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Autodesk Jumpstarts Connectivity With IoT Discovery Toolkit

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Through the Internet of Things (IoT), huge volumes of data can be collected from physical devices, including equipment, vehicles, buildings and other items embedded with sensors, software and electronics used to expose and exchange data. While the concept behind IoT is quite appealing and many manufacturers already collect massive volumes of data (from sensors in these devices), that data has gone largely underutilized. Why? Because when it comes to connecting physical devices, making them smart and secure, the devil is in the details. Seldom is it as simple as it might sound, especially without a single universal standard for connectivity. And yet the payoff can be huge in terms of the possibility of new revenue streams, optimized performance and potential product improvements.

These potential benefits have prompted Autodesk to create the IoT Discovery Toolkit. The new toolkit, powered by Electric Imp, an industry leading IoT platform provider, and combined with Fusion Connect, “is intended for use by industrial manufacturing OEMs who are interested in implementing secure connected products for their business.” This new offering lets users build out a prototype of a secure end-to-end IoT solution in minutes. Yes, you heard that right – in minutes!

Why Bother?

While the Internet of Things (IoT) has caused a huge stir in other industries, it has been met with less excitement in manufacturing. Many feel it is nothing new. Manufacturers have been collecting massive volumes of data (e.g. through sensors on the shop floor) for decades, but as noted above, this data has been grossly underutilized. And yet while 74% of manufacturers participating in our Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study indicated IoT was “well understood,” only 22% have deployed or are in the process of deploying these technologies. And one out of three that claim to understand it well also feel it is not applicable to their businesses. That may well be true for a small few, but we believe many more might just be missing something.

Of course the target audience for Autodesk’s IoT Discovery Toolkit isn’t every manufacturer, but instead those that manufacture machines or equipment with the potential of being smart and connected. These types of manufacturers benefit directly from the toolkit, while their customers benefit indirectly.

These original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can directly benefit in three ways:

  • Offering new services based on new data, or even “old” data that is now more readily available in real time or near real time
  • Optimizing performance of equipment in the field, possibly including reducing the cost to service and maintain
  • Bringing IoT data back into the product life cycle in order to improve the product

One of the customers of Autodesk’s new partner Electric Imp provides us with an amazing example of all three. Pitney Bowes is perhaps best known for its postage meters. If you’ve worked in any modern day office you are likely to be familiar with their equipment, used for office mailing and package shipping. In the past these were quite simplistic. They were loaded with postage rates and funds that were automatically depleted as you weighed your letters or packages and printed postage. But you had to monitor usage and make sure you didn’t run out of currency loaded. If something went wrong with the system, you waited for a replacement because it wasn’t worth the cost of sending a repair technician onsite.

But over time, these mailing systems have gotten a lot smarter. They are no longer just postage meters; they are now sending devices, connected to the Pitney Bowes Commerce Cloud. While they still process daily mail and print postage quickly and accurately, they can now also compare options from major carriers like the United States Postal Service (USPS) and UPS, monitor ink levels and automatically replenish the currency consumed in printing postage. Even better, they can be monitored and problems can be diagnosed remotely.

While this all sounds simple enough, remember, in printing postage, Pitney Bowes’ customers are essentially printing currency. So there are very specific security concerns. And because these meters can be installed in any kind of office environment, the “connection” must be simple and require no technical skills. Pitney Bowes is now shipping IoT-enabled meters and is also retrofitting this capability into existing machines. IoT had to be self-installable, which was one of the major reasons they decided to go with Electric Imp.

As a result, Pitney Bowes added new services while also providing a higher quality of service to customers. According to Rick Ryan, a fellow at Pitney Bowes, “Customers love to see data. We had previously delivered service by replacement because it was was too costly to send a technician out. We were getting a lot of good equipment back that didn’t need service.”

While Pitney Bowes might be best-known for these postage meters, it also has a more sophisticated offering, including room-size equipment that stuffs envelopes and does all the physical preparation to send multi-part mailings to the postal service.

Mr. Ryan tells us, “This is sophisticated machinery with lots of motors and sensors. We used to collect a lot of data on site, when a service technician visited periodically (once a month maybe). Customers might have put the whole system on their network, but it was typically ‘air gapped,’ especially when they were handling sensitive materials that might not be their own [think annual reports, financial statements, etc.]. We have now partnered with GE for analytics and put it on a Cisco network. We perform predictive failure analysis and maintenance on the equipment. While we give away the IoT service because it reduces our maintenance cost, we also offer a premium service that will recommend new services and/or products [think cross sell and up sell opportunity]. And with access to more data, we also have the added benefit of being able to spot trends across our installed base of customers and continue to improve our design.”

Overcoming The Biggest Challenge

While security is often cited as a concern in connecting devices, perhaps the most troublesome challenge of all is the lack of universal standards in connections, including protocols and even couplings. Think what it would be like if your country didn’t have a standard electrical connection. Today when we travel to a different country we need to carry the appropriate electrical adapter in order to plug in our appliances and charge our mobile devices. What if you had to do that even when moving around your own country? Pretty inconvenient, right?

As Bryan Kester, director of IoT for Autodesk says, “IoT is a very complex challenge because it combines a wide range of hardware, networking and cloud technologies. By teaming up with Electric Imp, our goal is to simplify the technology so that businesses can move straight to evaluating IoT business opportunities.” This is one of the advantages that led Autodesk to team up with Electric Imp and make use of its patented setup solution, BlinkUp™. According to Electric Imp…

BlinkUp works with iOS and Android smartphones and tablets to connect your products to the Internet in just a few seconds. Taking WiFi configuration information from the mobile device, BlinkUp transmits that data by rapidly flashing light pulses on the device’s screen. The data are read by an optical sensor tied to the product’s integrated impModule™ hardware in a truly one-step process without the need to scan barcodes, note down device IDs, or leave the mobile app to delve in settings screens.

BlinkUp uniquely combines the snoop-proof security of a wired connection with the convenience of wireless communication. Unlike other setup mechanisms, such as near-field communications (NFC) or Bluetooth, BlinkUp does not require the device being configured to incorporate special hardware or to be paired with the product.

Yes, the IoT Discovery Toolkit is actually a (small) piece of hardware. You will have to request a kit from Autodesk. It comes pre-enabled to work with any device, network and cloud technology. This is how you get started with the IoT Discovery Toolkit:

  • Create an Electric Imp Account (included in the toolkit)
  • Connect and activate the device – just put the small box on the device, no diodes to connect
  • Create a Fusion Connect account (included in the toolkit)
  • Open the dashboard to see the temperature and humidity of the connected device

This of course is just the beginning of a new adventure in IoT enablement. All the experts agree, you will want to start with a small prototype. Don’t try to move too fast or do too much all at once. Be selective in what data will have the greatest impact. Trying to analyze massive volumes at first will likely lead to confusion and the potential for abandonment. Building an IoT enabled product from scratch can take longer than you expect. Have the patience to pursue that first prototype, which will be easier to do knowing that using the IoT Discovery Kit, you will not be throwing that effort away. All you do and all you learn will be transferable to your “real life” adventure.

And a clear message from those who have gone before you: IoT has the potential of creating a systemic shift affecting all aspects of your company’s structure and culture. You won’t be just making widgets any more. Of course you will still manufacture your product, but you will potentially have much more including

  • Product as a service, possibly replacing and/or adding new revenue streams
  • Better insight into how your products are actually used
  • Lower costs of maintenance
  • Better data to help you improve your design

If you think IoT is not applicable to your business, perhaps it is time to reevaluate that conclusion. If you are hesitating to get started, Autodesk’s IoT Discovery Toolkit might just be the push you need to jumpstart the process.

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