Big data, bigger possibilities – for all. UL’s Chief Digital Officer Christian Anschuetz previously discussed the promise of collecting, analyzing and interpreting vast amounts of data to democratize business decisions. But how could this data also democratize the way we test products for safety, security and sustainability before they enter the marketplace?

In this latest edition of our ongoing Q&A series, Anschuetz details how emerging technologies will create a new product lifecycle – one in which consumers play a greater role in influencing the design and manufacturing process.

Q: How do businesses benefit from the increased availability of consumer data?

A: The rise of connected technologies has put enormous power directly into the hands of consumers around the world. Consumer reliance on smartphones to search for information in a flash will increasingly influence purchasing decisions now and in the future. Everything from where a person is geographically located at any point in time to what they ordered – or considered ordering but didn’t – leaves behind a trail of “digital breadcrumbs” that gives manufacturers and brands greater insights into consumer preferences. Businesses can then build these consumer preferences into future, product design to better align with their customers’ expectations.

Q: How could the democratization of data, as we had previously discussed, lead to a democratization of product testing?

A: Technologies will continue to push the edge further – to where consumers become walking, talking, mobile sensors with the ability to better understand the world around them, both simultaneously inputting and outputting valuable data. While apps and wearables paired with smartphones have long afforded us the ability to track our health and fitness activities, sleep patterns, heart rate, food intake and more, in the very near future, even greater capabilities and technologies will be built into those connected devices.

One such promising technology is a molecular scanner within the smartphone camera that will help people to understand their environments like never before. While handheld scanners exist today, imagine someone with a severe tree nut allergy having the ability to use their smartphone in the future to scan the food they’re about to eat and quickly determine if it contains nuts. Or a person with diabetes using it to determine the sugar content of a food item in front of them before consuming it. Or whether the pill sitting on the table in front of them is an over-the-counter aspirin or something more potent. In each case, consumers can test these products before purchasing and using them.

Q: What role does the testing, inspection and certification (TIC) industry play in this new dynamic?

A: On one end, you’ve got people armed with new technologies serving as “sensors” in their environments. They benefit from an increase in useful information now readily available to them that will influence their purchasing decisions.

On the other end, you’ve got companies that will collect the data to understand how people are using their sensors: what they’re scanning, what information they’re seeking, what choices they make as a result, etc. They’re building a database of matter. But what’s missing, and where the TIC industry, including UL, fills a major gap, is in providing context to that data.

We have the ability to sit in the middle and aggregate and validate all the data, providing the insights needed to drive more informed decisions by manufacturers and brands relying on that data. In other words, we can make the database of matter, matter.

Q: How will this change consumer purchasing decisions and the types of products manufacturers bring to market?

Consumers seek out information to help make more informed purchasing decisions. Having a tool such as a molecular scanner right at their fingertips will affect their preferences, which, in turn, can influence manufacturers and merchants.

Take for example a person standing in a home improvement store picking out new flooring for a home. After she scans the laminate flooring that she is considering purchasing, she learns that it contains a chemical that will affect the air quality in her home. Knowing this could deter her purchase and she could move on to explore a less toxic product or even a different retailer altogether.

Likewise, businesses can collect and track this sensor usage data, helping manufacturers to gain insights for the next product cycle. In a sense, the consumer is testing the product and providing feedback directly to manufacturers.

Q: With consumers serving as democratized testers, is there still a need for physical lab testing?

A: In the near future, data from consumers will help drive a transition to greater digital testing capabilities, such as modeling and simulation. While this consumer data will continue to play a growing part in helping manufacturers develop and produce safer, more secure and more sustainable products, physical testing will still be a critical part of the design and manufacture of products.

No matter what technologies come online enabling greater inputs from more people, combining it with physical testing will always leave us with a more complete and holistic view of a product and the environment in which it is used. A new testing system that includes consumer data, physical tests as well as modeling and simulations will help us to understand products at a level and depth never seen before.

Q: What role can UL play in this changing landscape?

There is a fundamental societal breakdown of trust in most countries worldwide. Generally, companies with unique pieces of data do not transparently share all they know for fear another manufacturer will latch onto an insight to make their own product better. But in this every-business-for-itself scenario, we miss out on the opportunities for a more complete view, which can help us create safer products and environments.

Sitting at the center of the marketplace as a credible, independent third party aggregating vast amounts of data and making sense of it all, UL can do its part in rebuilding trust in the marketplace. Moreover, doing so could help enable a world where safer, higher quality products enter the market quicker, benefitting all.

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