What will products of the future look like ?

02 March 2016

What will the products of the future look like – and how will we create them? Simon Floyd of Microsoft predicts what lies ahead for designers and engineers

One of the great privileges of my role at Microsoft is the opportunity to meet with some of the world’s most innovative and progressive companies - established companies that are transforming themselves and new companies that are working to break through.

I get to see how they work and why, their challenges and approaches to business, and how they tackle design, manufacturing and service.

One thing that this view has taught me is that product design is changing. Three extremely significant trends are driving this.

The first is the mass computerisation of, well, everything. The second is the growing amount of easily accessible cloud-based computing power. The third is the shift towards more ‘natural’ user interfaces, using voice and physical gestures.

In some ways, these trends are not new — they’ve merely evolved to the point where we can readily take advantage of them to improve the way we design products.

The result will be connected products that carry a computing platform within them, making them at once smarter and undoubtedly more complex, even as their use becomes simpler.

The impact of these trends, meanwhile, on the life and work of product designers will manifest itself in three key ways.

1. Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) will have the single biggest impact on product design, to my mind.

No longer are designers bound by the physical boundaries of a product. Instead, they have access to a flexible system that can be upgraded. In this way, a product can be more than the sum of its parts. It will have a physical instantiation of course, but also one that is entirely digital.

The IoT means that a product can evolve, based on feedback from the system itself and from other products of the same type. This is made possible by offloading computing within the product to the cloud or other externally hosted systems, where it’s possible to perform heavyweight tasks such as mass data collection and processing.

Recent advancements in computer science such as machine learning provide an incredible opportunity for product designers, too. Imagine, for example, a product that is designed to dynamically simplify its own operations, based on how it’s used.

Furthermore, products can be invaluable sources of feedback, because they can record and report information about their use and performance. When I think about the impact on product design, this is by far the most significant factor.

The insights from understanding how a product is used can guide roadmap decisions from an empirical basis. It does, however, raise another interesting aspect to design: designing a data collection system from which designers can extract meaningful insights.

2. Generative design

Generative design (GD) is a radically different way of designing, in which a form is algorithmically derived from real-world constraints or targets using supercomputing.

It’s not about optimising something already designed to make it lighter, or stronger. Instead, it’s the calculated formation of a shape designed to specifically to cater to physical properties.

I find generative design kind of fascinating, because using this approach, form follows function exactly. It doesn’t mean that a finished object will be beautiful and perhaps it need not be, but it does change how we think about design. It’s less art in this
circumstance and more science.

It also means that designs will be created that cannot be manufactured using traditional techniques, such as injection moulding, die casting, or even 5-axis machining. This paves the way for 3D printing to become a practical solution, especially powder bed process systems for metals and plastics.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that the use of supercomputing in design is not new; in fact, it’s already extremely commonplace today. It’s just that most FEA and CFD jobs tend to be performed once a design has already been established. In other words, they’re used as verification first and as a design tool second.

But the fact is that, right now, most designers simply run out of available, affordable computing capacity before they can run a true design of experiments (DOE). This situation, of course, can be overcome with cloud computing. It’s an incredible
facilitator, because it provides access to vast amounts of capacity at a low cost, and often on demand.

3. Augmented reality

It’s striking how often I meet people in design, manufacturing or service roles who offer their opinion, often very enthusiastically, on what augmented reality (AR) can do for them.

They believe it will transform their business — and rightfully so. It’s an exciting new frontier to explore, because it takes computing from its current flatscreen, ‘touch, type or click’ format to immersive 3D in the real world.

For designers, I can easily see how AR can be both a primary and secondary design interface. It’s much like how I view touch controls in CAD systems: the ergonomics are such that tapping and swiping a hard surface all day is simply fatiguing and probably not the fastest input method for CAD, but when used situationally for short durations, or in conjunction with traditional methods, it can be amazingly productive. The same applies with AR.

There is one major difference, however: AR provides a completely unique experience that isn’t possible in a CAD system today, in that it can take digital content and map it into the real world with interactivity. That is completely and entirely unique, not to mention incredibly valuable because it provides context like no other tool.

While there has been much publicity around AR as a design tool, it could also be a new frontier for extending a product’s use and experience — the interaction method, in effect, with an end product.

One way to think about it is a holographic display that extends a product’s capabilities.

The product of the future

Recently, I’ve found myself marvelling at how very traditional products such as kitchen appliances and vehicles increasingly offer an experience that integrates them more deeply into our modern lifestyles.

The computerisation of almost everything is making us more efficient, more productive and more enamoured of communication than at any other time.

It strikes me that the future of design lies in building the types of product that society demands, so my prediction is that the design of products will simply not exist in future. The future designer will design solutions, not products — and these will span both the physical and digital worlds, fuelled by mass computerisation.

Simon Floyd is director of business development & strategy for PLM solutions in the worldwide discrete manufacturing industry team at software giant Microsoft. You can find him on Twitter @FloydInnovation

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