A recent Harvard Business Review article, How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Companies, shares insights on the way today’s intelligent, sensored products and the Internet of Things are changing the fabric of manufacturing companies. One particular area that caught my eye is the discussion on “Evergreen Design.” As the article points out, “Smart, connected products … can be continually upgraded via software, often remotely.”
The article shared two examples that, to me, explain why manufacturers need to pay attention to this discipline. In two separate instances, Tesla set themselves apart from traditional automakers using evergreen principles. In the first, they identified a hazardous driving condition that was leading to fires and remotely upgraded all existing cars’ suspensions to prevent the scenario from occurring. They made the car safer to drive and avoided an expensive recall. In another, they included “autopilot” capabilities into cars while the feature was still a work in progress. They avoided the difficult, traditional tradeoff of either omitting a new feature in a new model or delaying product introduction. They included what they could with plans to continually improve it and introduce the feature when it was ready.
So why should manufacturers pay attention to evergreen design? Let’s step back a bit.
Remember when the day you bought a product was the best it would ever be? With the exception of a few anomalies like blue jeans or a baseball glove that getter better with use, the brand new product was at its best. Then, after a while it slowed down, got weaker, wasn’t as responsive, would stop doing a function, or maybe a part broke off. Performance and features declined with time. The best you could possibly hope for was “as good as the day I got it.” Maybe your products are still that way.
But I distinctly remember the day that changed for me. I upgraded my BlackBerry to a new operating system and it turned into a brand-new and improved device! The user interface was much more graphical. I was giddy. It was like a new phone for free! The way of the future for equipment has started to look a lot more like an upgradeable computer instead of a piece of equipment that could only deteriorate over time. The smarter devices have become, the more they can improve, evolve, and gain value as you own them.
But the real reason manufacturers have to pay attention to evergreen concepts is that it fundamentally changes the relationship between a manufacturer, the products they make, and the customers that use them.
The more connected products have become, the more engaged the manufacturer (or service provider) can stay in the product while it’s in the customers’ hands. This is why smart, connected products should be viewed as a major disruption as opposed to a simple step change in product capabilities. Now manufacturers can offer new services, like adding live traffic information or restaurant reviews to a GPS. They can fix problems with devices before customers know they exist. They can leverage new design practices like soft buttons and controls that allow them to add new interfaces and functions to products in the field that the original designer may not have been able to anticipate. They allow the manufacturer to experience what customers are doing with products in the field to gain new insights.
Let’s not celebrate this brave new world too quickly, though. There are plenty of obstacles for manufacturers to address.
I also remember the first device that “bricked” on me. I downloaded a new operating system and my phone downgraded itself into a paperweight. In that case, permanently. I also remember the fist time my car bricked on me. A sensor mistakenly determined that some mechanical parts were going to clash so it shut the motor off leaving my family stranded at a kid’s baseball game. That was a wakeup call on the potential pitfalls of smarter products.
The point is, designing smart products is hard. The industry has started to make strides in developing and validating “mechatronic” products that contain mechanical, electrical, and software components. But evergreen design takes advantage of smart products (systems) connected to other systems. It leverages connectivity to data sources in the cloud. It relies on feedback from devices to get to the manufacturer and make a round trip with updates. And it all has to work together. That’s a lot to design and validate. It’s even more difficult to manage as things change! If manufacturers push updates to products running in the field, they have to be able to simulate and validate their behavior to avoid turning a potential positive upgrade into unplanned downtime.
The industry still has a lot to learn about how to effectively develop systems, and now we are pushing the boundaries further. Why? Because the value is there. Products can now get better over time. The relationship between the manufacturer and the user can be closer. That’s simply too compelling of an opportunity. The complexity has to be – and will be – met by new design disciplines and tools. Now, maybe we will love our old equipment as much as we love our old blue jeans and baseball gloves.
This is the second installment in a series of guest posts by leading industry analysts covering topics found in the new Harvard Business Review article, How Smart Connected Products are Transforming Companies, co-authored by PTC CEO, Jim Heppelmann, and Harvard Business School professor, Michael Porter.