While at LiveWorx earlier this summer, amongst all of the talk around industrial IoT, Industry 4.0 and all the usual subjects that PTC focuses on these days, one little snippet came up in a press conference that piqued our interest: Social media.
During a Q&A session, one of the executive team made a passing remark about how it had acquired a new startup with the aim of bringing social analytics into the ThingWorx environment, but that was all that was said, particularly once CEO Jim Heppelmann said that they weren’t quite ready to talk about the acquisition yet.
We’ve learned that the acquisition is a small Swedish startup called Plugin-76, who have been developing a set of tools for PTC’s Retail, Footwear and Apparel (RTA) focussed FlexPLM product line for some time.
So why is it interesting? At present, PTC’s ThingWorx platform is very good at taking data from web-connected sensors (essentially, numerical data) and doing interesting things with it, whether it’s tracking the use of a product in the field or testing prototypes.
Essentially, ThingWorx focusses on quantitive data – which can be quickly measured, computed upon and feedback to the user.
Yet, as we know, numbers don’t present a truly holistic picture of how a product is performing.
Alongside the numbers, what about how the product is perceived by the consumer? What about how they feel about it, about certain functions, certain workflows or other oddities that might arise during use.
Yes, product returns give you some indication, but what if the consumer perceives an issue, but its not enough to cause them to return the product, but enough make them think twice about buying that brand again?
This is the world of social analytics, where trends, thoughts and perception can be gathered from the mass of such thoughts that people share on various social media platforms, but which aren’t necessarily easy to collect in a single, actionable place.
I’ll give you a real world example. During a chat with a consumer goods manufacturer, we had a discussion around how they factor in consumers sharing their thoughts on the web – specifically, Amazon reviews.
The discussion turned to a recent example, where the design team developed a lightweight vacuum cleaner, did all of its testing and put it into manufacturing.
After a couple of months the team started to notice Amazon reviews saying that the product was good, but the hose, which they’d made shorter to save weight, wasn’t quite long enough to use on staircases – information that previously would have been very hard to come by.
Next product iteration, the team added that length back in and customers have been happy ever since.
This type of information is out there for anyone to take advantage of and in the consumer goods space, there is masses of it. This is where qualitative social analytics can come into play.
Curiously, it seems that this is something that has been brewing in PTC’s, not very often talked about, Retail, Footwear and Apparel (RFA) business line for some time.
Al Dean: At LiveWorx, executives at PTC alluded to the fact that you’ve acquired a small startup in the social analytics space. Could you confirm who this is?
PTC: The company we acquired is called Plug-In 76, or P76, for short. They are a company that we had been working with for the past few years on the RFA side of our business.
They have worked with us to develop design tools for creatives (e.g. product designers), as well as plug-in style integrations between Adobe Illustrator and our RFA PLM solution, which is called FlexPLM.
The design tools also have built-in connections to leading social media platforms, to enable real-time capturing of the latest trends, styles, etc., as part of the design process.
Al Dean: What do you perceive as this acquisition bringing to PTC’s portfolio?
PTC: This acquisition expands the RFA solution portfolio to include a set of robust design tools for creatives, in order to help with the digitization of the product design process, which is a critical element of our Retail Journey. It also adds to our portfolio a cutting-edge tool for Digital Concept Management and Collaboration.
This tool, currently called the Inspiration App, is essentially a digital whiteboard with built-in tools to aid designers and marketers in capturing imagery, video, colours, patterns, trends and other design elements when initially planning their product lines.
It has built-in connectors to leading social media platforms to enable real-time capture of the latest trends.
With a modern user experience, it enables users to easily drag-and-drop images, video, PDFs, presentations, documents, etc., upload photos from smartphones, add annotations, resize images, share boards with others in collaboration mode, and utilised workflow capabilities to assign tasks and track progress.
Designers can then use the information from the Inspiration App to automatically create products in FlexPLM.
While initially focuses on the RFA market, we believe this tool has broader application across other consumer-facing industries that PTC serves, such as furniture, consumer products, etc.
Al Dean: It’s clear that this represents a distinct set of possibilities for capturing qualitative data compared to the quantitative data from measurements and sensors, I was curious to learn how PTC saw themselves integrating this data alongside that captured by Thingworx? There’s clear challenges of this type of information compared to the numbers, charts and other visualisation methods used. Any thoughts?
PTC: The Inspiration App in particular is optimised for dealing with unstructured data, unlike PLM, which is all about managing structured data like product specifications, bills-of-material, etc.
That said, the Inspiration App will be utilising ThingWorx to connect to the aforementioned social media platforms, as well as connect to data that is captured from consumers in-store via ‘connected store systems,’ all with the goal of improving the on-trend, on-style nature of product collections being developed for the future.
For those that involved in the more mechanical side of design, the idea of technology transferring across from retail, footwear and apparel might seem a little odd.
The reality is that while something like footwear or clothing design s a predominately two dimensional activitiy, it’s also one that is hell bent on keeping on trend and manages huge complexity of product – whether that’s multitudes of colour ways, sizing, geographic differentiation or complex supply chains.
This video from a seven year old PTC/User conference featuring Peter Burrows, CIO Emeritus at Adidas details it nicely.