Concept Design in the IoT Age

To hear the pundits tell it, the Internet of Things (IoT) is a chance for product companies to hit the reset button, reinventing themselves with completely new business models. In a similar vein, IoT presents the potential for a powerful do-over for design engineers, especially those up for the challenge of learning new skill sets and broadening their influence beyond the physical product.

Like any true product design exercise, the main attraction is still the actual product, albeit recast to participate in the world of IoT. As a result, engineers can stretch their wings, but as always, they need to do so with a dogged focus on meeting requirements as opposed to innovating simply to push the boundaries of design. In real terms, this means coming up with a sleek organic shape for a bike seat only if the newly designed component contributes to the overall effort of hitting a particular lightweighting goal, for example. Similarly, it’s fine to chase down the next novel functionality for transforming a next-generation vehicle, but only if those features square with specified design objectives, perhaps in the area of usability or high performance.

If all this sounds familiar, it is. Where the IoT concept process veers off on a different track has everything to do with the fact that the product is no longer a standalone design, but rather considered in the context of a connected solution. Engineers have been ditching the siloed design mentality for some time now as growing product complexity reenergizes the systems engineering movement. It’s now natural, even required, for mechanical engineers to take a cross-functional view of a product, considering the electrical or software systems as part of their early design planning. However, a systems engineering view doesn’t go far enough in IoT product design. In this brave new world, engineers need to consider a range of factors that go beyond their traditional domains and quite likely take them outside the scope of engineering.

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With that in mind, here are four areas that enterprising engineers need to have in their sights to maximize IoT concept design success:

Know the business. This is perhaps the most important and most different aspect of IoT design. Designing an IoT product is as much about coming up with a unique design as it is creating a product that dovetails with a particular business strategy. For example, creating a concept for a smart, connected refrigerator involves so much more than dreaming up the optimal door layout, storage configurations, or cooling mechanisms. It’s about having the vision to meld those traditional design points with new connectivity and data collection capabilities to support emerging revenue streams in areas like preventative maintenance or automatic grocery replenishment services. In most cases, engineers won’t be primary architects of the new business models, but given their intimate familiarity with the product, they should be prepared to wade in and help architect new business models.

Remember, user experience is king. Usability and more recently, user experience have become a top priority in engineering circles in recent years, but the concepts are even more critical in IoT design. Designing a product that is intimately connected to a service and potentially, a larger ecosystem, is an opportunity for engineering teams to fundamentally rethink the traditional user experience. Engineers need to create software designs and hardware elements that seamlessly interact, ensuring there is little to no distinction between the physical product and the service. The result should be a holistic user experience.

Know your communications capabilities. Smart, connected products don’t exist without the connectivity piece, which means engineers need to ramp up quickly and become communications savvy. While IoT product design teams will have their share of communications domain experts, the average design engineer should become familiar with basic communications protocols. They also need to understand sensors and sensor placement so they can create product designs that optimize and map data collection points to support the accompanying services and emerging business model.

Take a lifetime view. Most IoT products will have a much longer shelf life than the average offering. Engineers need to take product lifecycle into account at the very beginning of the design stage, advancing concepts that can be continuously updated and altered to support new services as they come on board, whether that’s through software upgrades or new add-on hardware modules.

Concepting new products in the age of IoT is going to require a lot more than out-of-the-box design thinking. Engineers need to be ready to leave their comfort zones and lend a hand in formulating new business models and embracing non-traditional technologies as part of creating a holistic experience.