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The Challenge of Creating Smart Products

What are smart products?

To the consumer, a smart product is one that has intelligence. It is connected. It is automated. It performs actions on behalf of the user.

A textbook definition would be that a smart product is a digital-physical product/system that additionally uses and integrates internet-based services to perform a required functionality.

A smart product has one or more of these core elements:

A physical component that includes the “traditional aspects” of the product and either mechanical or electrical or electro/mechanical.

A “smart” component that adds all parts which contribute to the intelligence and cleverness of the product and enables informed decision-making. This usually refers to an embedded system and requires appropriate hardware and software to interact with the environment. The embedded system requires sensors and actuators.

A connectivity component that contains all elements for network communication, including communication and interaction with the manufacturer, the user, or other smart connected products. 

Here's what's really interesting: what is smart today will not be smart tomorrow. Smart is generational. Products can only be as smart as current technology will allow. As technology advances, the meaning of smart will advance.

Why is it so hard to create smart products?

Let's take the example of a smart oven. It is no longer just a box that heats food and perhaps runs a simple program selected from the operating panel. It might have sensors that measure cooking progress. It might have infrared sensors that measure the inside of the food and photo sensors that measure the outside of the food and track moisture and tenderness. It has an app that allows you to turn the oven on or off remotely. It has an app that predicts when the food will be finished.

In short, it is a very sophisticated product.

It's one thing when the heating element burns out. It's something completely different when the app is no longer reporting the progress of the food the consumer is cooking.

The oven light is easy. You've had that for decades. But now you need a camera in the oven. You probably aren't going to make the camera, you are going to have someone else make it, perhaps to your specs. And you need a special camera, one that can handle high temperatures. Not just cooking temperatures, but oven cleaning temperatures which are very hot.

Suddenly you are not just making an oven, but you are putting all sorts of intelligence in it. You are adding sensors and you are writing an app. You are in the software business! Maybe you are writing two apps: one for android and one for iOS.

Oh, and your oven and app need to work with the connected home infrastructure. Not just HomeKit from Apple, but also a connected home platform from Google and Amazon. And the new connected home platform that will emerge next month, from who knows where, and sweep the world in ways that you can't predict.

The more savvy technical consumers are going to ask that it provide capabilities that allow them to control it from other apps like IFTTT.

You also want to inform the owner about the health of the oven and be proactive about an upcoming problem. You want to track the quality and the usage of the oven so you can design better ovens.

How are you going to fix problems, especially with the software? Will you update the firmware over the air if there is a problem? Will you only have one version of your smart phone app, or will you continually release new capabilities as those savvier technical consumers expect?

What about your support center? They need to be able to diagnose problems in the customer's network, or perhaps somewhere in the internet.

There sure are a lot of things that can go wrong. What if the APIs change for the platforms you connect to? What if one of the connected home apps is taken out of the market? What if that new one emerges?

What about 5G? 6G? The next G? The next WiFi standard? I don't dare to mention the security requirements of data and transmission.

How long does your smart oven need to last in the market? Consumers are used to ovens lasting well over ten years even though there might be a new smart phone every five years.

This list goes on and on.

It's hard.

The power of the consumer is always in your face. The consumers aren't thinking about how complex the oven is. They are thinking about what it does and how great it is. And how easy it is to set up and use.

That means the total experience, including your app and installation/setup and your support desk.

Suddenly you are no longer in the oven business, you are in the user experience (UX) business!

Oh, and you don't just sell ovens. You also sell rice cookers. The consumer wants their rice to finish 5 minutes after the meat is perfectly cooked to their liking whether it be raw, medium or well done. And they want that it all finished at 6pm.

You also sell dishwashers and want to reuse some of the features of your oven such as the display panels and the radio transmitter, antennas and comm software. I can't imagine why, but maybe the dishwasher has to talk to the oven. Who knows what those consumers will think of?!

Like I said, it is hard. There are a lot of moving pieces. You are creating physical products, electronic circuitry, phone apps. You are buying and embedding more components than ever before. You are contracting other companies to build parts of your product. You have multiple engineering organizations in your company each using a different development methodology. And there needs to be innovation in the assembly process because product testing is much more advanced and very dependent on the given features for a given product.

You are using features across products. You have to manage the interrelated release of features and products. You have to keep it all aligned and coordinated. 

I bought a new Chevrolet pickup truck in 2019. I love the truck. But it has had multiple recalls for the braking system, and not one of them is related to the physical brakes. They have all been software recalls. There is no over the air update, so I need to take the truck back to the dealer and wait sometimes hours while they update the system. During the last recall, I asked about it. It turns out that recall was to fix a problem that was caused by the previous recall!

The automobile market is facing a severe global shortage of the semiconductors required to build a car with the features that they want to offer. GM just announced that some of its cars will now be released with less features than planned, less capability than the previous model year had. The reason is because GM cannot get the computer chips they need. This is a first for the automotive industry: a new car having less capability than the previous model year.

The vulnerabilities of potential hacks are significant and growing every year. The Silicon Valley security startup Verkada was recently hacked and it exposed 150,000 security cameras that were used in Tesla factories, jails and more. If you are the manufacturer that is using those cameras then suddenly you are dealing with a problem that you did not create and could not control, or perhaps even anticipate.

These are just a couple of examples. There are recalls across many different product lines, not just cameras and automobiles. 

Automotive Example: Challenges with Smart Products

What can organizations do to make it easier to develop smart products?

Aligning the various engineering groups is of primary importance. Everyone needs to understand the mission for each product. This mission should have open, visible and clear communication and set expectations.

Culture is also paramount. Finger pointing around delays or misunderstandings leads to lack of willingness to work together. If you look at the culture of very successful companies, they not only embrace change, but they handle surprises extremely well.

Here are some additional suggestions:

"Establish Governance Model"

Establish a good product portfolio decision making process related to the collection of multiple products and multiple features.

"Align Teams"

Align your teams, but do not dictate how they do their work.

"Don't Force it"

Everything can't be agile. Don't try to force agile on every engineering group.

"Plan Thoroughly"

Do comprehensive product (line) planning, considering market segments, regions, needs, features, and products and their assembly.

"Get Agreement"

Gain cross-organizational agreement on product investments, launch timelines and revenue expectations.

"Coordinate Departments"

Coordinate hardware and software departments, product engineering and manufacturing, and third party suppliers all using different methods and systems.

"Prioritize Properly"

Prioritize candidate new products and features and in-market products against growth targets and strategic goals and commitments such as sustainability.

"Manage Deadlines"

Manage collections of deadlines; decide and act when change inevitably happens. 


Are you facing challenges related to developing and releasing smart products? Have you found techniques that help? I'd love to hear from you. 

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