The Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the way products are designed, prototyped and manufactured. Manufacturers that fail to keep up with the IoT’s march into their sector will quickly fall behind, and with that in mind, we’ve decided to look at some of the recent developments and consider what they mean specifcally for mechanical engineering.
From mechanical to software-driven development
One of the most obvious changes manufacturers have witnessed in recent times is the move from mechanical systems to software-driven tools.
Many have already made significant progress. What once needed to be prototyped in physical form is now simulated on a screen and product iterations carried out without costly prototyping.
Innovation is also coming from software found in mechatronic products that connect directly to the internet. This is transforming products into IoT-driven intelligent devices that are capable of communicating with the manufacturer once they’ve left the production line.
As a result, mechanical engineers will need to take the following three considerations into account when designing their products:
1. Control will be governed by software
Given the way product development is changing, it probably no surprise that motors, valves, pumps and other traditional components are fast being operated by software as standard. Mechanical engineers will therefore need to refresh their supplier base to ensure they have access to the latest software-driven controls.
2. Over-the-air product upgrades
Just as your smartphone software updates remotely and (often) in the background, products you’re developing will need to be able to do the same.
One of the main benefits of the IoT is the increasing ability for products to communicate with their manufacturer, once they’ve left the production line. Feedback from real-world usage will enable mechanical engineers to fix software bugs and even make product improvements, remotely.
However, while the software elements of a product can be upgraded remotely, their mechanical aspects cannot. This means products will need to make their way into the market with dormant mechanical functionality to future-proof the product. In short, mechanical engineers need to plan for what’s to come by building in future requirements from the outset, so that when the latest software update is installed, the mechanical functionality is there to enable it.
3. Sensors-driven innovation
We noted earlier that the IoT has enabled products to communicate with manufacturers, and to do so, they require a multitude of sensors that are capable of capturing data in the field.
This enables products to be assessed remotely and for manufacturers to spot opportunities to improve features and fix common issues. Now, when sourcing components, prioritise those that include sensors, which will enable vital data sent back to base for review.
It would be fair to assume from the above that it’s suggesting innovation no longer comes from mechanical engineering. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The IoT has modernised the way products are designed, manufactured and improved. But many (if not most) products are still realised in the physical world - the IoT simply helps manufacturers make more meaningful changes faster and far more cost-effectively.