Creating a new era of connected consumer products

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by Diego Tamburini, Manufacturing Industry Strategist at Autodesk

Every day, more and more connected devices are coming to market, from phones and home appliances, to cars and buildings. Their potential to make consumers’ everyday lives more efficient, convenient, and easier is endless — but they also present new challenges to the designers, engineers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs who are building these connected products.

With its rich heritage of creating powerful design solutions, the technology industry is well positioned to share the experience and knowledge that will help today’s makers tackle those challenges, and shift the way we think about designing consumer devices for the new connected future.

Let’s take a look at the current “Era of Connection” and some of the trends at work.

First and foremost, the lines between hardware and software — and between the physical and digital worlds— continue to blur as the devices that make up the Internet of Things (IoT) become more common. The Nest thermostat might have been the first IoT device to capture the public imagination, but more and more devices will combine a functional purpose with the ability to gather data, analyze it, and act upon it.

Think of flair, whose teams in China and the US have developed a sensor-enabled product that replaces traditional HVAC vents to ensure a comfortable temperature in all rooms of the home throughout the entire day. flair can be controlled on your phone, over the Cloud, or it can be left to optimize climate control on its own.

After living in Asia for 9 years, Olivier Risse, the founder of Floatility was inspired to solve the massive transportation problem facing most cities – and he believed that cars weren’t the best solution, especially for short distances. Developed across teams in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Singapore and Jakarta, the answer was the eFloater, a lightweight, solar-powered electric commuter that is network enabled, and easily used in a sharing economy model, like many of the bike share programs already existing today.

Chinese start-up Pionovasion is working with bicycle-sharing scheme Social Bicycles in (SoBi) the United States to design and build a bike. The idea is that the bike will be fitted with GPS, an Internet link, and a tiny computer – all run by solar power.

Pionovasion, flair and Floatility are examples of how entrepreneurs all over the world are proving that internet-connected devices can feed data to the cloud and other devices seamlessly. However, imagine if these devices also receive software updates from the manufacturer. The result? Products can actually improve over time rather than becoming increasingly obsolete. For example, a manufacturer can push out an update over Wi-Fi that makes an older dishwasher run as efficiently as the latest model.

The consumer expectation that products will improve over time means that products will increasingly become a way to sell services. Think about when a consumer buys a piece of hardware like a smartphone. That initial purchase is only the beginning of the relationship — the consumer immediately starts customizing and personalizing the phone by downloading and purchasing apps and other software utilities.

Designing for the Connected Era. Given the trends above, how do designers build devices that exist both in the physical and digital world and as part of a larger ecosystem? How do they create innovative products that can adapt, while still providing users with a simple, elegant, and meaningful interaction? How do they make products that — in addition to talking and working with each other — are constantly learning from the user, and evolving with new features and functionality?

Getting these elements right will be key to transforming products like smart locks, smart thermostats, and other connected devices from hype and novelty to essential devices that bring time savings, cost savings, and other benefits to consumers.

Admittedly, there is no single tool or solution to solve the problem. But much like designers now use tools to generate things we could never have predicted 20 or 30 years ago, it will be important to empower designers with software optimized for the design of connected devices.

Supporting a Connected Future. Already, startups, enterprises, students, and individuals around the world are using innovative tools to design and make the connected devices of today and tomorrow, whether it’s designing a consumer product in cloud-based mechanical engineering software, prototyping circuit boards with a free online app, or confronting the challenges of bringing a new product to market by tapping into next-generation product lifecycle management tools.

As the connected future continues to take shape, there are a few key areas to focus on:

• Education: Designers must now consider how to build devices for a dynamic environment. They will require the know-how and insight to manage this complexity, and make their products more resilient and valuable. Also important will be community-based learning and knowledge centers that promote sharing of ideas.

• Ecosystem: Industry leaders should be encouraged to partner with complementary businesses and technologies to help develop a robust ecosystem of solutions for the connected future. Combining expertise from multiple sources will accelerate innovation and strengthen the industry as a whole.

• Access to Technology: By putting design capabilities in anyone’s hands through programs offering free access for educational institutions and startups, larger organizations can help democratize the creation of tomorrow’s connected devices. For example, helping students and entrepreneurs capture, analyze and utilize data from their products is a necessary step for fueling the development of tech that will bring our connected future to life.

The Future Awaits. Connectivity is redefining product design, and the proliferation of connected consumer products will touch many more parts of our lives than it does now — probably in areas we haven’t even thought of yet.

It will be exciting to see how compelling software tools help usher in this new era. The connected future awaits.

Diego Tamburini

Diego Tamburini is the Manufacturing Industry Strategist at Autodesk, where he focuses on defining the vision for Autodesk in manufacturing and evangelizing Autodesk as a thought leader in the industry. His passion is to follow what’s going on in manufacturing, identify forces and trends, forecast where the industry is going, and think about the software tools designers and engineers will need.

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