Understanding Design for Connectivity
Written By: Hedley Apperly

For decades, complex systems have gathered data, which could then be reviewed for analysis. For instance, when a plane lands, a computer can be attached to collect data about vibrations and other performance details. Automobiles have featured on-board diagnostics for some time, allowing service engineers to analyze operations and issues and determine a course of action, if necessary.

The Internet of Things (IoT) makes obsolete the need for these hard connections between complex systems and computers. Instead these systems can gather data using embedded sensors and stream it via the Internet for consumption by engineers, analysts, and others. By definition, these are smart products. Examples of large complex systems falling into the smart product category include trains, automobiles, and airplanes. 

Smart Connected Products in Action

A smart connected train could securely feed data to the Internet, allowing the manufacturer to monitor for performance and maintenance issues. It could also feed relevant data to signaling systems so the train’s precise location could be pinpointed at any time. 

Another example is the anti-lock braking system (ABS) within automobiles. Essentially, this system relies on a sensor to determine when the brakes are released. To enable this, auto manufacturers have had to consider sensors as part of the ABS functionality. However, these sensors were not typically used for other onboard functionality or connectivity outside of the car. 

Today, automobile components can be designed with other capabilities in mind, allowing manufacturers to use sensors for other functions. For instance, sensors that have for years determined and displayed the fuel level within the automobile could share that data to be used outside of the vehicle. In this case, collecting data about fuel consumption from a large number of the same make and model could help a manufacturer make design tweaks that help improve fuel efficiency. Or an insurance company could use the data to give preferred rates to drivers.

At the same time, the concept of smart connected products is about connecting all components and parts within these complex systems so they can communicate with one another. For instance, an airplane engine features a control system, actuators, sensors, and many other components that must all be connected to ensure the engine operates properly. Enabling these components to “talk” to one another and the cloud could enable predictive and preventive maintenance, for example. 

Adding Sensors to Legacy Products

While products are increasingly being designed as smart from the outset (with embedded software, data-collecting sensors and actuators), it is also possible to retrofit existing products with sensors. Consider the example of adding a sensor to a bicycle that checks the wheel rotation. This data could help determine speed and distance for display on a device on the bike. It could also be sent to the cloud and made available on a mobile phone. 

Make Design for Connectivity a Forethought

In an ideal scenario, manufacturers would consider and define the data streams they want to collect as they are creating their product design. The design would account for the data that needs to flow from the system, be understood, and acted upon. This is known as Design for Connectivity. 

The goal during the engineering design phase is to select the right use for, location of, and quantity of sensors, while also deciding on the relevant data streams to be collected. That said, it’s best to design for connectivity before deciding on the sensors to be used to consider tradeoffs associated with cost, sensor longevity, and more. 

The challenge is designing for connectivity before deciding what types of sensors are needed. For instance, say a manufacturer is designing an automobile and wants to show the outside temperature to the driver. The manufacturer could put a temperature sensor under the hood and connect it to a computer inside the vehicle, which would then display the reading on the dashboard. Another option would be using an onboard computer to figure out the vehicle’s location via GPS and then “calling” a weather service via the cloud using a software program. 

Getting Started with Design for Connectivity

Using an optimized engineering approach, start by considering both the product and holistic IoT functionality that will be delivered now as well as in the future. Then design the interfaces between the sub-systems and the connected products, plus the information that will need to flow. Finally, consider what software and hardware will be needed to deliver on these functional and interface needs.

To make Design for Connectivity feasible, manufacturers need the following:

  • A systems design tool that enables abstract IoT design. 
  • A design environment that supports the design of a connected system, sub-systems and their interfaces. 
  • CAD and 3D to design the physical space that will hold sensors and actuators
  • Software design tools to ensure the embedded code will function correctly and also pass the right data between sub-systems and to the cloud.
  • Software that controls the product while also sending information to the cloud.
  • A way to enable the data flows through the different layers of the complex system and beyond (e.g., send an alert to the cloud). 
  • A process or methodology for the design and development of smart, connected IoT products

With this foundation and a digital representation of the product in the form of a digital product definition, manufacturers receive the data they designed from their products in the field.

To be able to design products for connectivity, it is imperative to take small steps on your Digital Engineering Transformational Journey. Discover how you can begin your own journey.

Tags: Windchill Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) Automotive Electronics and High Tech Connected Devices Digital Transformation
About the Author Hedley Apperly

I am a VP of Solution Management at PTC. I have an HNC in engineering, a 1st class BSc in computing & an MA in strategic marketing. I am an author and visionary on methodologies, modeling and reuse. I am also a member of the OMG Board & OASIS OSLC Core committee. I was involved in writing Component Based Development for Enterprise Systems (1998 Cambridge University Press). I also co-authored Component Based Software Engineering; Putting the Pieces Together (1999, Addison-Wesley) and Service- and Component-based Development; Using the Select Perspective and UML (2002, Addison Wesley.)