Collaboration is vital to any engineering process, but the actual mechanics of such collaboration can vary widely both in theory and in practice. Not helping at all is the fact that the term itself has been long hijacked as a piece of technical vocabulary, serving to push new products and features in a protracted marketing war including PDM, PLM, ERP, and ECM, and now CAD. When we throw “real time” in there, confusion mounts as to what exactly that is supposed to imply. More specifically what does that mean for engineering? Do engineers want it? Will it work? Morpheus might say that collaboration is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. For purely creative and/or artistic ventures collaboration can be organic, boundless. For engineering however, collaboration must necessarily be coupled with a critically important concept: change management.
Almost a decade-and-a-half after ANSI 14.41 first saw the light of day, many had predicted by now that the bulk of the engineering world would have adopted Model Based Definition (MBD) by now with open arms. And while there are isolated pockets of success, the overall engineering documentation landscape looks remarkably undisturbed from 2003. In fact, if you pick up your average engineering drawing, you might feel like you’re holding a time capsule, noting what little has practically changed since draftsmen laboriously hacked things out manually back in the mid twentieth century. The only true consolation is the non-associative drawing fakery that plagued early CAD drawings has been all but banished, the relationship between model and drawing has never been tighter. In case you’ve been hiding under an oordinate dimension, CAD is in a bit of a renaissance lately, with all the hoopla generated from the rise of new-fangled cloud-centric products like Fusion 360, Onshape and others. While these new platforms present a great opportunity to take a leap forward in MBD, it’s just not happening. Did MBD just miss a very important boat? Gilligan!
There are two steadily falling barriers in the Computer Aided Design (CAD) universe: the barrier of entry to develop a new CAD platform and the barrier of accessibility to actually learn and use such software. This revolution stands to grant virtually anyone the access to the power of CAD software, be they a hobbyist, tinkerer, chartered accountant, or reasonably intelligent canine. It is a democratization of the industry, where complex tools relevant only to specialists are supplemented, but not necessarily wholly displaced, with simpler paradigms relevant to everyone. The entire industry stands to benefit, as more and more people become proficient in 3D design, free to manipulate and even additively manufacture what they can imagine. Among the entrants in this simpler, more accessible paradigm is SolidFace, which up to now has been a rather affordable yet capable desktop CAD package. But now SolidFace is moving onward up into to the cloud via their new effort, Solid Share. And they’re now looking to Kickstarter and all of you for help.
In the spray-on chrome frenzy to banish the very concept of perpetual software licenses before anyone stops to think and/or notice, professional authoring software is fully embracing cloud subscription Valhalla, with Adobe infamously leading the way. Considering Adobe’s bold push into cloud has netted them cartoonish amounts of cash, established CAD vendors who were cautiously dipping into subscription models are no doubt looking redeem themselves. After all, what works for creative workflows should work for engineering, right? While Adobe successfully squashed early Creative Cloud resistance by deep discounting and even providing a dedicated Photography plan, long-term affordability is about as likely as a far away green place. On the engineering front, however, resistance to cloud subscriptions is more resolute. Do not, my friends, become addicted to the cloud. It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence! Which leaves an important question: Is there still room to innovate with cloud subscription models?
The amount of choice in the ever-expanding CAD universe is not without a strong caveat: the persistent interoperability woes for which no one authoring solution can fully conquer. CAD interoperability is treated as an incurable disease, the unfortunate cost of doing business within a diverse supply chain of industry conglomerates and nimble design shops adrift in an ocean of variable formats and constantly flowing technology. Coping mechanisms are in abundant supply, be it a variety of neutral formats, direct modeling tools, direct and indirect translation, or the good old brute force method: old-school remodeling. But the pain remains. Reliable direct translation seems to be the preferable solution, especially with regards to preserving design intent, but things are not quite so simple. When it comes to properly handling the abundance of CAD file formats in the wild, engineers and companies too often find themselves staring longingly through a window across a foreign landscape, knowing they are hopelessly lost in CAD translation.
Traditional Product Data Management (PDM) has been under a protracted siege on multiple fronts. From the West, the cloud invasion approaches, with the technology potential to reduce traditional PDM in all its file-handling, server-dependent glory into little more than a forgotten curiosity. From the East march legions of engineers who despise PDM in their very hearts. They feel justifiably wronged by the pains that traditional PDM has wrought upon them. As engineering focused IT resources give way to outsourced interests, PDM’s list of allies grows thin. Not that such allies were particularly strong to begin with, especially among freelancers and small business forever unaligned with traditional PDM. Now, from the cloud ranks comes a new battle cry, as CAD upstart Onshape greets the world with a first ever blog. There’s some exciting stuff in that first post for certain (for which I’ll be writing more soon), but there’s also one particular conceit buried in the comments: that a truly cloud-native CAD platform can break all bonds with PDM. PDM is defeated, the evil reign is… now hold on a minute.
Last time we basked in the hypothetical bliss of CADtopia, imagining a Computer Aided Design (CAD) landscape devoid of today’s interoperability nightmare (and conveniently supervised by Jodie Foster). In that mental exercise, we were reminded that these bitter and largely inconvenient CAD realities persist due to seemingly insurmountable market forces. Whether it’s standardization efforts that can’t possibly keep pace with the explosion of modeling technologies and platforms, or vendors naturally resisting truly transparent interoperability on account of their own survival, we remain entrenched in old problems. It’s enough to make you seriously consider bolting some crudely designed exo-suit in to the back of your skull and going all Jason Bourne over everything in protest of interoperability injustice. Why can’t we all be citizens of CADtopia? So the question still remains, if the market cannot decide to change for reasons of self-preservation, can it possibly be coerced?
CADtopia must be a really nice place. All that endless storage, all those panoramic holographic displays, and not even a passing thought about CAD interoperability. Jodie Foster is probably on staff to ensure that all geometry and product structure information is passed along via a ubiquitous standard format. She remains ever watchful of unauthorized IGES use, or perhaps illegals translating data from one proprietary format to another. Violations result in revocation of citizenship, or in the case of illegals, the issue is efficiently resolved with armed robots, irritable mercenaries, or space missiles. Everything runs smoothly in CADtopia, and no one wastes any time re-examining translation chains or healing geometry. Then suddenly we wake up… Only to face the bitter reality: the persistent ridiculousness that is CAD interoperability today. CADtopia is but a dream.