PTC is in the business of things. They pioneered 3D modeling 30 years ago with their CAD (Computer-Aided- Design) software and have excelled at turning the digital world into the physical world. Now they see the new frontier is bridging the digital and physical worlds to create a New Reality, one where there is no separation of the two; one where smart, connected products (SCPs) communicate with each other, within product systems, and within systems of systems. Digest that for a minute. This evolution of connectability will lead to an exponential growth in new business opportunities! Along with this shift in opportunity, one wonders is the product as important as the data it provides? How will this data be collected, analyzed, and used? Are we looking at the evolution of “things” changing from the physical world to more of a digital one? The answer to the last question, PTC believes, is yes. The previous questions? PTC has answers for those too.
We can gain insight into some of these questions just by looking at what PTC is doing acquisitions-wise. It appears PTC is creating and acquiring technology to implement the New Reality of the Internet of Things (IoT). They’ve invested more than $700 million dollars to create an infrastructure to bridge the digital world with the physical world. In December 2013, PTC acquired Internet of Things startup ThingWorx, which is the IoT platform where developers build applications for the connected world. In August 2014, PTC acquired Axēda Corporation, which specializes in solutions that securely connect machines and sensors to the cloud. Less than a year later, PTC also acquired ColdLight, which makes machine learning technology that uses automatic, predictive analytics to determine what a product is telling you and what you should do about it. In November 2015, PTC completed its acquisition of Vuforia, developer of the most advanced and widely adopted augmented reality (AR) platform. Most recently, PTC has announced the acquisition of Kepware, a company that will connect new and existing products and provide a vast range of data in industrial settings. So it’s obvious PTC is building something, but what exactly? The bridge between the physical and digital world.
What does this bridge look like and why is it important? Let’s start at the beginning. Say you have a physical product, a bike. Your bike was more than likely created using 3D CAD software and then manufactured into the actual, physical bike. The digital representation of the bike in the CAD software is the digital twin of the physical bike. Now imagine the physical bike has sensors mounted at various locations and data are created through the use of the bike and transmitted through an IoT platform (ThingWorx) where applications reside to manage the data. The data are then analyzed (Coldlight) and as patterns emerge, correlations can be made about the physical attributes of the bike, leading to design improvements and eventually to proactive interventions to failure, rather than reactive ones. These design and service solutions can be created and stored in ThingWorx. Using the augmented reality capabilities of Vuforia, the digital bike data stored in ThingWorx can be used to overlay the physical bike (using a dashboard on an iPad, for example) and the user or technician can perform the most efficient and cost effective repair possible. Prior to this technology, there was no CAD and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) feedback loop. PTC has bridged the gap.
The implications of this New Reality have piqued our interest at Bolt Data, especially the new partnership between PTC and ServiceMax. The concept of Connected Field Service will revolutionize the field service industry. Imagine field service without users’ manuals and heavy reliance on the tribal knowledge of a retiring workforce. Instead imagine detailed CAD overlays on physical products and illustrated or video instructions on how to fix them appearing in AR glasses or helmets. Imagine machines, sensing from product data, imminent failure and automatically generating a work order to fix the part before that future failure leads to downtime. This disruptive technology will fundamentally change field service, but as with most technological advancements, there are some downsides.
The first obvious downside is security. How can embedded devices and the data they generate be protected from cyber threats or misuse? In many instances, security also means safety. What if there is interference with a car’s controls or with a pacemaker? Many questions and answers regarding security in the IoT can be found here. Another consideration is the over-reliance on technology. Our new workforce does not know a time without being connected and now our things will be connected and making decisions based on the data they produce and analyze. In the age of Big Data, this is invaluable, but it’s also risky. If we rely heavily on technology and then one day it’s impaired, or worse yet, gone, this could cause minor and/or catastrophic events. Finally, the automation of IoT will no doubt lead to the loss of jobs, particularly jobs requiring less skill and education. Beyond that, the job landscape will necessarily change, causing new desired skills to emerge and new types of jobs to be created. This begs the question, is our education system able to educate and train new workers for this new workforce trend?
PTC sees another challenge. By 2020, there will be 50 billion SCPs. There will be millions of applications to communicate with these SCPs. How will apps be kept up-to-date? How will the correct app be chosen? How will we know what’s connected? In the summer of 2016, PTC will launch ThingX (short for Thing Experience). This will consist of a ThingBrowser that universally detects (using computer vision and VuMarks) connected things. VuMarks are unique barcodes that when identified, deliver a thing experience using Vuforia AR technology. The ThingServer serves up content and manages the experience for physical things by delivering relevant information via the ThingBrowser. ThingBuilder is the environment that allows the user to create augmentable experiences and store them on the ThingServer. Clearly PTC understands the future of IoT, its possibilities and challenges and is leading the way by laying out its new vision and sound infrastructure to support it.
For those who want to “Take a Fresh New Look at Things,” please check out the Thing Event here. There are recordings of the PTC live event where their IoT vision is explained and demonstrated. Also look into attending LiveWorx, taking place in Boston, MA June 6-9, 2016.