Product Development in 2020: An SGW Perspective

By SGW Team

Recently, several from SGW’s leadership team convened to discuss the state of product development in 2020 — specifically, trends and technological advancements that are shaping our industry.

To spark this discussion, we reflected on a Forbes article from last year that outlined five technology trends disrupting engineering and design in 2020. We had a lot to say about these trends — and had some additions of our own.

3D Printing and Prototyping Advantages for Product Designers

3D printing is a technique that has forever changed the way we as product designers and developers build prototypes. This is no longer a hobbyist’s daydream but rather a new, affordable method of additive manufacturing — and one we use often here at SGW.

“I think 3D printing is impactful for product design because the complexities of design are going to increase. You’re going to be able to create things you couldn’t before because of tooling limitations. The technology is advancing rapidly, additive manufacturing — the fidelity and the quality are getting there to match and simulate materials we use on a regular basis. It’s going to allow us to create products that couldn’t have been created, at least cost-effectively. That makes those designs cost-effective, and attainable.” 

-Chad Barnes, Director of Business Development

But as with many new technologies, there are likely to be many more changes coming — both within our industry currently and in how the engineers of tomorrow learn to develop products.

“I wonder if 30 years from now they’ll even have injection-molded design processes taught in school. You think about machining right now; we’ve been doing CNC machining for what, 20 or 30 years? And now it’s hard to come by a manual machinist. That skillset is dying, along with drafting. I didn’t get taught drafting in school, so it will be interesting to see, with 3D printing, what will get rooted out because of that.”

-Rob Regent, Mechanical Engineer & Embedded Developer

Digital Twin Technology: A New Name for an Established Methodology

As product designers and developers, the idea of building something virtually before we create it physically is nothing new. By creating a virtual replica of a product in development, we’re able to explore all facets of a design — including potential performance issues — and can often prevent a potential waste of resources that sometimes occurs when building without this technology. 

By using digital twins in product development, engineers can take simulation tools to the next level. After a product is built using 3D CAD and a physical prototype exists, sensors are added to the prototype. These sensors begin collecting data, which is processed by a cloud-based system. This data is continually updated, which in turn provides designers with insight into the product while it’s in action. These insights allow us to make our simulations more accurate.

“The rate at which technology is changing is making a huge impact on product development. So companies that aren’t learning quickly and aren’t adopting, moving, pivoting, and innovating aren’t going to stay in the game, we’re going to see them falling off at a faster rate than we’ve had in the past. To stay in the game, you’re going to have to move, pivot, innovate, adopt things as they come, and change the way you do business.”

-Chad Barnes, Director of Business Development

Artificial Intelligence: One to Watch

While it largely remains to be seen just how AI will factor into our processes at SGW, product developers across the globe are watching this technology closely. We’re convinced it will affect how we look at product development in 2020 and in the years to come.

In our industry, we’re already seeing manpower being shifted away from low-output, task-based projects to more human-centric development activities — and replaced by automated programs that can complete specific tasks more efficiently.

“Everyone’s talking about AI. It’s going to apply to what we do in some way — but is that a threat or an opportunity? My feeling is that if we’re on top of it and can lead with adopting and applying the tools, then it could be an opportunity for us. It might reduce the amount of work some of our people need to do or it might increase the amount of work we can run through here quickly. So if we can understand how the tool works and how to apply it, we might be able to reduce our cycle times by quite a bit.”

-Ryan Gray, Co-Founder and CEO

How Will Robotics Impact Product Development in 2020?

Robots, in some form or another, have been assisting humans for years. We see this technology being used in the industrial sector, the medical field, entertainment (“stuntronics” describes robots that perform stunts considered too dangerous for humans), and hospitality. In Japan, robots are used in restaurants used to prepare food, robots work as receptions, robots perform cleaning duties, and robots serve drinks. The future of robotics technology isn’t so far off — it is here and it is now.

“It feels like, up until now, robotics has been in the purview of robotics integrators. But maybe a year ago, there was this change where other companies and groups were starting to apply robotics to other things. The tools are getting good enough and things are getting simple enough that normal engineers, normal people can apply robotics to other problems without having to engage a full-on robotics integrator. And so, in some ways, robotics may become like VR for us, where it’s a tool we use when appropriate for certain things, and that’s just how it is.”

-Ryan Gray, Co-Founder and CEO

“Although we are not robot integrators, we have used robotics, and there’s a lot of opportunity as automation shifts.”

-Mike Witt, Co-Founder & COO

“Robotics is opening a whole world of products that we can’t even imagine right now because all of the accessories and the add-ons, the ancillary stuff. In Ann Arbor there’s now a robot delivering takeout — what products are going to come out that are going to assist that technology and that service? There are all kinds of things that are going to advance based on robotics.”

-Chad Barnes, Director of Business Development

Augmented Reality, VR’s Next Big Step Forward

For many product developers, virtual reality is already transforming our processes. Here at SGW specifically, we’re leveraging VR in ways that we’ve yet to see other product developers adopt, and this sets us apart from other firms in our industry.

“Assuming AR becomes what everybody thinks it’s going to become, it’ll be another really big step for product developers like us beyond VR. Because it’ll be a much easier way to see how products in development are going to live in and interact with the non-virtual world. Right now, the VR models we produce are usually viewed in relation to other things in virtual reality. You can do a lot with that but imagine when we can actually place that model in an environment that is beyond VR — where it is the only virtual thing in a real world. That feels like a big step forward for what we do.”

-Ryan Gray, Co-Founder and CEO

“It’ll be useful to close that gap between what we’re trying to visualize and what the client can’t visualize — or what the client is visualizing and can’t communicate to us. It will help us get better aligned.” 

-Mike Witt, Co-Founder & COO

Elevating Mobile Networks with 5G Technology

According to Qualcomm, 5G will deliver multi-Gbps peak rates, ultra-low latency, massive capacity, and a more uniform user experience. This is sure to revolutionize the world of product development in 2020 and beyond — making major impacts on both the products we use at home and how we build them here at work. We’re expecting 5G to give us the ability to address hardware limitations and streamline our programs. 

“From a cost standpoint, it’s going to reduce our hardware costs. I’m sure it’ll increase our network costs because I guarantee it’ll be priced in parody with what people are paying for hardware. But it should give us a lot of flexibility. It should totally change the VR game; graphics processing should be able to happen in the cloud instead of locally.” 

-Ryan Gray, Co-Founder and CEO

“VR technology is out there already; 5G will definitely make it more accessible.”

-Rob Regent, Mechanical Engineer & Embedded Developer

But with these advancements come a number of risks, concerns, and questions, particularly related to the collection of data and how it is used.

“Data privacy is going to become a bigger deal. Everyone’s going to be trying to pull data to a level we haven’t seen before. It’ll be interesting to see how data access is sold.”

-Ryan Gray, Co-Founder and CEO

“If you’re able to constantly track what devices are doing, how will that affect our learning cycles?”

-Rob Regent, Mechanical Engineer & Embedded Developer

“Quick feedback is important to decrease the time to get to market. And there are ways to do that in a safe way to gather the data you need. You just have to make sure you do it that way.”

-Chad Barnes, Director of Business Development

Looking Ahead

So what’s next for us as product developers? What technologies will we see race forward and significantly change our approach to product development in 2020? And what opportunities (or obstacles) will these advancements pose to our industry? It remains to be seen. But if anything is certain, we’re up for the challenge.

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