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Smart, connected products: How to set up a successful service paradigm

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Smart, connected 'things' can report their current state and send alerts when problems appear. However, these products are still not intelligent enough to work without human participation, and a certain degree of monitoring, control, and maintenance is needed anyway, which can be an additional burden for vendors.

In such a situation, vendors can resort to independent service providers who focus on similar products from different vendors. Service organisations, in their turn, may find new opportunities in dealing with smart, connected products (including facilitated monitoring and better planned repairs based on analytics results) and be proactive in offering their services to vendors.

Regardless of the motives and initiators of new partnership, this endeavour has its specifics, which need to be considered to make cooperation continuous and fruitful.

Service view: From traditional to smart, connected products
With traditional products, after the expiration of their warranty period, service organisations can be hired by customers and provide maintenance. With smart, connected products’ specific architecture, when a great deal of product logic remains in a vendor’s cloud, competent maintenance can be achieved with the well-tuned cooperation between a vendor and a service organisation.

Traditionally, the responsibility of a service organisation consisted mainly of planned maintenance and performing repairs upon a customer’s demand. From the service point of view, smart, connected products are an example of a new big-data-driven service paradigm, which functions as follows: sensors take data from smart, connected things. This data is analysed to identify the current state and make the predictions about the future state of the things. Also, this data helps detect the reasons for breakdowns and identify what repairs are needed and what measures should be taken to avoid more serious problems in the future. Repair requests can be generated by an IoT system (according to the results of analytics) and sent either to the control apps to automatically adjust a smart, connected product’s performance or to the specialists responsible for repairs for further analytics and human-controlled repairs.

Service-related operations
Let’s dive deeper into how IoT helps enhance service-related operations (monitoring, regular and preventive maintenance and repairs) and how a smart, connected product vendor and a service provider can adjust their activities and propel their cooperation.

Monitoring: The data obtained from sensors is stored in a product vendor’s cloud. However, service organisations also need access to the big data warehouse containing the data about a smart, connected product. As a service organisation may need access to a part of this data only, access peculiarities need to be considered and documented in an agreement between a vendor and a service organisation.

Preventive maintenance: Smart, connected product maintenance greatly benefits from the opportunity to employ preventive service. Sensor data helps not only to see what is happening to smart, connected things at present but also define prefailure situations, and service organisations can conduct timely repairs to prevent more serious troubles.

Thus, a service organisation reduces the expenses and saves the time required for regular maintenance and fixing the problems which were not detected in time. For smart, connected products’ vendors it turns into better meeting their customers’ expectations.

Planned maintenance: Despite the wide opportunities for preventive maintenance, regular service is still in demand: for example, some parts may need adjusting, repairing or replacing. Analysing sensor data makes it possible to work out a new, more effective schedule of regular maintenance.

An example: a service company plans to send its representatives to factory A to conduct planned maintenance and, at the same time, an IoT system and data scientists of a vendor prompt that certain pieces of smart, connected machinery located nearby, in factory B, will need servicing in a week. With this info, service representatives can perform necessary repairs in factory B during the same business trip and save the time and money needed for a separate visit to this factory.

Repair: IoT helps overcome the drawbacks of a traditional repair model when service technicians are not always aware of what is the problem before they inspect a product. With IoT, sensors help gather in advance all the information about a breakdown, and an IoT system can even bring in the suggestions on how to fix it. Thus, service technicians can develop a strategy for the repairs even before visiting a customer.

What is more, the nature of smart, connected products allows performing some repairs remotely, which is especially beneficial for the maintenance of smart, connected products located in hard-to-reach areas (smart oil rigs, smart mining equipment).

Points to consider in an agreement between a vendor and a service organisation
To ensure maximum benefits and minimum problems in the cooperation between a vendor and a service organisation, it makes sense to focus on the following points in an agreement:

Responsibilities: To avoid cooperation misunderstandings, a smart, connected product vendor and service provider should outline the scope of the responsibilities and actions each side will take. For example, a vendor may be responsible for analysing the data about the performance of a smart, connected product, and a service provider will rely on these insights in conducting his activities. Alternatively, a service organisation may take the product-related data from a vendor’s cloud to perform analytics about a product internally and report to a vendor if needed.

Security issues: Valuable sensor data as well as the results of data analytics and machine learning may be exposed to security violations. Security threats may arise due to cybercriminals’ activities or the parties’ unawareness of how to deal safely with a smart, connected product. Thereby, it makes sense to work out security policies and add them to an agreement. For example, the parties may introduce role-based access and two-factor authentication to the data and develop measures to take in case of security breaches.

Adjusting to updates in a product’s functionality: When a smart, connected product is already in use, a vendor (or even a customer in some cases) may come out with the ideas on how to improve it. However, changes in a product’s functionality require adjustments in maintenance: from slight changes to the need for service providers to take new responsibilities. Thus, it makes sense to formalise in an agreement which actions to take if the approach to servicing changes in the future. For example, a vendor can provide a service organisation with the description of new functionalities as early as possible (or even involve a service provider in discussing these updates) to prepare in advance for an updated smart, connected product’s maintenance.

To sum it up
Beyond the business benefits provided by smart, connected products, there is a significant challenge: such products require effective and timely maintenance. Although this maintenance can benefit from the data gathered by sensors and analysed with advanced tools, it cannot be performed in a traditional way, especially when a product vendor entrusts a smart, connected product’s maintenance to an independent service provider. In the latter case, the question is to agree on the functions performed and the responsibilities taken by each party. Thus, both sides may profit from better opportunities for monitoring, planned and preventive maintenance and repairs due to sensor data flows and constantly improving analytics capabilities.

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