In our latest installment of interviews with IoT practitioners, we interview Bryan Kester, Director of IoT, Autodesk, Inc. Bryan leads the Internet of Things (IoT) Product Group at Autodesk. He joined the company in September 2015 when SeeControl was acquired by Autodesk. At SeeControl, Bryan served as CEO where he was responsible for SeeControl strategy and operations. The company was founded to help manufacturers and systems integrators connect, analyze, control and manage remote products, things and assets, and create new service revenue opportunities.
We asked him questions about Gartner's prediction of IoT maturation, his take on the IoT platform wars, the skills sets needed in this rapidly emerging and changing field, and what's next for IoT. Bryan predicts, "There will be some continued hype and then a subtle, but significant shakeout among both pure play and "me too" vendors. Those that help simplify the systems integration nature of IoT will have a future."
You mentioned that you disagree with Gartner’s assessment that IoT technology will take 5-10 years to mature. Do you think it will take longer, shorter, or has IoT maturity already arrived?
You can dream up and launch virtually any IoT solution you want today; all the technology is available and proven. However, it requires systems integration just like implementing an ERP or CRM application. What we're missing is more plug-and-play interconnections between these technologies. That will reduce the need for expensive technical resources or spending money on services. In the 90s, getting an ERP or CRM was a big investment and took lots of money and teams of people. Today, you can subscribe to Salesforce, Plex or Workday and configure it yourself, and plug the data into other web services pretty easily.
Prior to Autodesk, you were the CEO of enterprise IoT platform SeeControl. What is your role now at Autodesk, and what do you have in store for the company’s future and vision for IoT?
I am responsible for our IoT products and services, which are centered around SeeControl technology. Our IoT product has since been branded as Fusion Connect within our cloud suite for designing, making and using physical things. The vision Autodesk is executing on is putting all of our CAD, CAM, 3D Printing, PLM, Simulation, IoT and other capabilities used by millions of people into a single cloud service. That service enables product and facility makers to design sensors and IoT technologies into things from the first day they're conceived. And once out in the world, real-world data and analytics drives a better next version, as well as the ability to create business opportunities. The makers of things can create new service businesses as maintainers, brokers of thing data or even transforming their companies to models where products are no longer sold, they are rented or subscribed to. For Autodesk, we think this is not only a great business, but has a side benefit of making the world less wasteful.
Products and buildings consume resources like fuel, parts, lubricants, maintenance labor and more. IoT tells you what is actually being used now and with modern predictive analytics tells you how to optimize the future. IoT can also power models for sharing products and facilities, where idle time is reclaimed by other potential users—ridesharing services like Uber are a prime example of that.
SeeControl, now Fusion Connect, what is it and how is it being used today?
Fusion Connect is a no-coding IoT cloud service which enables manufacturers to connect, analyze, and manage their products, without a team of programmers. One half is a plug-n-play data collector for different IoT protocols and device technologies. The other half is a point-and-click rapid application builder that can handle extreme amounts of data. It's used mainly by mid-market industrial manufacturers to offer enhanced diagnostics-based customer support models as well as aftermarket services like predictive maintenance. Outside of Autodesk's core manufacturing customers, partners large and small have assembled their own vertical solutions off the platform for smart cities, smart buildings, connected vehicles, utilities, agriculture and more.
Every major tech vendor is gunning to be "The IoT Platform”. What’s your take on the platform race and where do you see Autodesk having a role?
Autodesk has a rich history of democratizing complex technologies such as CAD, performance simulation, 3D printing and more to make them both affordable and simple to use. We're doing the same thing for IoT, but only for the cloud portion of building a business application. Our customers still have to get a device, put some software or script on it, connect it to a network, and transmit data. The problem in the market today is that IoT covers most if not all of computing, including embedded systems, networking, big data, mobile and security. So any company selling practically any of these technologies can claim to have an IoT platform. It's a natural part of big tech waves for everyone to want to be in the game, and also to position themselves as all things to all people to get the first group of adopters. But if you think of a big tech vendor, their core business is really in something else besides the business of physical things.
At Autodesk, much of the physical world has been designed, simulated or made with Autodesk products. When I got here, I couldn't believe how dominant our software is in the design of products, buildings and factories. It's quite amazing. Many think of Autodesk as just a CAD company but we have almost 200 products, a good portion of which are specific to the Manufacturing industry. So our role as the top software provider for things themselves is mission-critical and it’s a natural fit for us to be in IoT. I think it's important for prospective IoT solution buyers to really think about what motivates a vendor to be in this market. IoT is not an easy business. And the technologies have a long life in the field once deployed—as long as the lifecycle of whatever the thing is. Make sure your vendor is committed. Autodesk is.
What advice would you give an individual looking to get into IoT? Are there particularly skill sets that matter or are transferable?
The number one thing is you have to be a curious and flexible person, and be willing to jump into new domains. That is true of both technology and business IoT professionals, so most skill sets are transferrable as a starting point. On the business side, there are so many new application possibilities in IoT that you really have to be able to understand a wide array of new business ideas, digest them, and think critically about them. IoT used correctly will force a fundamental reinvention of the core business processes of most companies. On the technical side software, hardware, network, mechanical and civil engineers all think and solve problems in very different ways, and are all highly trained to do so. IoT forces them together to jointly solve problems. People that consider themselves a "Renaissance Person" is a great fit to be in IoT.
What’s next for the IoT?
There will be some continued hype and then a subtle, but significant shakeout among both pure play and "me too" vendors. Those that help simplify the systems integration nature of IoT will have a future. But there are just too many companies claiming IoT expertise that don't really have it, and too many hard-to-use technologies out there. And many vendors are looking for five and six figure sales from the market to stay in business. There aren't as many customers as the "billions of devices" prognostications lead many companies to believe. IoT is still an early adopter market. Statistically, only 3% - 5% of companies fit that profile, and not many of those have substantial budgets. Also, once you get a customer, they have to grapple with issues beyond technology such as how their sales and service and logistics departments are going to work together in new ways—potentially after years of being totally out of touch with each other. There are other related non-tech issues that slow the deployment of IoT within a company.
These are things no salesperson can control, so IoT revenue is unpredictable or may never come. Not many companies will want to weather that. For us, the current market works great since Fusion Connect helps customers discover their IoT opportunities with little cost and risk and our business still does great.