Smart and connected devices have permanently changed the way we live, work and play. Many of us feel we aren’t complete without our smartphones nearby. So much so that a term – “nomophobia” – has been coined to describe this form of separation anxiety, reportedly felt by up to 44 percent of people!
As well as phones, in recent years, we have seen our lives taken over by smartwatches, smart TVs, smart toys, smart kitchen and bathroom appliances, smart exercise equipment, and smart just about anything else you can think of.
When we’re talking about products, “smart” often means networked. Increasingly we also hear about intelligent devices that use machine learning – a form of artificial intelligence (AI) – to get better at learning about us and helping us in everyday life.
What they all have in common is that they use data to operate in a way that is more helpful to us than the non-smart devices we’ve traditionally used for the same jobs. Giving existing tools access to data has meant we can reimagine most of the everyday objects that we rely on to carry out basic tasks. Businesses across just about every industry have worked out how to profit from this growing demand for everything we use to become better, more helpful, and more convenient.
What are some of the best smart products?
We now share our homes with AI assistants that play music for us and help us to schedule our busy lives. Today they also often act as hubs for controlling the myriad of other networked home appliances such as lights, doorbells, thermostats, TVs, and security cameras. Devices like smart washing machines are not simply remote-controllable – Samsung's range of smart machines uses AI to detect what's in your laundry and choose the most suitable program, automatically determining the amount of water to be used and how long it will spin for, to minimize waste. Jura makes a coffee machine that teaches itself to understand your personal preferences such as flavor, strength, and whether to add sugar or sweeteners.
Outside of the home, intelligent vehicles, including cars, trucks, ships, and aircraft, are quickly becoming a reality. Tesla activated level two autonomous driving in its vehicles this year. Drivers still need to be alert and have two hands on the wheel at all times in order to take over, but the company (and others) plan on unveiling fully autonomous vehicles soon. Dubai aims to make 25 percent of its public transport network reliant on autonomous vehicles by 2025, and in 2017 demonstrated the viability of autonomous flying taxis, with none other than the crown prince acting as a guinea pig for the test flight! The autonomous ship Mayflower is set to make the first self-guided journey across the Atlantic ocean this year, named after the first ship that carried pilgrims to the new world in 1620. And autonomous construction vehicles are also on the horizon, with companies like Built Robotics working to develop excavators and bulldozers that could potentially operate on human-free constructions sites.
The development of smart textiles is also opening up the possibility of many new types of products, including sportswear that monitors performance. Hexoskin makes smart clothing that was initially designed to monitor health indicators such as heart rate and skin temperature in elderly people but is now worn by astronauts on the International Space Station. Smart textiles often work by embedding circuits and sensors into the weave of the fabric. Another smart clothing manufacturer, Nextiles, has partnered with bra makers Lilu to create a smart breast-pumping bra for new mothers who are breastfeeding.
All of these innovations have come about because companies looked into ways to integrate the wealth of data in the world around us, advanced “smart” computing solutions, and everyday products we’ve used since the start of the modern era, in order to come up with something new and better.
Any company can create smart products
The fact that start-ups are so prevalent in this space is a great indicator of the fact that you don’t have to be a Silicon Valley giant to create products that are networked and powered by AI. The important thing is that you understand what data is available and what problems it could help your customers to overcome as they are using your products.
Often this can mean creating a service that you can sell alongside your product to generate additional revenue. Similar to how fitness trackers will provide basic functionality “out-of-the-box” but also upsell us bolt-on services that give us access to advanced analytics and insights. Or security cameras that let us take out subscriptions to cloud storage services where footage is automatically uploaded.
By thinking about data services in this way, companies can create products that add new functionality, improve ease of access, and increase customer satisfaction with their devices. They can also understand more about how and when devices are likely to fail or break down, reducing the cost of servicing warranties and increasing product lifespan.
This means data gathered by these types of devices can also be used to further improve a company’s products, as well as its internal processes, such as manufacturing or customer service. As we mentioned already, Tesla is still working on getting fully self-driving cars on the road, but the existing cars are themselves already helping with the preparation; their arrays of cameras and sensors are gathering data on roads and driver behavior that’s fed back to the company and used in the simulation training of the next generation of autonomous vehicles.
A solid data strategy underpins all the most successful attempts at creating smarter products. This means understanding how data can be used to hit your company’s business goals, what data sources you already have available (internally and externally), how to start benefitting from unstructured as well as structured data, what technology infrastructure you will need to start putting it to work, what human skills and talent you will need in your team, and how you will measure your success.
Often this means working hard to develop a data-centric culture. The importance of data-driven decision-making should be understood at all levels, from the boardroom to the shop floor, and as much of the workforce as possible should be empowered and augmented with data and analytics tools when they are carrying out their jobs.
Following these principles, today, any company in just about any market should be able to think about how they can shake things up to create products that can revolutionize their industry and improve their customers’ lives.
Using data to create smart products is one of the topics covered in depth in the second edition of my book Data Strategy – How to Profit From a World of Big Data, Analytics And Artificial Intelligence.