Right on track

A future full of PROMISE for anyone wanting better product information, thanks to new smart technologies.

How much does a car salesman really know about a vehicle’s history? And what could a fridge manufacturer tell you about the future of his white goods? The answer is, probably not all that much. To change this, and ensure better customer service, an innovative idea has been put forward by the PROMISE-PLM (Product Lifecycle Management and Information Tracking using Smart Embedded Systems) project. Through the use of smart technologies, it aims to make information available at any stage of a product’s lifecycle and anywhere in the world. Funded under FP6, PROMISE focuses on developing a system to gather, process and deliver this data. The project has 22 partners, including the Finnish SME Trackway. Timo Nurminen, Director of Consulting at this information-tracking company, provides some insight into the initiative.

How did Trackway become involved in the PROMISE project?

We were doing a local project with the Helsinki University of Technology, an early member of the PROMISE consortium. We were involved in a project with them at the time and it was through them that we were introduced to the consortium.

What does the project aim to do?

It is addressing an industrial problem: when durable goods like refrigerators or cars leave the factory, the producers really have no idea what happens during their lifecycle. Of course, some data can be stored if you take the product to an authorised service dealer but in most cases this does not happen.

What we want to do is provide information throughout a product’s lifecycle – when is it serviced, what parts are being changed, what the condition of the product in its end-of-life stage is, which parts were recycled – and to feed this information back to the manufacturing and R&D process.

What is your company’s role in the process?

Trackway’s contribution is to create software that enables this tracking, so that each player involved with a product can see what the others have done.

Industrial Property (IP) implications is one of the key research areas. We have developed software that allows each participant to limit datasharing: for example, the service company might want to share the maintenance history, but not how long it took for the maintenance to be carried out.

How frequent is Trackway’s contact with the other consortium members?

It is very regular: we have weekly conference calls, regular face-toface meetings and a lot of e-mail exchanges. And, of course, we are cooperating closely with other software providers like us.

How is the project progressing?

We are 26 months into the project now and past the halfway stage. Our first products are now ready, so we shall soon start piloting them with industrial end-users like Fiat and Caterpillar. Initially, we wanted to create a generic solution which could be adapted to each product. But we quickly realised that the industrial scenarios and requirements vary greatly and that the product specifications varied too much. So, now we have adopted a modular approach: different sets of hardware and software can be combined to provide a solution that is suitable for the specific product, from consumer electronics to heavy manufacturing.

Who will get product ownership at the end?

That is quite a thorny issue. IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) agreements were made at the beginning, but as the project has changed and evolved, companies have been forced to use some of their existing IPR. The Commission has just been reviewing this issue with us. One of the aims of the project is to create an open system and standards, though it is very difficult to achieve.

What benefits has your company gained from involvement in the consortium?

The most important has been the opportunity to network. We have had such good feedback from end-users, who have been far more open than usual. As a result of being in the consortium, we have been given first-class information about industrial requirements.

Of course, the fact that the project is Europe-wide has created some practical problems from the project management side. It has involved a lot of travel, and companies are in different time zones. But there are many different companies involved and we have made some good contacts that we intend to develop into working relationships outside the project. Finally, we plan to commercialise our own product solutions here in Scandinavia, by using the different modules that have been developed, once the IPR issues have been resolved, of course.

How do you see the future?

The project deadline is very clear. If the consortium wants to continue after that, we need to look for different, commercial-focused funding. On the plus side, the prospects look good, we are on schedule and I remain optimistic about the results we can achieve.