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Context, Foundations and Impact of Cyber-Physical Systems

What opportunities are provided by CPS?

martint Monday September 11, 2017

The development of Cyber-Physical Systems can be seen as driven by business opportunities (compare for example with the investments into autonomous vehicles), societal drivers (if applied wisely CPS can assist in dealing with societal challenges, motivating e.g. research investments), and by technology push, i.e. innovation driven by technological advancements. Opportunities and challenges in various application domains are further elaborated in a number of CPS roadmaps, see e.g. those collected here.

In this posting I will discuss the capabilities provided by CPS technology, and why these capabilities open up such a huge span of applications and opportunities. Essentially, CPS represents opportunities to synergistically draw upon and fuse advances in both the cyber and physical domains, including for example in electronics, communication, software, materials, sensing and actuation. This fusion of cyber and physical capabilities, in turn enable (at least) the following CPS capabilities:

  • Self-awareness and self-control. CPS enables the development of “smart” components and systems in the sense that physical components with integrated electronics and software will be able to provide self-identification and other pre-stored information, self-control in terms of local action through sensing, computation and control, and ultimately self-awareness (using sensors and local diagnostics to assess the state of it-self). Self-control may include nominal operation as well as taking specific actions, e.g. stopping, when the system detects internal errors.
  • Sensing and understanding the environment. As a complement to internal sensors, a CPS equipped with sensors to sense the external environment, will to some extent be able to perceive what is going on in the environment. Pre-defined models and dynamic updates of them further improves the capabilities of the system to interpret and understand what surrounds the system and what is going on.
  • Interactions among components and systems. Communication enables systems to share data and to engage in collaboration with other systems, and further to update data and programs. Collaboration may involve static or dynamic system formation where the tasks at hand will impose requirements on communication and synchronization (facilitated by clock synchronization and GPS). Communication also enables load sharing and access to a variety of services such as compute infrastructures.
  • Human machine interaction. Advances in virtual and augmented reality including visualization provide new opportunities for CPS to convey valuable additional information to humans, e.g. to support decision making.
  • Synthesis of physical and abstract things. Computer aided manufacturing is not new but is breaking new ground through additive manufacturing, connectivity, sensing and computation. Combining geometry scanning with 3D-printing enables synthesis of tailor made details, such as shoes. Synthesis of abstract entities may include documentation and (suggested) decisions.


The huge opportunities for CPS derive not only from these listed basic capabilities. Combining them makes it possible to develop and provide even further sophisticated services and information. The services can be orchestrated to provide semi- or fully automated processes. Connectivity enables to draw upon, and coordinate with services available world-wide. These capabilities can cover parts, or larger portions, of entire life-cycle processes, and the use of accumulated data paves the way for learning and improvements over the life-cycle. Finally, on the horizon lies the promise of super-human reasoning capabilities through AI.

In summary, these capabilities at different levels provide unprecedented opportunities for innovation, within and across existing as well as new application domains. Innovation may be further strengthened by considering new or non-traditional business models for CPS, such as providing transportation services instead of vehicles (“servitization”). I believe that in many cases this will come not only natural (from a business opportunity point of view) but also be necessary due to the increasing complexity of the CPS, requiring stricter maintenance and system supervision.