The New Face of Machinery; Part 1

July 2016
Peter Thorne

Why build instrumentation and controls into machines if every user will have a tablet or phone?

Just run an app to see the displays and buttons, and operate the machine. 

Of course, manufacturers will have to change their approach to development, operations and service.

Smartphones as controllers…

I remember feeling mildly alarmed during a 2012 research interview with a medical equipment designer.

At that time, her main project was to estimate the potential cost savings of using the electronics and display of smart phones as part of the control system.

The idea was for every user to dock their phone into the equipment.

The design study was looking at:

  • user identification
  • login
  • privacy

My instant reaction was hygiene – this is medical equipment, are those phones clean???
And what about the operating theatre – would there be enough staff with phones to operate all the machines?

Then the security gorilla reared its head – how could anyone be confident the phones were free of malware?

Then also in 2012, I first became aware of Ecomove’s Qbeak  electric vehicle design.  At that time, it used a similar concept.

The driver docks their phone into the car, and the phone becomes:

  • the instrument cluster
  • sat-nav
  • infotainment system

I don’t remember feeling alarmed by the Qbeak.

It’s a few years ago, but I imagine this means the phone did not control the brakes or steering!

New IOT interaction with products

The growth of technologies around the Internet of Things has made these kind of ideas just one part of a whole host of new ways of interacting with all kinds of products.

Figure 1: Jim Heppelmann, CEO of PTC, set out the big picture during his keynote presentation at Liveworx 2016

Let’s try and break that statement down.

Communication with a connected-product can be both ways – in and out.

The communication can be with the product itself, and/or with its digital twin, and/or with some variation of the digital twin or its environment – to try out ‘what-if’ scenarios.

Cloud-connected products can be accessed from any Internet access point.

The interaction can include any or all of the sensor readings and control settings. Data sources and systems external to the product can be fed into the interaction. For example:

  • in a production machine, visibility of customer orders helps
  • for agricultural machines, crop yield histories help farmers to optimize their fertilizer application
  • product sensor readings and cloud-based analytics enable predictive maintenance – the technician arrives with the right spare part just before the problem results in unplanned downtime

So who needs those dials and switches?

One question, though.

If remote control is possible, then what’s the point in having connected product with displays and instruments for local control?

Why not remove these expensive components?

The connectivity will allow any authorised user with the right app on their phone or tablet to stand beside the machine – or indeed, anywhere on the planet – and use the app to check readings and adjust controls.

And the software that provides this capability may offer more than you expect – for example, review of recent control inputs and sensor readings.

Add a touch of augmented reality…

Augmented reality (AR) technologies add information to a live video of a product.

The video feed could come from:

  • a camera built-in to the machine
  • a camera installed so that is has a view of several machines
  • the camera on an operator’s phone or tablet

The value comes from breakthroughs like, for example, the ability to display of an X-ray of the product, which can be used to highlight faulty components.

In some use-cases, there’s not even any need for the product itself!

Why should a distributor tie-up capital in a showroom full of machines?

Why not markers in place of the machines, and an AR application that provides a view-port for your customers to walk around and study a detailed product image from all angles?

Since it’s AR, they could see alternative options and configurations, and call up specifications all at the touch of a button (or screen).

The need to change development, operations and service

With barriers of distance and location eliminated, people, other machines, and external systems can observe a connected product (and its digital twin) and respond in new ways.

If you’re involved in product development for machinery, you’ve been thinking about these possibilities for some time. Your priority is probably new product function, and better service options. And, of course, the cost reduction pressure is always there.

Obviously, you know what your machines are used for, but this new environment means you need more insight across the whole product lifecycle.

What could your machine do to make itself easier to make, test, buy, configure, install, learn-to-use, and operate?

Your firm has probably run many initiatives focused on the design-to-manufacturing interface, from early days of developing the manufacturing concept, to creating the process, ramping up to volume, and managing the continuous change to handle manufacturing and field feedback.

So the product development process is probably multi-disciplinary, bringing development, manufacturing (and perhaps even service engineers) together to improve decision-making by taking a broad view of the requirements.

Of course, when you remove the switches and displays from your machine, you are making some of your manufacturing colleagues’ tasks simpler – fewer parts, fewer display, switch and button cut-outs in the exterior panels … so generally simpler production.

…and rewrite existing business models

But this view is just the beginning.

Taking the visible controls and displays away from a product is a great way of triggering the question “…so who is monitoring and controlling this machine?”

This is where your engineering initiative can help develop your organization’s business model.
The new control concept makes it easy to see that your own company, or a third party, could manage and control the product – for example, from a central service centre.

Your organization could use possibilities to move from selling products, to selling the use – or even outcomes – of using these products.

Part 2 of this article will consider how these changes will create new opportunities, and new frontiers of competition for software vendors who target the smart product sectors.

What did you think?

Did you attend Liveworx 2016? Let me know what you thought – tweet @Cambashi_Peter or contact me via LinkedIn.


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