Context: Product evolution took centuries through Mechanization, decades through Electrification, years through Electronification but now it takes just months or weeks through Digitalization. Also, the amounts of electronics / digital components in complex products are continuously increasing. For example, today cars are becoming computers on wheel with hundreds of ECUs (Engine/Electronic control unit) and millions of lines of SW codes, which evolves frequently. The cost of electronic / digital components in cars will soon reach 50% of the car.
Problem: So far, the digitalization initiatives were focusing mainly on predictive maintenance and customer experience. Though it was clear for many decision makers that digitalization is the future; it was not clear how and what exactly to be done to have sensible RoI. The potential benefits in terms of increased efficiency through predictive maintenance, first time right products through analytics etc., could not be realized for many companies as the prerequisites were not met or efficiencies were not significant enough to “save their way to prosperity”. So, except for some companies; many companies are still not clear on what is to be done and how. And the true potential of digitalization is still to be realized for most companies.
Solution: I believe the true potential of digitalization can be achieved only when we integrate electronic/digital components vertically and/or horizontally. Thinking what can be digitalized within a product is only a first step. Once part of the product became electronic and digitalized, it becomes possible to integrate some of the electronic parts digitally within the product. It will also be possible to virtualize them in a central location, say cloud, to integrate across the products which results in endless possibilities and numerous benefits.
Example: Let me explain the solution with the above car example hypothetically: if we integrate many of those ECUs in a car into say, a single consolidated big ECU; then we won’t need many of those individual electronic parts and their bundled harnesses in each car. This is a huge direct saving (as cost of electronics is reaching 50% of the total car cost) for both OEMs and the car owners. And, this is only a beginning.
In the next step, if we virtualize that consolidated ECU in cloud (assuming reliable connectivity for real time performance), it enables us to integrate all of the “integrated ECUs” of the OEM’s cars in a region. i.e. one large “ECU in cloud” for all of a OEM’s cars in a country. This enables next level of savings as well as endless possibilities. What are they?
As the possibilities are endless, let me take one example and explain. To make cars autonomous, we are trying to give them human capabilities by giving them cameras, radar, sonar, computing hardware etc. However, if part of this integrated ECU data is encrypted and published to the vehicles in a region, the vehicles in that region will know many things about nearby vehicles & surroundings to take the most efficient and safe path. This real time true info is not just location info but also the “intention of the vehicle” at component level, which is much more reliable than virtual maps and pre-recorded data.
This assured level of safety and autonomous vehicle might enable OEMs to sell shared ownerships or simply “number of commuting hours” which increases the overall margin, while reducing # of cars on the road thereby less cost and carbon footprint. This also means higher redundancy and scalability which will result in not just efficient but also the safest cars (unless the past inertia is set and people talk more about why it can’t be done than where & how it can be done)
The above is only an example and most of it, is already possible with today’s technology which is evolving very fast. And, this digital integration is not only applicable to vehicles but also to many products, industries, smart homes and smart cities where either the product/thing or production line could be digitalized partially or completely.
In the first wave of digitalization, we have been focusing on acquiring data through sensors, aggregating & analyzing the data through analytics and then assigning / acting on a product/thing to predict maintenance requirements or to improve customer experience. In the second wave, we will have to capture the right data from many means not just sensors; consider the data in real time using predefined analytical models, control the products as well as its environment as required and then combine the digital parts across the products in cloud using both engineering and IT skills. This loop of capturing, considering, controlling and combining will continue as the product evolves.
In the next wave, even some of the physical parts can be combined through Digital Twin modeling, to result in what I call “Digital Duo” – a digital proxy to physical products throughout the product life cycle. As the “digital duo” ages along with the physical product with all relevant and consolidated information in digital form, it will be able to double/ support physical products directly / indirectly…for example, several of the monitoring & compliance activities can be done on the digital product efficiently, increasing the physical product’s available time. And I will write about that in another day.
In summary, as the product electronification and digitalization continues; it becomes possible to integrate electronics digitally within a product and virtualize it in cloud. In the cloud, further integration across products is possible which will result in huge savings, higher efficiency, lower carbon foot print etc., with great customer experience and profits. As part of the product will be in cloud, it will bring more and more IT/ICT into product engineering.