Getting phygital! Industrial design in the age of digitalization

You may have missed the prototype show and tell, but fear not! Here's a recap of all the great insights that came out of our Connected Hardware Pre-Work Talk.
Remember when design disciplines were easy to define? Product designers made products and graphic designers created beautiful images. But now, digitalization has brought massive changes to all areas of design and thinking in simple categories is no longer sufficient. We called in the experts — our Industrial Design Director Stephan Rein and the team from the industrial wearable startup ProGlove — to share their knowledge about the challenges & opportunities in this fast-growing field. 

Before launching into the benefits and examples of connected hardware, Stephan made us stop and think about the T in the IoT. Because as humans, no matter how digital our lives become, we’re still very much intrigued by physical interaction with real objects. So rather than focusing simply on how to digitally connect “things”, we need to think about how people can emotionally connect with the product to create more meaningful experiences.

“Connected hardware is something we have been thinking and talking about over the last 10 or 15 years, but connected things have been known to mankind for much longer,” Stephan said.

“I make a joke that my favorite connected product is the wristwatch I got from my grandfather – for me this is a real emotional connection to my grandfather. In many cultures you have this similar kind of phenomenon: relics that you touch and kiss for spiritual power, or a Kyodo master passing on a bow to a less experienced person so they can benefit from the powers it possesses.”

So when looking at industrial design in the age of digitalization, the challenge is to combine these different worlds to create relevant, meaningful products for companies and users.  

Connectivity increases the value of a product

While some non-connected products – like cars – decrease in value as soon as you use them for the first time, the value of connected hardware can in fact increase. As Stephan points out, the hugely successful Amazon Echo is a product that’s value is constantly going up, because not a week goes by without a new device being created for it. So the value is no longer related to only the hardware, but the services you can use it for.  

Connectivity increases the performance of a hardware product


Tractors are already very impressive pieces of machinery without being connected, but new technology now allows farmers to plough fields with an accuracy of 2 centimeters. Now that’s precision agriculture. Then there’s the extra access to information, and organization of data and inventory that connected equipment can provide.

ProGlove can also be put in this category. They took the one thing that’s ubiquitous in nearly all industrial environments – gloves – and improved them to fulfill various manufacturing needs.  

“It’s good for three things: speed, quality and information,” Thomas kirchner, Proglove's  ‎Founder & CEO, told the audience.

“At the moment, if you’re working in an assembly line at BMW you need to scan nearly every part you put into the car. You have these little scan pistols that you need to pick up and use to scan each part. We built the scanner into the glove, so you can simply scan with your glove. It saves you three or four seconds per part.”

Connectivity increases the safety of a hardware product

A good example Stephan gave is the table saw recently released by Bosch that has active response technology. As the product description states: “Protect the tools you can’t replace”, the saw can detect foreign material (your fingers), triggering the blade to retract below the table top before it can do any damage.    

The saw also comes with an app that allows you to provide lock out options and check the saw’s status, including any errors that may have occurred.

If you think about wearables, they only work if you use a form factor people know.

Thomas Kirchner
Connectivity changes aesthetics

“I’m curious to see where design goes in the future,” Stephan said when showing the design differences between the Google and Tesla self-driving cars. “I don’t think anyone can look cool driving the Google car.”

But then again, do we want autonomous cars looking exactly the same as the cars we’re used to? There’s still a way to go to find a happy medium.  

Smart watches are another example. The first designs were quite “futuristic” and consumers were reluctant to embrace this new watch aesthetic. “If you think about wearables, they only work if you use a form factor people know,” Thomas said. 

Hardware is less flexible than software

There’s a rush to get new connected hardware products to market, but once you release them a lot of investment is needed to make changes and fixes. Unlike software, which can be easily updated, you can’t change a hardware product you’ve already sold. Stephan says there are still unanswered questions here.

“The development of connected hardware is getting more and more complex. Is it possible to make hardware development faster, or is there a better way to balance these two worlds? What is the user experience you want to create and what business model to you want?” he asked.

“Although everyone wants to have new products faster, it’s more complex so it takes more time. You need to collaborate between different disciplines, and find consistency in different aspects.”

Thomas also addressed this in his presentation, saying: “Hardware needs more time and iterations. So to build a hardware company you need more money. We had great luck in that we won our seed financing.” 

New technologies can change ways of interaction

Gesture control is on the rise. You can see a lot of experimentation, especially in the automotive industry; for instance, the BMW 7 Series allows you to operate certain controls using three or four different gestures.

“Even though it has these new functions, the manual controls are still there – the users are still getting used to it,” Stephan said. “This is the most exciting part. Can we change the behavior of users?”

Munich Pre-Work Talk - Connected Hardware: Stephan Rein