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Bridging the digital and physical worlds

The internet of things (IoT) connects everyday objects, from bicycles and refrigerators, right up to electricity generators, to the cloud. This provides designers, manufacturers and service companies with real-time feedback about the way their products perform in the field, helping to revolutionise the way in which businesses design, build and maintain their products through the whole of their product life cycle.

Jim Heppelmann is president and chief executive of PTC, a company at the forefront of technology-enabled solutions that help manufacturers transform the way they create, operate and service products – and an evangelist for the competitive advantage that IoT can deliver.

“The internet of things is a subject that’s full of buzz and hype,” says Mr Heppelmann. “But there’s going to be a lot of value created here.”

PTC has been in the business of “things” for more than three decades, pioneering technologies, such as computer-aided design (CAD), that now underpin research, prototyping and product development across every industry and sector.

“All things – at least those that are manufactured – start as 3D, digital things,” explains Mr Heppelmann. “CAD is a great way to validate ideas, to build digital prototypes. When you’re ready, you take that digital prototype and you give it to the factory. But at that point the prototype is no longer as valuable, once the thing is physical and out in the world. In most product life cycles, we go from digital to physical and nobody ever looks back.”

While CAD and manufacturing have transformed the way products are brought to market, he says, in-life product assessment has scarcely moved on.

“Currently, if you’re wondering how your product is doing out there in the hands of the customer, nobody really hears what’s going on until the phone rings,” he explains. “Information about physical things rarely makes it back to the digital world where the whole thing started. Most of today’s products are built on the understanding that there’s no feedback loop. You just put things out there and hope for the best, and maybe occasionally you’ll hear back from a customer, but usually, by that point, it’s a little late and they’re already angry.”

That one-way, digital-to-physical transition is becoming a thing of the past. According to Mr Heppelmann, backed up by research PTC has undertaken with Professor Michael Porter of Harvard Business School, we’re entering an era in which mechanical, standalone products have become smart. Cars now come with software integrated into the engine control unit; everyday appliances can monitor their own maintenance status.

I believe that pretty much every type of product will end up this way, from medical devices to refrigerators, planes, trains and automobiles

And now that devices are smart, they’re becoming connected. By linking them via the cloud, they can be remotely monitored and controlled by computers, smartphones and other devices. Families of products that share common elements can now be joined up via the cloud to create product ecosystems.

“If you think about Apple products, such as the iPad, iPhone or iMac, they all share a common cloud with iCloud, iTunes and the app store. That’s what’s happening with all kinds of product families, where they act together in fundamentally new ways because they’re sharing common digital componentry,” says Mr Heppelmann. “Take that idea to the next level, and you get smart cities and smart farms and smart infrastructure – whole systems of systems, working together to make the world a safer, more efficient and more economical place to live.”

These are the product ecosystems that PTC is at the forefront of helping manufacturers to develop. Part physical and part digital, they’re part client and part server, part on-premises and part in the cloud. And they’re taking over.

“The very DNA of these things is changing,” says Mr Heppelmann. “I believe that pretty much every type of product will end up this way, from medical devices to refrigerators, planes, trains and automobiles. This is the new reality of things. The digital world and physical world are inseparable, and they’re working together.”

Over the last three years, PTC has invested more than $500 million in making this physical-digital convergence a reality. Under the consolidated brand ThingWorx it has acquired a number of key startups and technologies, including connectivity specialist Axeda and Coldlight, a system of automated, predictive analytics that “listens” to the data that streams from connected devices – and crucially, help manufacturers and service providers decide what to do with those insights.

Mr Heppelmann explains the thinking behind this joined-up approach to product design, manufacture and life-cycle management. “All of the products you create now have a voice. When you send them out into the world, they connect back to you and tell you what’s going on. How are they performing? How good is your design? How effective is your service? We shouldn’t run systems any more that ignore the voice of the product,” he says.

The example Mr Heppelmann uses to demonstrate this comes, perhaps surprisingly, from a bicycle. The Santa Cruz V10 downhill racer was the first all-carbon bike to win the Mountain Bike World Cup, in 2010. Designed using PTC’s Creo CAD system, the bike has been fitted with a Raspberry Pi computer to provide connectivity and a number of sensors monitoring key characteristics, such as wheel speed, the rider’s pedalling cadence and any compression of the suspension.

“By connecting it up using an IoT platform, we’ve created a bike that’s part physical, part digital,” says Mr Heppelmann. “Now we can look at online dashboards that tell us what’s going on with that bike from literally thousands of miles away.”

But the concept goes further. A “trail file” of data produced by the bike is used to create a “digital twin” which is an exact representation of an individual, physical bike and its reactions. “Everything that’s experienced by the physical product can be captured, replayed and tested against its digital counterpart,” he explains.

And information doesn’t just travel one way, from the physical world to the digital world. Data is used equally valuably in the other direction, from digital to physical. Technicians can scan a bike’s unique serial number using an iPad and connect to its digital twin via the cloud. This enables them to overlay a digital dashboard of information over an image of the bike itself, using augmented reality.

Augmented reality can be used to provide on-the-spot instructions to service engineers of devices as complex as electricity generators, says Mr Heppelmann. This will not only identify problems, but show how to fix them through overlaid, animated simulations of maintenance procedures. It replaces cumbersome written documentation with practical, graphical demonstrations that are not only faster and more practical to use, but which don’t need to be translated into multiple languages.

Using data collected from thousands or millions of individual products in the field, Mr Heppelmann explains, manufacturers and service agents can begin to use big data analytics to aggregate that information, feeding it back into the manufacturing process to drive product innovation and improved service.

“If service is the killer app for IoT,” Mr Heppelmann concludes, “then augmented reality and digital twins on the internet of things are the killer technology for service – it’s a big and exciting idea.”

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