Digital transformation and 5G product development

Most enterprises see digital transformation in terms of customer experiences and business models. Digital is also quietly changing the way products are developed.

Most of what you read about digital transformation focuses on customer experiences, business model agility, and the effect that all of this has on enterprises — particularly IT departments.

Less widely recognized is the fact that digital technology is revolutionizing product development and management. Makers of smart products are using digital tools to speed prototype development, facilitate manufacturing and product testing, and enhance life-cycle management.

Products are generally becoming smarter. We now have smart TVs, smart speakers, smart refrigerators, and even smart sneakers. The most ordinary products can be made “smart” by adding Bluetooth beacons, RF ID tags or QR codes that provide information or links to webpages.

We are also surrounded by increasingly complex, high-performance products. Today’s popular smartphones have more processing power and memory than supercomputers that sold for millions of dollars each in the 1980s. The widespread availability of such sophisticated products is made possible by semiconductor technology — with help from Moore’s law. Once the solution to a complex problem has been developed, it can be miniaturized, embedded in silicon, and mass-produced.

In other words, some products are becoming so smart that manufacturing them is the easy part. It’s developing them in timely fashion, testing them thoroughly, and supporting them over their life cycle that have become bigger challenges.

5G wireless products are a prime example. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) envisions 5G technical standards enabling three new markets. Peak speeds in excess of 10 Gbps will create opportunities for enhanced mobile broadband products and services. Support for more than one million connections per square kilometer will allow IoT devices to be deployed on a massive scale. And latency under 1 millisecond will permit 5G wireless to serve demanding applications such as autonomous vehicles.

5G wireless is also shaping up to serve a market that was not envisioned by the ITU. Millimeter wave spectrum, small cells, and higher spectral efficiency will enable 5G networks to leapfrog cable networks in capacity — making it practical for wireless operators to provide fixed broadband service to small businesses and homes. (More robust broadband communication could also boost remote team collaboration; I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.)

Developing products at this early stage in 5G’s evolution is problematic. It’s as if everyone woke up at the same time and realized that 5G is coming and is going to be important. The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), which oversees much of the development of 5G technical standards, has put Phase 1 standards on a fast track with mid-2018 as the target completion date. However, companies hoping to be first-to-market have already begun developing products. Companies focusing on the fixed broadband market are even preparing to go to market with pre-standard products.

The best way to speed the development of a complex, high-performance product is to build a working prototype out of modules using tools designed for creating and assembling such modules. Duncan Hudson, Chief Platform Officer at National Instruments, likens this to the use of hardware and software Legos.

For instance, National Instrument’s LabView system allows developers to manipulate graphical representations of software code. Field programmable gate arrays are used to create and assemble digital hardware blocks. (Major FPGA suppliers include Xilinx, Intel, Lattice Semiconductor and Microsemi.) This modular approach is currently being used to speed the development of 5G base stations with up to 128 antennas, millimeter wave radios, and products requiring cellular/Wi-Fi coexistence.

British mathematician I.J. Good once suggested that eventually only very smart machines will be able develop smarter machines — humans won’t be able to keep up. I think he was wrong. Digital technology makes product development easier by enabling virtualization and even nested virtualization. For instance, you don’t need to know how to develop a more powerful microprocessor in order to design a more powerful computer. But you do need teams of developers working at different levels.

5G wireless is just one area in which digital technology has begun to transform product development. The same thing is happening in the defense, automotive, and energy industries — just to name a few. Over time, digital technology will transform product (and also service) development in all industries.

This post is based on commentary by Ira Brodsky that first appeared at Computerworld. Brodsky is a Senior Analyst with Datacomm Research and is the author of five books about technology. Brodsky focuses on mobile solutions for payments, retail automation, and health care.