Demystifying the Internet of Things with PTC ThingWorx

Demystifying the Internet of Things with PTC ThingWorx

In his Mars Trilogy (Red MarsGreen MarsBlue Mars), Kim Stanley Robinson has some brilliant ideas about terraforming Mars using self-repairing and self-replicating robots that build their own tools and even build other robots. While this might sound far out in the future, the Internet of Things is one step on the road to this vision because of what it says about machine to machine communication. In the present, it is a powerful to implement the Digital Twin.

Let’s start by understanding what is meant by the Internet of Things. Looking at how the internet evolved, as we moved from the Web 1.0 phase (starting in 1989) where the worldwide web was merely of network of static web pages through Web 3.0 (in 2006) where the push was about more social connectivity (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), we were mostly focused on humans interacting with machines or other humans, whereas starting around 2009, the idea of machines interacting with other machines (autonomous cars, fully automated factories, etc.) constituted the next wave: Web 4.0 and beyond. It is here that I place the concept of IOT – it is a world of “smart” devices - devices that exchange data mono- or bi-directionally with other machines and that could have the ability to make decisions without human interaction. With less hyperbole, it is also about devices able to send diagnostic information for analysis and predictive maintenance.

In the world of product development, there are quite a few ways where IOT can help manufacturers. Let’s look at an example of gathering sensor data for predictive analytics because it is probably the easiest case to grasp. If I have access to the data on, say, blade temperature and rotational speed of a turbine as well as hours of service and mean-time-between-failure (MTBF) data, I can use analytics to predict what combination of conditions increases the probability for engine failure and act accordingly to avoid, say, an airplane crash. That is just one example, but you can imagine others for monitoring the factory floor, enabling autonomous vehicles, guiding remote personnel in maintenance operations, etc.

Taking a second example, the Internet of Things is one way of maintaining a Digital Twin. The real aircraft engine has a CAD representation in the PLM system and the IOT system sends data about real-world behavior of the physical model back to the PLM system to help in understanding the real-world performance of the engine. The combination of the CAD geometry and the real-world behaviors of that engine captured by the sensors makes up two crucial elements of the Digital Twin of the engine as stored in the PLM system. This brings enormous value because the designers can see the real-world behavior of their engine, maintenance personnel can determine more precisely what to repair and when, and passengers get a safer, smoother ride.

So, in this technical context, ThingWorx was acquired by PTC in 2014 to add a flexible Internet of Things platform (IOT) to their portfolio. ThingWorx is a powerful system designed for modeling “things” in the real world with their properties and a description of the types of data that will be gathered from them and for designing connections between the “things” and their associated data with back-end applications that can exploit the data. These could be analytic systems, PLM systems such as Windchill or user-built custom applications.  

For our first example of predictive analytics, ThingWorx models the sensors on the engine, gathers the flight data, performs analytics on it and tells maintenance crews whether the engine requires maintenance before the FAA-mandated 15000-hour limit.

In our second example, there would be a digital model of the turbine created in a CAD tool such as Creo which is stored and managed in Windchill, and there would be a “thing” in ThingWorx representing the physical turbine and the sensors on it. In the CAD model, we can design the engine and model the physical placement of the sensors. Once data is gathered via ThingWorx, this data can be color-mapped on the CAD model to determine if design changes are required to extend the life span and dependability of the engine.

It sounds complicated, right? Well, ThingWorx provides a simple drag-and-drop user interface for creating “things”, defining their properties, services, subscriptions, etc. and connecting them to the cloud for analytics and data consumption by applications. Physically, it is simply a Tomcat app server on top of a lightweight database for the modeling and a big data database for the sensor data. Its includes collection of Connectors which allows for easy collaboration across enterprise systems for connecting data. 

Things get even more interesting when they are not just sensors but, say, ERP systems from which data such as costing or MTBF historical data can be pulled for further analysis and more complex scenarios. Jim Heppelmann demonstrated an example of this at LiveWorx ’18 in June 2018 – see from about 48:50 to about 54:00. 

It is also critical to note that the Digital Twin is incredibly useful for many very different actors in the product development value chain: the owner of the equipment (and the operator if these are not the same people), the service technicians, customer support, product management, engineering, etc. as was demonstrated earlier with the aircraft engine example. Given this diversity, one monolithic Digital Twin is not really efficient for dealing with all possible uses of IOT data. One of the fundamentals in ThingWorx is that the idea of having multiple facets for consuming sensor data (and as shown above mashing that up with other enterprise data sources) to achieve the right level of value for each actor.

Now if we take this kind of machine to machine interaction and combine it with artificial intelligence and 3D printing, Robinson’s self-replicating robots do not seem too distant anymore, right? In the meantime, making the case for implementing an IOT strategy is a critical one for companies undergoing digital transformation, and one powerful tool to accomplish that is PTC ThingWorx.

Finocchiaro Consulting, LLC is an independent PLM and Digital Twin consulting business and here to answer your questions and help your company with its plans for digital transformation.

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