There's hardly a device that isn't going "smart" these days. From coffee makers that we can operate from our smartphones to watches that can track our every step, everyday objects are taking on a whole new life in the internet of things (IoT).
And it seems we can't get enough of them. Global shipments of wearable IoT devices, for example, are expected to nearly triple from 79 million in 2015 to more than 213 million in 2020. Also, nearly half of millennials report already having smart-home technology -- such as a smart thermostat or security system -- in their homes.
The desire to deliver new and better connected devices -- and to do so before the competition -- has put tremendous pressure on product developers to improve their time to market. After all, any opportunity to speed up development and shorten production cycles can mean the difference between being first to market and being late to market with a groundbreaking new technology.
At the same time, there's a growing need for product personalization. Product developers want to offer connected devices in a range of options, including different sizes, colors and capabilities, to meet consumers' personal preferences. This need is shattering the paralyzingly slow traditional production model that optimizes and focuses on high-volume production runs and replaces it with quick-turn, low-volume and on-demand production powered by computer software and technology.
So how can manufacturers shift their operations into the next gear even as those operations become more complex? With a secret weapon: digital manufacturing.
Weaving a Digital Thread
Product development can be lengthy -- not to mention costly and complex -- when viewed through the traditional lens of manufacturing. Every step, whether it's designing, prototyping or testing, is manually coordinated and can involve a large number of iterations.
More challenges arise when a product progresses into production. Data can't be easily shared across systems, machines provide limited or no feedback, and production personnel often must make decisions based on incomplete information.
Digital manufacturing changes all of this. It takes software systems that have long existed as information silos and connects them via a continuous digital thread. This digital thread enables information to be exchanged across all aspects of the product life cycle -- from product design to production to customer feedback.
For IoT device developers, a digital manufacturing model represents a critical advantage in speed. Highly customized parts or products can be manufactured quickly, keeping up with a growing consumer demand for new "things."
Reaping the Benefits
One of the most important ways developers can use digital manufacturing to deliver greater personalization is by using data from across the digital thread to drive improvements into their processes and products.
In the product-development phase, for example, developers can leverage digital "manufacturability" feedback to address potential issues with their products -- before anything is physically manufactured. Combine this digital feedback with rapid prototyping machines, and developers can obtain working parts and functional prototypes in mere days, rather than months. Such time savings are vital as developers seek to condense timelines for low-volume runs of multiple different products.
And the power of information doesn't end at production. Customer feedback -- whether provided directly from the customer or indirectly through that customer's connected device -- also can be gathered and immediately looped back into the design process. This can help manufacturers further personalize and improve products based on customer inputs, and can speed up the process of making modifications to products and getting them back to the marketplace.
Winning the Race Against Time
Time is an increasingly precious resource for IoT device developers. Digital manufacturing can help them deliver mass-customized products faster and more affordably in a world where first-to-market can equal an enormous share of the market -- and second-to-market can mean no share at all.
Photo Caption: The proliferation of connected devices is powered by a modernized method of manufacturing. Clockwise from top left, connected products Hush smart earplugs, AgPulse water-management system, AMPY wearable motion-charger, and Garageio smart garage door controller and monitor, used Proto Labs digital manufacturing to quickly reach the market. These products are also recipients of the Proto Labs Cool Idea! Award which grants up to $250,000 in digital manufacturing services to promising new product ideas. Image courtesy of Proto Labs.