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4 Skills for the Internet of Things

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National Instruments’cRIO-9068 controller, programmed with LabVIEW system design software, enables engineers to use a single, graphical development environment to build and test cyber-physical systems. Image courtesy of National Instruments.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the latest trend being hyped by analysts and prognosticators as having disruptive potential — so much so that it’s prompting product design and engineering organizations to ramp up new competencies, and requiring manufacturers to rethink and transform their business models.

IoT generally refers to what some call the next-generation Internet, where physical objects are connected via the standard Internet Protocol (IP). Anything from cars to industrial machines to medical devices can be involved — even people and livestock. Using an array of embedded sensors, actuators and a variety of other technologies, these loosely connected “things”can sense aspects of their environment and communicate that information over wired and wireless networks, without human intervention, for a variety of compelling use cases.

Consider the potential of IoT in terms of remote diagnostics. A tractor, for example, could be outfitted with sensors that collect data about its operation in the field, providing real-time insights into performance and proactively flagging part failures before they actually occur. From a service perspective, that real-time data can provide a technician with everything he or she needs to know about how to address a particular problem, to be properly prepared with the right parts and equipment before going on-site to resolve it. Finally, all of the failure and performance data can be fed back into internal product development systems, giving engineering teams valuable insights that can drive future product generations.

That’s just a start. Beyond product development and manufacturing, experts see huge potential for the IoT to help tackle many of the global society’s thorniest problems, including climate change, urban congestion and health care. IoT is already playing a role in orchestrating more efficient energy usage via the rise of smart grids, facilitating highly coordinated disaster response efforts (see “SERS Project Puts IoT in Rescue Mode,”page 16). IoT is also the brains behind the new sci-fi crop of autonomous vehicles, from the Google Car to unmanned drones.

A New Economy

Big-picture, visionary applications aside, there’s already significant IoT momentum thanks to the explosive growth of tablets and smartphones. Cisco estimates that there will be 25 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2015, and 50 billion by 2020. This sets the stage for a sea change in types of products and IoT applications brought to market. In addition, a recent McKinsey Global Institute report predicts that 80% to 100% of all manufacturers will be using IoT applications by 2025, and the IoT has the potential to unleash as much as $6.2 trillion in new global economic value annually by 2025.

Industry watchers are projecting entirely new business models springing up around the IoT. In this new world, companies aren’t just selling physical products, but rather the subscription services built around these next-generation products.

“Smart and connected products raise the bar on design, and smartness opens up a whole new world of possibilities in delivering value through services,”Jim Hepplemann, CEO of PTC, told PTC Live 2014 conference attendees in June.

PTC is betting big on the IoT, having doled out $112 million last year to purchase ThingWorx, which makes an application platform for building IoT applications (see “PTC Rolls out ThingWorx v5.0,”page 15). This is in addition to PTC’s earlier acquisition of MSK Integrity, which focuses on software lifecycle management capabilities, and more recently, Atego, a developer of model-based systems and engineering (MBSE) applications.

“The fact that we are trying to keep our strategy refreshed and relevant speaks to the complexity and sophistication of products right now,”Hepplemann said. “You need lot of different talents to get one of these smart connected things out the door, but you can’t not make them smart and connected. If you don’t, you’ll be a dinosaur.”

Four IoT Competencies for Design Engineers

Building smart and connected products designed to live in the world of IoT will require engineering organizations to master some new areas, and also get better at competencies that have been around awhile, like multi-disciplinary and systems engineering. While there’s lots of talk about the potential of IoT, and most analysts agree about its significance for the future, it’s still early days in terms of companies making wholesale changes to their product development and engineering processes. That’s according to Stan Przybylinski, vice president of research for CIMdata, a market research firm specializing in engineering.

“We’re not really seeing it yet,”he admits. “There’s a lot of people out there talking, but there isn’t a lot of action. People are still having problems doing basic stuff.”

Companies committed to pushing their products to the next level need to consider the following four disciplines as part of an IoT engineering makeover:

1 Embedded software is fast becoming a staple of all kinds of physical products, not just cars and airplanes. With the IoT fast approaching, there is no turning back. Mechanical engineers need to interface regularly with software specialists so both design aspects of the product evolve concurrently. This is preferred over a siloed approach, which can often introduce problems later in the game, when it’s more costly to address.

SERS Project Puts IoT in Rescue Mode

National Instruments, MathWorks and a variety of other organizations are trying their hand at state-of-the-art Internet of Things (IoT) applications as part of the SmartAmerica Challenge — a government mandate to explore how cyber-physical systems (another term for the IoT) can create jobs and bring socioeconomic benefits to the United States.

Nine organizations helped devise the Smart Emergency Response System (SERS), which combines numerous technologies to create a self-contained environment for disaster response. Using ground and aerial robots, human-in-the-loop telerobotics, advanced sensors, search-and-rescue dogs, adaptive electronic communications, and something called computer-enabled optimal resource allocation, the team created a coordinated and adaptable framework for smart emergency response. Volunteers can be automatically authorized and registered, and their efforts integrated with first responders. It’s all accomplished through communications tools like smartphones and social networking — even when the infrastructure is seriously degraded.

A possible SERS scenario might deploy a rescue dog outfitted with a harness equipped with a camera, sensors and a GPS to transmit information back to a control center, while an overhead drone provides the on-demand Wi-Fi network to collect all the data. The drone could also deliver cell phone connectivity, so first responders could access a crowdsourcing app that might direct them in real-time to problem spots, along with funneling valuable feedback from people on the ground to help them better orchestrate the rescue mission.

“This conveys a mindset that we can create devices and systems for which, through their interconnected nature and ability to create and share data, we can substantially improve the quality of life for everyone,”says Ray Almgren, vice president of marketing for National Instruments.

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The level of software expertise is also critical for IoT development. “It’s got to be a higher level of software knowledge, as opposed to programming,”says Jim Tung, MATLAB Fellow at MathWorks. “It’s important to have software architect skills while programming skills become less important.

While software skills have been a priority for many engineering organizations for some time, some traditional shops are still lacking in this area, according to CIMdata’s Przybylinski.

“Software has been a creeping incompetence for a lot of companies as it’s found its way into products,”he explains. “A lot of the issues you see in products out in the field now can be attributed to the increased role that software plays, and its ability to throw people off their game.”

2 Communication capabilities become a critical part of the design, with devices and products of all sorts connecting to the Internet to interface with other “things”(Editor’s Note: For more on this, see “Simulating M2M System Communication,”page 24). Engineers will need to choose from dozens of proprietary and standard communications protocols, and factor in things like network protocols, potential radio frequency (RF) noise and interference, and the physical fit and placement of new communication components as part of their requirements-gathering and formal design processes.

“Mechanical and electromechanical design teams now have to think about communications as a first-class citizen in the design process, and consider it as another set of domain constraints in what is now multi-domain system design,”MathWorks’Tung explains.

3 Instrumentation is crucial to leverage the data collected by a smart product to institute a change (like remote programming a new function) or to initiate proactive service. First, though, the design team needs to understand how the device is to behave in the field so it can be properly outfitted with sensors to collect the right information.

Understanding the functional aspects of how the equipment is to behave will help design engineers anticipate potential failure modes much more effectively, which in turn effects how they spec the instrumentation into the design, explains Brian Thompson, vice president for Creo Product Management at PTC. At this stage, the design team needs to discern what types of sensors make the most sense for the product, and the kind of data they’re trying to collect.

“Engineers should be working with field and service teams to ensure the instrumentation strategy covers all the bases,”Thompson says. “Customers are only now just starting to think about this.”

4 Data and security should be at the heart of any IoT-enabled product. After all, the data collected will have some sort of impact on the design, whether it’s to make a change to its functionality via a software update, or to feed back into internal product development systems to direct future design iterations. Securing that data is equally important.

As a result, IT, typically the domain that has ownership of data, needs to be brought into the engineering fold so they have some sensitivity to the system design aspect of the actual devices or “things”that will be physically harvesting and responding to that data. There are also new latency and data security aspects to consider — again, areas that fall outside of the traditional domain expertise of most design engineers.

“Engineers can’t be building devices in isolation if they want to take advantage of the possibilities,”notes Ray Almgren, vice president of marketing at National Instruments. “It can bring in a whole other set of challenges, because your device is going to be getting data or serving up data to some database, and that information can be acted upon automatically without human intervention to make better decisions.”

Case in Point

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All Traffic Solutions leveraged PTC’s ThingWorx rapid application development platform to retool its street signs for the smart and connected world of IoT. Image courtesy of All Traffic Solutions.

All Traffic Solutions, a manufacturer of smart traffic signs, went down the path of IoT-enabled products almost five years ago — and hasn’t looked back. Initially, the company’s first- and second-generation smart signs, which are primarily marketed to municipalities, collected data on traffic and speed profiles, but it had to be manually downloaded from the physical sign using a traditional serial cable and eventually a portable device. Today, the third-generation signs collect data and serve it up to an Internet-based database. This not only allows for easier access, but also makes it possible to deliver robust searching and analytical capabilities, according to All Traffic Solutions President Ted Graef.

The company’s engineering group had to master a number of new competencies, however, including beefing up knowledge of antennas and other communications elements. The signs incorporate a modem, which raised numerous design challenges trying to get an off-the-shelf cellular modem into the sign’s already optimized footprint.

“It was a case of not letting the guts of the unit drive what the unit looks like or how it ends up functioning,”explains Graef. “We had to work hard to get everything in the same package we were already using for the non-connected product.”

PTC Rolls out ThingWorx v5.0 Platform for The Internet of Things

As part of its push to conquer the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) landscape, PTC released v5.0 of ThingWorx, its rapid application development platform for building and running IoT applications.

Released initially in 2011 and acquired by PTC in December 2013, ThingWorx has been aggressively pursuing first mover advantage in the world of IoT. It’s currently enjoying nearly 500% growth since its inception, according to Russ Fadel, president and general manager of ThingWorx. The latest release delivers a number of notable enhancements, including flexible deployment options, more efficient and secure communications protocols, and a new security model.

Citing widely used industry figures that there will be 50 billion specialized “things”connected to the Internet in 2020 and up to 1 trillion in 2035, Fadel says there is a growing need for applications to support those “things.”It’s a gap he notes was the impetus for starting ThingWorx. “Until recently, no one was talking about building apps — but without apps, deploying these ‘things’is not practical,”he explains.

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ThingWorx Rapid Application Development Platform v5.0 increases developer activity and offers server federation capabilities with options for cloud, on-premises and on-device deployments. Image courtesy of PTC.

ThingWorx delivers a single stack that provides all the foundational services to build IoT apps, including the communications business logic, data storage, system integration and representational state transfer application program interfaces (REST APIs), among other capabilities. This approach greatly reduces development time, Fadel says.

ThingWorx Platform v5.0 includes:

  • Flexible deployment options via a new federation capability that lets apps be deployed in the cloud, on-premises, hybrid or even on-device. This feature ensures companies can put applications at the location where it is best suited from a number of perspectives, including reliability and security.
  • The patented AlwaysOn Protocol is a low-latency, bi-directional communications protocol that can be tuned for minimized power consumption and bandwidth usage.
  • The ThingWorx MatrixMultitenancy Security Model ensures secure visibility and access control to devices and information that directly maps to complex business ecosystems.

More than any challenge to engineering, the real work came with reorienting the entire organization around IoT and transitioning the business model to be less about selling signs and more about marketing subscription services.

“The real message is that IoT is not an engineering project, it’s a business project,”Graef concludes. “Connectivity is a business process, not a technology. You have to get set up so you can take advantage of the product’s connection so you can monetize it. Because if you’re not monetizing it, why are you doing it?”

Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering. You can contact her at beth@deskeng.com.

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About Beth Stackpole

Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering. Send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.