With IoT, Engineers Will Need More Business Savvy

As we enter the age of smart, connected products, engineers are not only going to have to brush up on cross-disciplinary design, they’re also going to need to buff up their business skills in order to succeed over the long haul. I’m not necessarily talking about a march back to B-school—certainly, that would be overkill for most design professionals.

What I’m suggesting is that engineers need to start putting a greater emphasis on understanding the business requirements and the industry segment in which they play, far more so than what’s been required in the past.

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What Product Engineers Can Learn from IT

It’s a mindset shift that’s been happening in information technology (IT) circles for years and should probably have been percolating in the engineering ranks given the growing complexity of products.

[Ed. Learn more about how the Internet of Things impacts you. Attend LiveWorx 2016, June 6-9 in Boston, and see how to streamline product development today and design smarter things tomorrow.]

IT professionals have been schooled for some time now that technology is—and should be--viewed and deployed in the context of solving real problems and meeting core business objectives. Just as IT professionals have had to balance acquiring and honing skills in hot areas like the cloud and big data along with a mastery of core business fundamentals like supply chains and customer experience, engineers need to offset their domain expertise in design and simulation with core knowledge of the business.

Products Are More Than Physical Now

It’s a way of thinking that should  be applied to the process of designing and building products for the Internet of Things (IoT). In truth, IoT is less about some sexy new product design and more about the business services that go along with it.

Yes, the Nest smart thermostat is beautifully designed from an esthetic standpoint. But it’s really the smart phone app and accompanying service, that deliver on the promise of automatic control and efficiency, that make it a standout product.

Same deal for some of the less consumer-oriented smart offerings like tractors or wind turbines. Sure, there may be elements of the physical design that will be unique, but for the most part, the majority of connected tractors or wind turbines are going to look remarkably similar to their non-connected counterparts, with the bulk of differentiation associated with the business service.

How Design Engineers Can Adapt to the IoT Era

So what does this mean for traditional design engineers? It means that they need to take a broader view of what constitutes a product beyond the physical structure, electronics, and embedded software. They need to factor in business requirements and objectives with the same level of deference awarded to technical design requirements like tolerances or meeting particular goals around weight reduction and materials composition.

Ask questions. Engineers should acclimate to the new mindset by asking questions. Instead of pursuing a new product or product update in their particular design vacuum, engineers should make sure they have a keen understanding of how the product is to be used and what the revenue model is—both factors that will have bearing on design choices in large and small ways. Knowing, for example, that a smart thermostat like the Nest will be coupled with data collection and analysis services to optimize energy use and room comfort will have applicability in the early design stages as engineers make critical decisions related to sensor use and placement. It also has bearing on elements like the user interface display—for example, to ensure that the space designed is optimized for the type and quantity of information that will be presented.

Try it out. Hands-on experimentation with the product is another crucial piece of understanding where it fits into a broader ecosystem of services. By becoming familiar with exactly how a thermostat or blood glucose monitor is used, engineers gain invaluable insight into how to evolve the design to fully exploit the data being collected for any number of business services—whether that be predictive maintenance, for example, or proactive health monitoring.

Collaborate more. Alignment is another concept heavily promoted for years by IT professionals, which now has bearing on engineering departments as they embark on IoT projects. Engineering management must collaborate with its counterparts in different business functions to ensure everyone is working toward shared objectives and business goals.

Being an engineer and being an MBA are often worlds apart. But in the new era of IoT products, which are one part physical design and one part business service, the worlds will be inextricably  connected, and all engineers should brace for the impact.

[Ed. Learn more about how the Internet of Things impacts you. Attend LiveWorx 2016, June 6-9 in Boston, and see how to streamline product development today and design smarter things tomorrow.]

Beth Stackpole

Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor at Desktop Engineering (www.deskeng.com)  who has been covering the engineering and design tool space for nearly a decade.

This blog post is funded by PTC. The concepts, ideas, and positions of this post have  been developed independently by Beth Stackpole.