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5 product-design trends to keep an eye on

Dec. 20, 2018

Will this be the year of the B-to-B app?

Product-design professionals need to be sure that they are keeping abreast of the latest capabilities and trends, whether that means leveraging new technologies such as additive manufacturing, or improving collaboration to improve the product-development process.

With that in mind, here are five trends in product design that engineers are going to be seeing:

1. Digital twin and the digital thread

The terms “digital twin” and “digital thread” have been bandied around for a while, but in 2019 most engineers are going to see both concepts in action every day. By combining the digital definition of a product with the physical experience of the asset in the field, manufacturers will have a complete digital record of a product throughout its entire lifecycle, which can be leveraged to improve the product design, ensure that all legal and security regulations and requirements are being met, and boost efficiency and serviceability.

PTC's Kevin Wrenn

With a digital thread of information feeding back into product design, engineers will finally be able to “talk” to their products and answer some burning questions. Whether they’re determining how well the product is functioning in the field or trying to identify which features and functions of the product customers are actually using, the digital thread of information coming back to form a complete digital twin will enable engineers to close the loop in the product lifecycle.

2. Breaking down barriers between engineering and manufacturing

Manufacturers are increasingly realizing that engineering and manufacturing are working in silos, to the detriment of the organizations. Because of these silos, engineering and manufacturing are disconnected—engineering passes information on to manufacturing when the designs are finalized and then shares changes to the design when they are implemented.

Although this sounds straightforward, waiting for engineering to completely finish their part in the product lifecycle delays the prework that manufacturing can get done. In addition, small changes by the engineering team can have a large impact on production. With automated-manufacturing-process planning, the production team can get a head start on what they need to do and automatically see the most up-to-date product information—decreasing time-to-market and reducing costs associated with rework.

3. Augmented reality for enterprise visualization

The way that designers view products has seriously evolved: from 2D drawings on paper to 3D CAD models on a desktop screen, designers are always looking for an easier way to accurately view a product before a prototype has been built.

Augmented reality (AR) is the next evolution of enterprise visualization. AR is a more natural way to interact with a product (versus 2D and 3D) as it provides context to a product and data.

With AR, there is an ability to superimpose the digital representation onto a physical asset once it has been produced to compare the configurations of the product through its evolution— whether that’s “as-designed,” “as-built,” “as-manufactured,” or “as-serviced.”

AR makes it possible for a new product to be visualized in a real-life setting, such as the factory floor, at scale. Once there, stakeholders can interact with the data, getting under the hood and viewing the product from perspectives that aren’t easily accessible in 2D or 3D visualization.

Whether it is used for service procedures, manufacturing work instructions, or by sales and marketing to promote new-product options or additions to existing products, AR will make it easier than ever to bring products to life.

4.  Additive manufacturing

In the past few years, 3D-printing technologies have surpassed the limits of prototype production and achieved the quality and scalability needed for industrial use, which we call “additive manufacturing.” This technology trend has overcome the hype and shows tangible benefits in multiple use cases ranging from ultra-lightweight high-end parts for airplanes to cost-efficient mass customization of consumer products.

Entire industries, like hearing aids and dental implants, have already switched to almost 100% 3D printed. However, the true disruptive potential of additive manufacturing is in the digital transformation of the product-engineering and manufacturing process. Gone are the design constraints of conventional manufacturing methods—the expensive and time-consuming tooling before even one part can be produced. Gone are the challenges of managing the supply chain and logistics.

Because of these advantages, additive manufacturing becomes the optimal production technology in a continuously increasing number of situations, despite the (still high) cost for material and production equipment. Low-volume production during the introduction of a new product, replication of hard-to-source spare parts, distributed or local manufacturing in emerging markets…these are just some of the examples where additive manufacturing can yield benefits even for lower-complexity parts. And new technologies, such as metal binder-jetting, can further increase production speed and efficiency.

5. The year of the app

We’ve used apps on our smartphones and tablets for years. Most companies that provide a service to consumers have an app. But most of these apps are coming from companies that are business-to-consumer. In 2019, we will start to see business-to-business companies provide apps to their customers as well.

With apps for their enterprise systems, manufacturers can quickly access important product and enterprise data on the fly, in a format that is easy for them to understand. Products with sensors that feed information from the field can be connected to apps that enable stakeholders to quickly and easily view real-time information.

And with AR apps, global teams can quickly review designs or prototypes concurrently.

The possibilities of enterprise apps are endless. They will enable users to rapidly launch systems that have traditionally been tethered to a desktop.

Kevin Wrenn is divisional general manager, PLM, with PTC.