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Stanley Przybylinski

Quality Insider

‘Experiencing’ the Quality of the Internet of Things

Sensors will create a continuous cycle of user experience and product development

Published: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 - 23:00

A widely cited prediction holds that by 2020 “upwards of 50 billion devices” will be connected to the Internet. And that number of connected devices, massive as it may be, will be dwarfed by a far larger number of connected sensors.  At a modest 20 sensors per device, the connections tally reaches one trillion.

This is the Internet of Things (IoT). Its billions of devices and a trillion (give or take) connected sensors promise users better experiences with their products because the IoT can supply the data to quickly resolve unforeseen problems. This is half of the high-quality user experience for any new product and its services. The other half is the innovation designed and manufactured into that product.

Moreover, those future user experiences will be measured quantitatively, not just in terms of perceived quality. In his March 27, 2014 article in Quality Digest Daily,  “Fear and Loathing With Onbaord Diagnostic,” Dirk Dusharme pointed out many of the prospects of General Motors’ OnStar system.  

The IoT also portends big things for “quality,” broadly defined, through product life cycle management (PLM). The IoT can eliminate nearly all the uncertainty about what users encounter in the field, in the later stages of product life cycles. The ways in which products wear out, and when and how they are replaced, can provide vital insights about what will be needed in next-generation products. 

With a little IoT help, these data can be gleaned from the back end of the product life cycle, downstream from manufacturing. These data will help us better support what some refer to as “servitization.” Fundamental to servitization is providing customers with specific functionality for specified periods of time, whether sold or leased. The term was popularized by PTC, formerly Parametric Technology Corp.

With today’s cell phone trade-ins and upgrades—as with many leasing agreements—servitization is already happening. The traditional product, an electromechanical smart device, for example, is becoming secondary to the service provided. To maintain the contracted service (and its stream of revenue), the provider (lessor) upgrades or recycles the physical device as needed and updates the underlying software.

CIMdata, a leading independent international PLM analysis and consulting firm, believes that in the coming years IoT will enhance user experiences with their products, especially smart devices. Specifically, the IoT will:

• Reinforce the need for PLM to harvest information from the latter stages and back ends of life cycles. As the intrinsic value of those insights is increasingly understood at the enterprise level, PLM will be transformed from “a good thing to have,” to an essential.
• Offer new production and usage insights through corrective and preventive action (CAPA) processes implemented in manufacturing in regulated industries. For manufacturers and service units, the IoT can provide CAPA-like real-time feedback on resolutions to problems. Did the fix solve the problem? How much did the remedy cost? Can the solution be replicated? Until recently, CAPA and PLM have not been tightly linked, but we expect them to bond to their mutual benefit.

To many analysts, most product developers, and nearly all users of physical products, these points are only now being recognized. For years, we have watched them materialize in our work with life cycle management. 

Figure 1: This daunting graphic attempts to show how comprehensive the IoT will be in all its complexity. Click here for larger image. (Image source Beecham Research Ltd.)

To build momentum for the IoT, AT&T, Cisco, GE, IBM, and Intel formed the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) in March 2014. Their stated goal is to “identify requirements for open interoperability standards and define common architectures to connect smart devices, machines, people, processes, and data” throughout industry. The IIC will push for better access to what information technology experts often refer to as Big Data while improving the integration of the physical and digital worlds. The IIC is managed by the Boston-based Object Management Group, an Internet trade association.

Some basic distinctions

The “I” in the IoT is the Internet, and from its inception during the 1960s as the ARPANET, the Internet has fostered the sharing of information generated by humans and collaboration among people.

The IoT moves beyond sharing information between humans to sharing information between things. The distinction is not subtle:

Data volume.  The 50 billion-device prediction is from Cisco Systems Inc., whose routers are the Internet’s backbone. A large majority of those 50 billion devices and trillion sensors will push out megabytes of data weekly, daily, or even hourly. Trillions of sensors are not a farfetched notion. In October 2013, the TSensors Summit (the T is for trillion) on ultra-high-volume embedded sensors drew 250 people to Stanford University.   

Cisco’s metaphor for these overwhelming flows of data is “fog computing,” and its marketers point out that “amazing things happen when you connect the unconnected.”  More skeptically, Oracle Corp. has observed that by themselves, “these streams of data don’t add up to much more than quantified noise.”

Always on. IoT devices are permanently wired to the IoT. Unless switched off, they transmit data ceaselessly. For humans, using the Internet is sporadic—surfing, posting, collaborating, and downloading whenever we want.

Inanimate.  Automation’s basic needs and opportunities drive the IoT. Nearly all IoT data are generated by physical things—e.g., smart devices as well as the sensors in the 21st century’s outpouring of manufactured goods. 

More structured. Virtually all IoT data are and will continue to be in known data formats—“structured data”—although the formats will change with every advance in technology. In contrast, most of what we humans currently upload and download is “unstructured”—e.g., video, email, voice mail, PowerPoint presentations, photos, “tweets,” Facebook feeds, PDFs—which information technology experts often refer to as Big Data.  

The sensors industry is nevertheless cautioning that IoT data flows will not be entirely digital. A large proportion of sensors are analog, not digital, devices, notes National Instruments, a leader in data acquisition, instrumentation, embedded control, and industrial communications products. Thus the IoT also promises a huge market for analog-to-digital converters.

Manufacturing. Industrial use of the Internet has so far mainly been about monitoring manufacturing processes. From the trends outlined here, CIMdata believes IoT will be primarily concerned with what has already been manufactured—notwithstanding CAPA’s widespread use in regulated industries. But the impact within manufacturing will still be huge. For most companies, the IoT “will be 100 times larger than what currently is internally managed,” asserts Dennis Brandl, president of BR&L Consulting in Cary, North Carolina. “Information technology operations of manufacturing will need new tools, new management systems, and new support systems to handle plant-wide networks with tens of thousands of devices” he adds, noting systems and processes that “got you here, won’t get you there.”

Analysis.The burgeoning use of analytics and data mining may well transform the IoT as it grows. Internet data of all types are continually parsed for insights into the expectable behaviors of customers and users, markets, government agencies, and even potential terrorists. Analytics in the IoT will seek patterns in potential failures of products in the field as well as in manufacturing equipment. 


Figure 2: In this conceptualization of the industrial Internet (and what is known as the circular economy), intelligent sensors and instrumented machinery in information networks of the IoT provide high-level data visualization for analytics software linked back to designers and engineers. Click for larger image.  (Image courtesy of GE Co.)

Fifty billion devices and a trillion sensors are astonishing numbers. When the back ends of life cycles are better understood via the IoT, the development of new products and the users’ experiences with them will be changed forever. For manufacturers in the globally competitive 21st century, the quality of that experience is a key to success. 

Expectations for the future

From all this, some IoT expectations can now be spelled out, even if they are not yet preordained. Among these expectations:

For product developers, IoT provides invaluable new pointers to needed improvements. These pointers will find their way into the product’s intellectual property and the myriad databases in engineering “silos” managed with PLM strategies. Requirements for the new products are extracted from these data stashes. Thus, the IoT offers a better way to design quality in to ensure a better user experience. 

At first glance, information-driven new requirements may be tougher for product developers to meet. However, better information from the field (i.e., the back end of the life cycle) can uncover hidden conflicts. These can be resolved before they cause snags in detailed engineering, or worse, delay a production launch. Considerations of quality are threaded all through these processes.

The IoT should, at long last, allow decision makers in the supply chain and users of customer relationship management (CRM) and supply chain management (SCM) systems “see” what their customers’ customers actually do with their products. For example, valuable insights will be gleaned about wear and tear and the use, misuse, and abuse of their products.

IoT info should also be of enormous value in dealing with regulators and their demands for compliance and verification. Inspectors and decision-making officials can focus on the right problems, knowing that they are seeing the right data.  

The early adopters that successfully leverage the emerging IoT technologies will gain competitive advantages while (no surprise) laggards may see their market shares erode.   This is because the IoT offers unprecedented advantages in making tomorrow’s versions of today’s products more competitive—anything and everything from apparel to armaments.

IoT benefits to the user experience will be heightened as information generated in field service reports and warranty claims blends with IoT sensor data from those billions of connected devices. The products that emerge from tomorrow’s manufacturing enterprises will be more functional, more robust, longer-lived, more adaptable, more scalable, and more sustainable.

It is common to hear engineers complain about “drowning in data and starving for information.” If properly managed with analytics and data mining, the feedback from the IoT’s trillions of sensors can provide the digital wherewithal—the myriad processes of effective quality management—for better user experiences. Today’s fragmented information systems will, however, continue to present “information highway” speed bumps and potholes to accessing information engineers need if the IoT is mismanaged.


Figure 3: In contrast to the Beecham and GE graphics above, this image simplifies the IoT to the human scale of everyday home and office devices. Its side-to-side symmetry is intended to show how data gathered into the IoT will enhance user experiences. Click for larger image. (Image source Chris Hoeller, Backwards Time Machine)


Figure 4: Mergers and acquisitions aside, the IoT will be good for technology businesses in many ways. This business-maturity model schematic identifies benefits ranging from connectivity (lower left) through availability, trending, and business intelligence. Click for larger image. (Image courtesy of Carestream Health Inc.)

Acquisitions: building out the IoT

CIMdata tracks the IoT and many other technology trends in product development. With the IoT in mind, PLM solution providers are beginning to recalibrate business models and realign life cycle strategies. Several recent IoT-related acquisitions underline the changes:

• ThingWorx was acquired by PTC. PTC says one reason it bought ThingWorx was to gain new search-analysis capabilities for connected devices and distributed data. The acquisition triggered an industry buzz because PTC paid $112 million, or about 10 times ThingWorx’s annual revenue.
• Servigistics was also acquired by PTC and is a big part of PTC’s services lifecycle management (SLM) offerings. The IoT and analytics will transform SLM to enhance field-service scheduling and predictive maintenance.
• Nest Laboratories, a developer of smart thermostats and smoke alarms, was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion—a huge price that validates IoT expectations.
• Circuits.io, a Belgium-based open hardware community startup, was acquired by Autodesk for its collaborative circuit design tools that ease the manufacturing of printed circuit boards. Inexpensive sensors, processing, and connectivity turns “makers” into “thing makers,” expanding the IoT reach even further. 
• Pivotal Labs received a $105 million investment from GE. GE and PTC also expanded their shared efforts in GE’s Intelligent Platforms to close loops between product design and “production execution” on the shop floor.  

In the narrower realm of production and machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity, IoT tracks smart devices as well as simpler products equipped only with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. This factory-floor focus is often labeled “Industry 4.0” and “cyber-physical systems”; it aims to pull together all of manufacturing’s three-letter-acronyms: PLM, ERP, MES, CRM, SCM, and BOMs.

Recent Industry 4.0/cyber-physical systems acquisitions include Tekelec and Acme Packet by Oracle, cyberGRID GmbH by Toshiba, and AVIDwireless by Numerex. ORBCOMM, a satellite communications and remote-measurement company, acquired GlobalTrak, MobileNet, and Comtech’s sensor-enabled notification system (SENS) for asset tracking.

All these acquisitions are strategic moves that take the acquirers into new markets—and almost all of them occurred between late 2012 and early 2014. The deals total in the billions and help explain why the McKinsey Global Institute ranked IoT third in a May 2013 report on the 12 most potentially economically disruptive technologies.  McKinsey forecasts that the IoT will create somewhere between $2.7 trillion and $6.2 trillion of economic value by 2025.  Estimates from other analysts vary widely.

Security, privacy, and standards

As with every new technology, there are downsides. It is conceivable that the IoT could have a negative impact on privacy. For example, over time cell phone tracking data can provide a dynamic profile of who we are and where we go, not just the cell phone numbers of people we call and text.  Already retailers can (and do) track customers through their stores via their phones to figure out what we want. If one can connect toasters to the IoT, connected toothbrushes, tableware, and trash compactors may not be very far in our futures. 

Two very different examples:

• Google and Facebook recently purchased two manufacturers of solar-powered drones that potentially can stay aloft for years. In April 2014 Google bought Titan Aerospace in New Mexico for an undisclosed price. The preceding month Facebook paid US$20 million for UK-based Ascenta. Initial explanations were to extend Internet services with drone aircraft to remote parts of the planet. The connections to the cloud are obvious; less obvious are the surveillance implications.
• The National Football League (NFL) tested instrumentation on players in games during the 2012–2013 season. The NFL has “tested helmet impact analysis in the lab,” In a Computerworld magazine interview in May, 2013, NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle said “We’re also testing next-generation statistics, which uses instrumentation to track players’ movements on the field,” McKenna-Doyle added. What is being tracked is the user experience of professional football players because, as widely reported, the NFL is facing 200 concussion-related lawsuits.

As with privacy, billions of connected IoT devices could pose security difficulties. Case in point: It is known that computer chips built into refrigerators have been taken over by spambots. Hackers seem to score a disruptive new coup every day.

Given the size and growth of the IoT, many engineers and product developers are watching the development of industry standards.  These standards can enhance the user experience and, more important, the understanding of that user experience by manufacturers and product developers. The Instrument Society of America (ISA) is at the forefront with its ISA 108 committee on the management of intelligent devices.

Meanwhile, regulatory bodies are taking notice of the IoT. New demands for compliance, better security protocols, and more effective data governance can be expected.

Many of the world’s biggest industrial companies, leading academic research institutes, and governments are joining forces around the IoT.  They are formulating new standards, assessing the impacts on the many PLM- and IoT-focused mergers, and developing new technologies. 

Presuming that the downsides are managed well, the user experience can only be enriched with a much broader meaning of “quality,” to everyone’s benefit.


About The Author

Stanley Przybylinski’s picture

Stanley Przybylinski

Stanley Przybylinski is vice president of research at CIMdata, a product life-cycle (PLM) education, research, and strategic management consulting firm. He has more than 30 years experience in developing business-enabling IT solutions for research, engineering, and manufacturing organizations worldwide. He has worked in R&D, marketing, and communications with Fortune 100 companies and small organizations. Przybylinski is responsible for CIMdata’s research agenda, including the CIMdata PLM Market Analysis Report series.