PTC takes a look, clarifies IoT+CAD+PLM+VR+SLM vision

Jan 31, 2016 | Hot Topics

PTC last week rolled out its vision for the augmented reality-enabled enterprise: access to all sorts of data related to an object, served out on tablets, watches, phones and other devices, with the specifics of the data tailored to the needs of the user. This vision combines all of PTC’s assets: CAD, PLM, SLM (though more focus on partner ServiceMAX than on its own brands), big data …. all served out via augmented reality from Vuforia.

CEO Jim Heppelmann kicked off ThingEvent’s presentations and demonstrations by saying that recent acquisitions have caused the leadership team to “take a fresh look at things”, a tagline that he believes will set the course for PTC’s technology, products and customers for the next few years. From a technology company focused on CAD and PLM software that is used to create things, to the Things themselves. How they work, what they do, what they need to keep doing it and how to help humans interact with them.

Mr. Heppelmann said that everything PTC has done so far builds to this point: CAD designs the Thing, makes it fit for purpose and models the human’s desired interaction. PLM controls the data flows, the who, what, where, when and how the Thing comes together and, to some extent, how it is made and delivered to its buyer. SLM (service lifecycle management) enables the maker and the user to collaborate, to keep the Thing operating at optimal levels over its designed life. ThingWorx and its IoT infrastructure build a different kind of data model about the Thing: not conceptual, but rather actual usage data. ThingWorx connects the physical Thing to its maker and operator, and to like Things, so that overall conclusions can be drawn to optimize factory operations, or the life of a Thing by drawing on lessens learned across all similar Things.

Vuforia takes this one step further, by making it all visual and understandable by a normal human being. Vuforia is augmented reality (AR) technology that enables an app creator, for example, to layer CAD data on top of a real-life image of a product to highlight the part that needs servicing. To figure out which CAD model and which component, exactly, are tied to a particular Thing is no simple task. The Thing is identified by a VUcode –a badge like a QR code or barcode but with more data to uniquely identify the Thing– that ties it back, via a Vuforia-enabled app, to a PLM instance that knows the bill of material, component suppliers and all of the other attributes that go into determining how to service that specific Thing.

PTC showcased a couple of customers who have already built apps and put them to use. One, a medical device maker, has different versions of the app targeted at the user (Working to spec? Yes or No? Needs more reagent? Yes or No?) and a far more detailed, service-oriented app for technicians. Another, making power supplies, uses AR to help technicians quickly find faults and replace key components.

What I like about PTC’s vision is that it extends the useful life of CAD, perhaps more than at any time since it was invented. The CAD model will continue to be the basis for a simulation and used to create NC data for manufacturing, but will now also serve as the source for all sorts of AR data over the life of the Thing. This has major ramifications for users intent on adding AR to their toolkits: the models must be kept up-to-date with major repairs that change the as-shipped configuration. Imagine an air conditioner on top of a building; long, long life and likely to have had compressors and other parts replaced over time. For AR to be truly useful here, CAD and other data must reflect the as-is condition, and that’s a tough work-process issue to crack. But it is possible, as we’re seeing many industries adopt laser scans and other techniques to investigate their fleets of Things.

Too, I like PTC’s statement that its offering will be a combination of open-source, standards-based tools, for-fee products and services. PTC has balance growing adoption with generating revenue and a lot depends on adoption patterns, but it means that PTC isn’t wedded to any particular revenue model. [Good and bad, of course. PTC needs revenue and investors need stability and repeatability. But it’s early days; those will come.]

A lot still needs to happen to fill out this vision. PTC introduced a bunch of new Thing-related products, all to support IoT-enabled, AR-enabled apps and user workflows. ThingBuilder, ThingBrowser, TML (the Thing Markup Language) are all yet to come, as PTC puts together a platform that Mr. Heppelmann likened to the invention of Netscape, which made Internet exploration possible.

This is big. I’m not sure it’s Internet/Netscape-big, but certainly big enough. AR is often seen as a toy that people use to bring the real world into their gaming and shopping experiences. But that’s peanuts compared to what is possible once AR gets into more and more manufacturers’ services concepts, to operators’ maintenance and operations strategies and into academic training programs.

And PTC is all in. It’s spent $700 million over the last two years to build out this vision — a considerable amount for a company that does about $1 billion in revenue per year. Creo, Windchill and other products are being Thing-enabled, to make them ready to contribute to this connected environment. What remains to be seen is how quickly manufacturers come on board: how do they want to invest in their services channels? What technology helps? How much does it cost, and how quickly will this investment be paid back in cash-money or better customer relationships?

After the formal event, I spoke with Vuforia customers from an Austrian motorcycle manufacturer. Their technicians scan the VUcode on the bike and gain access to operational data (IoT-ish) gathered by the bike over time, maintenance instructions, and a AR animation of how to disassemble the bike to get at the part that needs replacing. For them, this is optimal: they need to be fast, perfect, get the bikes back into racing form as quickly as possible. Would this be possible for the bike repair shop in their home town? Perhaps not yet, since it requires data and access (and apps and tablets) that may not be available for a while. But they believed it was inevitable because the advantages so outweigh the costs.

Image above is of CEO Jim Heppelmann at PTC’s ThingEvent.