Escape to CADtopia

interoperateLast 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?

The answer may lie in digital stewardship. But what, pray tell, is digital stewardship? Jaime McCurry of the Folger Shakespeare Library of all places, lays down the concept, albeit not in iambic pentameter:

“Digital stewardship encompasses all activities related to the care and management of digital objects over time. Proper digital stewardship addresses all phases of the digital object lifecycle: from digital asset conception, creation, appraisal, description, and preservation, to accessibility, reuse, and beyond. This includes everything from choosing a well-documented and widely accepted file format when creating a new object to choosing the right metadata schema to describe the object properly, not to mention storing multiple copies of the digital object file in a variety of locations to combat threats of data loss or corruption.”

The underlying concept of digital stewardship is often practiced in the CAD world, at least a bastardized poor man’s variant thereof, something perhaps worthy of post apocalyptic southern California. In order to manage multi-CAD design data spread across all manner of platforms and time periods, many companies resort to an obtuse, but workable strategy: install all the things. That’s right, it’s not too uncommon to retain one seat of every CAD system or version used in the past on hand, and not to open a museum, either. Need that file from 1996? Let’s fire up that old Sun workstation in the basement and hope for the best.

If such CAD antics are just a Band-Aid solution, what does real digital stewardship look like? Leave it to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign to provide some succinct concepts with respect to file formats:

“Our ability to preserve digital objects is dependent, among other things, on whether the file format used:

•Is openly documented (more preservable) or proprietary (less preservable);

•Is supported by a range of software platforms (more preservable) or by only one (less preservable);

•Is widely adopted (more preservable) or has low use (less preservable);

•Is lossless data compression (more preservable) or lossy data compression (less preservable); and

•Contains embedded files or embedded programs/scripts, like macros (less preservable).”

Along with the statement above, they provide a handy matrix:


The short, short version: open and fully documented formats are best, preferably unencumbered by licensing. In other words, completely opposite of what the CAD world is today. We’ve established in last week’s article that moving towards such a high-brow data retention concept will not happen organically. That’s where the coercion component comes in, i.e. government regulation in the name of digital stewardship. But how can such a thing be remotely justified? As product complexity continues to rise, the long-term integrity of design data continues to rise in importance, especially in relation to consumer protection and safety. The criticality of digital stewardship scales with the service life of the design and the consequences of failure. So perhaps the canary for future digital stewardship lies in the longest lived, most complex products where human life is very much a strong consideration: aircraft. Witness the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s Advisory Circular 21-48 (best read with a furrowed brow and a restrained frown):

How will the data integrity be assured throughout its life cycle? Include a process to verify and ensure that data integrity and continued access is maintained during hardware and software upgrades and conversions, system maintenance, and other life-cycle activity. Once the data is approved by the FAA, it must not be altered. This doesn’t prevent amendments to the design if the amended design is separately identified, approved, and maintained. Type design data must be retained and accessible for the lifespan of the product. It is possible that technical support for the original software will be terminated during the product lifespan, so your procedures manual must explain how access to the data will be retained or transitioned to a new software system.”

That’s pretty heavy. Requirements for full preservation without alteration. The only way to effectively accomplish this over the long term is by utilizing an open and fully documented format, unencumbered by licensing. The bigger question to ask: will this remain in the narrow purview of type certified aircraft or is this a harbinger of regulations to come? It’s not unfathomable that this begins to trickle into automobiles, and wearables/implantables, among other things. Will that be enough to coerce the CAD market to respond?