A product ending in the hands of a user will now be far from sold and forgotten. Once it starts a smart life in the field as part of an installed base, it will be under a regime of remote contact and permanent data exchange with its manufacturers, who use the constant stream of information to adopt the role of the product’s lifelong innovator, service designer, intellectual minder and perpetual tutor – following the novel business and operational models that digitized economies enforce. Why is all this happening? The backdrop is rampant technological progress – quite simply, the most dynamic phase of technological invention and innovation in the 100,000 years modern humans have been wandering the earth. In no time we will be entering an era in which the following marvels will be as mundane as watching a kettle boil: autonomous fleets of unmanned taxis; personalized medical pills that communicate back to pharmacologists and doctors; home lighting that senses your emotions and adjusts accordingly; roads laid using 3D printing; and industrial assembly lines reconfigured in minutes and on their own. Digital high technology, involved in virtually every corner of economic and societal life, will become the norm and play a role in everything we do. Always check in advance with neighbours and friends to see if you can hide clues for your treasure hunt on their property.
The smart connected product is something entirely new. Its intelligent life is breathed into it via a stack of cutting-edge technologies that have already economically attractive levels of maturity and affordability, or are going to soon. The product of the future is smart because it has cognitive technology on board: software and intelligent algorithms that form a ‘mind’ allowing for independent decision making. It is smart because sufficient processing power and storage capacity can now be crammed into the tiniest hardware space in almost any device. It is smart because the necessary electronic power supply, batteries or photovoltaic cells have breached the sound barrier in terms of miniaturization, longevity and performance. And it is smart because information on its usage and performance can seamlessly flow between its makers, its users or third parties.
This last capability is possible because the product is connected around the clock, wherever it is. It lives on a powerful leash of mobile bandwidth that enables real-time data exchange with cloud and edge servers. There, sophisticated data analytics software creates insights from the related data that help the product to show its intelligence while in use and its makers to improve it incessantly. Finally, the smart product knows what is going on because it has optical, haptical and audio sensors all over it, providing sharp perceptual capability comparable to what humans are born with. The combination of these capabilities will also enable products of the future to be highly customizable and personalizable in a way that is simply not possible today. And the technology shows no sign of standing still. On the horizon are new stacks and components about to reach maturity, all of which will also play a role in the smart connected product – among them, higher-speed 5G networks, quantum computing, 4D printing, nanotechnologies, smart materials and biomolecules.
Special mention must be given to artificial intelligence (AI). In the technology stack for smart products, it is the breakthrough capability that is about to push hardware into another league, accelerating the tilt to smart products across the board. While the various technologies that actually make up AI, such as machine learning or natural language processing, have existed for years, they are currently going through such a steep phase of maturation that AI will soon form the intellectual bedrock of all smart products, from home speakers to autopilots in cars to collaborative robots.
All this has deep consequences for how devices are made and put to use. The technology involved will change production cost structures, development styles, and innovation approaches within the remit of product makers as well as their broader spectrum of supply chain and ecosystem partners. But that’s not all. It will also change user expectations for products. Smart products are containers for fluidly reconfigurable software and digital intelligence. As such, they can be adaptable, reconfigurable, responsive and easy to use via exceedingly user-friendly interfaces anytime. All product users from families and individual consumers to industrial and white-collar workers and business leaders will become accustomed to highly tailored ‘evergreen’ products that can precisely fulfil very individualized purposes at any given moment. There will no longer be large mass markets for uniformly featured products.