PTC's Role in IoT Evolution & Digital Thread Integration

PTC's Role in IoT Evolution & Digital Thread Integration

James Zhang, VP of Market Development for PTC, Discusses Partnering with Microsoft, Improving Operational Excellence and Increasing Workforce Productivity

In a factory, the best way to improve efficiency is to find and remove the bottlenecks, and make the slowest parts move faster. That's what PTC does - identify and solve the bottlenecks and empower all levels of manufacturing from top floor executives to shop floor front-line workers. An industrial digital transformation leader, PTC helps manufacturers to better design, make and serve their product.

“PTC means power to create,” said James Zhang, VP of Market Development for PTC. “We have the software to help customers manage the necessary requirements and software, which PTC calls ALM application lifecycle management solution.”

When building a car, you start with the design - where there are maybe ten of thousands components and hundreds of millions of lines of code. Car manufacturers design these parts and engineers manage the software, and then they all manage it all together in the design stage. There are so many different configurations, things can get lost, causing expensive delays. PTC manages the variations and configurations, monitoring not only the engineering side but the whole product life cycle. PTC understands that manufacturers need to collaborate with their suppliers to bring the right amount of the right part, at the right time.

“In factories, manufacturers have thousands of workers, all of whom can be speaking a different language and with a different skill set,” said James Zhang. “This evolving workforce has a big challenge in the manufacturing industry.”

As the VP of Market Development for PTC’s IoT solution, James Zhang´s job is divided into turning the high impact, fast-time value use cases into outbox capabilities - together with PTC’s Research & Development team. This helps customers to gather fast value and high value, in a short period of time at scale. 

The second part of Zhang’s job is go-to-market strategy, where he works with the field and ecosystem to assist customers and unlock value from PTC’s technologies.

“PTC has some of the best technology available in the industry. The utilisation of our technology is to solve specific problems out of hundreds of use cases, which are the highest impact and also fastest time to value for our customers.”

There are two challenges in Zhang’s work, which he sees as the best part of the job. 

“I focus on customer problems. The good part is that if you talk to the companies, the manufacturing organisations we serve - from factories to engineering teams, if you listen to them tell you what the business problem you're trying to solve is, it is almost the same problem but the manufacturers always want a better way to solve the problem faster and at lower cost.”

The second part of Zhang’s role is that whatever PTC is doing, it is a team sport. 

"We help customers solve problems and deliver technology, but we also need to collaborate with partner ecosystems to solve the problem." 

However, in James Zhang’s personal life, his biggest achievements are his sons, aged 7 and 11. 

“They're smart, hardworking and they continue to prove themselves. I'm already very, very proud of them.”

Like all families, James Zhang’s parenting was challenged through the pandemic. 

“During COVID-19, we didn't want the children to go out. The result is that my eldest son started playing soccer late, but he has been practising really hard and he’s been selected for one of the premium soccer clubs! I'm really proud of all the progress he has been making there.”

In the same philosophy, James Zhang is proud of PTC. 

“We have been continuously evolving our IoT strategy to meet the market. Several years ago, when people spoke about IoT analytics, people said ‘Well this is a cool thing, let's try it’. But in the past several years, manufacturers have been moving from piloting this technology to scaling the proven use cases. I'm very proud that PTC has been the leader in this area and we are one of the first companies to quickly realise that IoT is not only about a general IoT platform, this is also about the IoT solution on a purpose built platform. I could not be more fulfilled to work along with our customers to unlock the financial and operational impacts of our IoT technologies with speed and at scale”.

PTC’s IoT has seen a ton of success in recent years, reflected in its financials and stock price. PTC has been on a super up curve and James Zhang knows that IoT has been a major contributor to that.

Smart manufacturing and transformative technologies

PTC uses various smart manufacturing and transformative technologies. On the smart factory side, PTC has two focus areas, factory performance and workforce efficiency. 

“Beyond the factory, there's model-based, closed loop engineering to manufacturing digital thread,” says Zhang. 

With PTC’s IoT technology, the company can bring the right information to the workers at the right time where there is impact when they do the job so that they can accelerate and sustain the continuous performance improvement

“Imagine a typical factory, there can easily be hundreds of people, hundreds of machines, thousands of SKUs and tens of thousands of tasks. 100 people are chasing 100 different problems. What we do is to help the factory to continually identify, prioritise, analyse and solve the current most critical constraints ”The second part is empowering frontline workers. 

“Imagine that you are going to assemble a LEGO MINDSTORMS robot with hundreds of LEGO parts, sensors, motors and programmable bricks. Our IoT and AR technology will tell you what the next step is, which parts you should use and whether you are having the correct wiring. AR technology offers computer vision to help you do its underlying inspections and telling when a wrong piece was used. It's like the manufacturer has superpower over their shoulder, guiding them step by step.”

“Think about it this way, we are all consumers and as consumers, we are spoiled,” said Zhang.

Consumers are demanding more customisation, more personalisation, for less cost and on time. What that means for the factory workers, is a higher rate of change compared to before. 

“Meanwhile, we all know that the workforce shortage challenge is not only the ageing workforce but also the new generations. It's not a ‘cool job’ in the factories, meaning that in the factories now the work is more complex but not digital. So manufacturers are thinking about how they can empower their workers with digital tools. This is what we do at PCT.”

Improving operational excellence and increasing workforce productivity

PTC’s products improve the agility and efficiency of a production network and its associated product lifecycle value chain.

“Our product offering has two closed loops - one is within the factory, meaning that the customer is given resources, skills and processes,” says Zhang. 

When a customer has a thousand parts, tens of thousands of tasks, hundreds of different machines and a hundred different workers using different languages and skill sets, PTC makes everything work together, as efficiently as possible, through its closed-loop improvement cycle. 

“It starts with what we call digital performance management, meaning that I look into your whole factory,” said Zhang.

The first thing PTC’s software does is look at the whole factory and identify the slowest-moving part in the factory. The second thing is to figure out where there are opportunities for productivity

“When a customer implements counter measures, our software will monitor how much impact the customer gets from implementation technologies. The customer keeps track of the next biggest time loss until the first bottleneck is no longer a bottleneck - and you find another line that is becoming a bottleneck! That's really the first thing we do in the factories. Everything I'm talking about here is in real-time, a closed loop.”

In PTC’s frontline work, the main problem-solving is about empowering the workers. 

“Anything from the training/multiple-skilling, end of line inspections, anything from the work instructions, automate the data connection and human-machine interactions, streamline the workflows in the factories. Everything PTC does helps workers be more productive.”

IoT strategy has been evolving across the value chain. One of the biggest opportunities PTC has seen is the engineering to manufacturing digital thread. PTC has been a working partner with Microsoft for years and both businesses are very proud of what they have achieved. 

“Just this year we were named as a Year of Partner for Microsoft in IoT and in the manufacturing industry. We have also been named either a finalist or either the partners in these categories, for several years in a row.”

According to Zhang, the best part of the partnership is that all products complement each other. Microsoft has the Azure platform, its IoT platform, which is more like a general IoT platform for its AI technologies.

“If you look, they're more of a general platform provider, but if you look at PTC, we are one of the companies with a deep expertise in the manufacturing industry.”

PTC’s IoT technology is more of a solution platform, to sit on top of Microsoft’s general IoT platform. 

“How does this benefit our customers? The benefit for our customers is that we have a full-stack solution. Customers can leave the integration complexities to PTC and Microsoft, then they can focus on unlocking value from our joint technologies.”

For Zhang, the best part of this partnership is the complementary technologies and products, which together can help customers unlock their value. 

From the PTC side, Zhang has seen several mega-market trends he anticipates will not change in 2024.

“The evolving workforce is a big challenge in the manufacturing industry. The supply chain disruption we all know about. The other evolutions are Model-Based Definition/Model-Based Engineering (MBD/E) and digital thread.” 

Zhang anticipates that MBD/E and closed-loop digital thread will increase in usage across manufacturing, as smart manufacturing becomes more integrated.

“Think about this way, 70% of product cost and 80% of product carbon footprint are pretty much decided in the design stage. Digital threads bring the product data and the process data across the enterprise, from engineering to manufacturing, provide real-time feedback to design engineers and manufacturing engineers, so that they can continuously improve the product design and process planning to maximise the product fit/form/function while optimise the product quality/cost/time to market.”

In 2024, PTC will continue to evolve its strategy around the digital and support manufacturers along their digital transformation journey. For Zhang and his team, that's the most exciting thing for 2024.

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