How the Internet of Things Streamlines Product Design
John Koon posted on December 23, 2019 |
A look at IoT and product design across industries.

As market pressure increases, manufacturers must launch new products more quickly. The shortening of product life cycles has reduced the time available for product design, development, testing and production. Any product problems lead to additional cycles of costly redesign and retesting, not to mention a longer time to market and money and opportunity lost.

In addition, as products become increasingly complex, their designs will involve teams from different domains, such as mechanical, thermal, electrical, software, cable, and system control. Coordination and collaboration among these teams are essential for preventing problems down the line.

Until now, the use of computer-aided design (CAD) has lacked the real-world feedback that helps designers understand if and how they can make adjustments. As a result, many CAD-derived prototypes become problematic at the testing stage and have to be redesigned, causing delays and leading to additional costs.

Bringing the strengths of the Internet of Things (IoT) to CAD, for example, pairs the physical product with its virtual replica, or digital twin. IoT sensors installed on a product or in environments can gather many real-world datasets. Using the analytics generated by this data, engineers can model how a product performs in different scenarios, diagnose potential problems, optimize performance, or improve the product’s design, thereby making the design process more efficient. In addition, employing IoT sensors makes it possible to integrate disparate datasets for analytics. Cross-disciplinary teams can collaborate and eliminate potential issues.

Dassault Systèmes, Siemens, Autodesk, PTC, and many other software companies have developed digital twin design platforms with robust CAD and IoT components. Digital twins are the digital simulation of the real problems and work hand in hand with IoT. They have been used to design vehicles or vessels of varying complexity, size and value, such as automobiles, ships and aircraft. Digital twins are not only used to design physical assets but also to improve the user experience. Here are a few examples of how IoT can improve the product design process.


Rolls-Royce and other automakers are using digital twins in their designs. For example, Maserati created a digital twin of its Ghibli cars, which helped the company reach final design with fewer tunnel tests, physical prototypes and test drives—all of which are costly. Also, the digital twin helped Maserati become more efficient in the production phase. As a result, Maserati almost halved the time to market of its Ghibli cars, reducing it from 30 months to just 16.

Looking to the IoT for information that can increase drivers’ ability to successfully compete, the British motor racing team McLaren has installed numerous sensors into its Formula One racing cars. The sensors collect data that is analyzed with other available data such as weather, temperature and soil conditions. With such analytics the drivers will be able to perform better in races.


Using a digital twin of an airplane during development, engineers can simulate and study how the physical components will perform over the life cycle of the airframe in varying environments and conditions.

For example, Boeing used a digital twin to develop an air data reference function for its 777X, which processes data like airspeed and altitude for pilots. The digital twin helped Boeing reduce the cost and time to develop the system. More broadly, Boeing has been able to achieve up to a 40 percent improvement in the first-time quality of the parts and systems used in its commercial and military aircraft. The company believes that the use of digital twins will continue to bring value to its bottom line.

Airbus is capitalizing on the IoT to design and improve upon customers’ onboard experiences. The company has installed the Airspace Connected Experience platform, a system of IoT connectivity technologies, in its Flight Lab. The components in the company’s Airspace Connected Experience include Recaro’s connected iSeat; gategroup’s Connected Galley, a large OLED display; and an open software platform. These components can be used to personalize a customer’s travel experience by targeting his or her needs and preferences based on available data, such as ordering specific meals, booking overhead space, adjusting seat positions, and making in-flight offers. Moreover, the in-flight IoT systems can also be tailored to the needs of the crew to help them work smarter.


During the design of rail passenger trains, designers need to adhere to strict government regulations and customer demands. Among the elements that designers must take into account when meeting these demands are in-cabin air temperature; humidity; airspeed; and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Usually, optimizing the HVAC system takes many months and the prolonged rental of climate wind tunnels while working against tight deadlines. 

However, by creating a digital twin of a passenger train, engineers can evaluate and incorporate past successful designs into the current iteration. In addition, digital modeling of the train has shortened the testing time by half, achieving tremendous savings in wind tunnel rentals and other equipment costs.

Rail transportation services such as e-tickets, scheduling information, and phone or email notifications have begun to rely on the IoT as well. For example, by tracking a customer’s experience and usage history with IoT sensors, rail operators can reach out to customers with individualized ticket pricing and other offers.

After the train wagons have left the factory, manufacturers can use IoT sensors installed on the wagons to collect data on equipment usage. With data analytics, manufacturers can predict machine breakdown and schedule preventive maintenance. As a result, rail operators can reduce the sudden and unpredictable downtimes that are not only inconvenient but also costly.


NASA, which was the earliest user of digital twin technology, is again at the forefront of the IoT as it repurposes IoT sensor networks for space missions.

By launching a Sub-Orbital Aerodynamic Re-entry EXperiments (SOAREX-8) sounding rocket into space, NASA can use the payload like a wind tunnel in the sky. The SOAREX-8 rocket can collect environmental data that will help NASA engineers design probes, better understand flight dynamics, verify sensors and instruments, and develop control systems for space shuttles or satellites in the future. By using wireless communication, NASA can gather and transmit orbital data from space.

NASA’s latest effort includes using a Technical and Educational Satellite 5 (TechEdSat-5) for nano missions from the International Space Station. The goal is to use wireless networking to reduce equipment weight and make room for other instruments. This practice could become standard for satellite design.

One recent, tantalizing proposal, which has the catchy name of Marsbees, may help scientists design our future life on Mars. Researchers are proposing to connect the Mars rover Opportunity to bee-like drones that can expand the scale and area of exploration. The robotic bees use Opportunity as a home base (or a hive), fly out to explore the nearby terrain, collect data, and return to the rover. The data collected by the robotic bees will eventually be transmitted back to earth.


The designs of large systems like airplanes or trains, as well as those of smaller components like pumps or engines, can benefit from the IoT.

Using simulations and real-world data collected by IoT sensors, manufacturers can test if a design will be feasible and functional in various environments in the field. The simulations can also identify potential and possible faults, informing the diagnosis. In addition, designers can gain information to help optimize the next design’s performance. Lastly, the simulation-generated data on the component’s durability under varying conditions can enable intelligent predictions about the machine’s life and efficient maintenance or replacement.


Like aircraft or satellites, buildings are large and complex systems. After buildings have been constructed, IoT connectivity can be used to help redesign their interiors to improve their operations and efficiency.

In addition to environmental data like temperature and sunlight, IoT sensors can collect data on foot traffic and personnel movement. Data can also be gathered on interior energy use by lighting and air-conditioning, for example. Armed with this data, building managers can optimize how building space is employed and reduce the building’s overall energy footprint.

In the case of hospitals, becoming part of the IoT can improve operational efficiency as well as patient experience. For example, using data from the digital twin of a stroke center, a hospital in South Carolina reengineered the patient admission process to enable faster and more accurate diagnoses so that doctors can begin treatment in 20 minutes instead of 90. The improved process has led to a higher patient survival rate, reduced hospital stays, and reduced long-term care costs.

In a hospital in Boston, the IoT network is not only guiding patients to the nearest facilities like restrooms, parking and the information booth, but also alerting them of elevator breakdowns and suggesting alternate routes.

A hospital in Dublin, Ireland, finds IoT connectivity crucial for dealing with growing patient demand, aging infrastructure, and space shortages. Using data collected from its IoT sensors, the hospital redesigned the layout of its departments and achieved significant improvement in the workflow as well as better staff and patient experiences.

Looking Ahead

IoT can help and streamline product design. IoT applications, however, are still in their infancy. More technologies are expected to make IoT work even better in product design. In the future, the effectiveness of IoT product design will be enhanced with the incorporation of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality (MR).

The use of VR/AR/MR can help designers glean more information on product usage so that they can better tailor a product or the user experience to an individual customer. Merging VR and IoT, which are both on an upward trajectory, will have synergistic effects.

However, VR has not reached its full potential, as VR run over a 4G network lacks adequate speed, coverage, stability and latency. The implementation of 5G will make VR a truly value-added technology.

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