Tony Stark’s PLM

ElonStarkElon Musk, everyone’s favorite real-life Tony Stark equivalent, recently unveiled a video touting The “Future of Design”, complete with a gestural motion 3D CAD interface and some metallic additive manufacturing thrown in at the end for good measure.  While neither Elon himself, nor his pioneering SpaceX engineers are directly responsible for any of the specific technologies involved, their compelling mashup has been quite popular on the interwebs.

The point of the demo, other than fabulous PR, is to emphasize that technologies for intuitively manipulating 3D design are here now.   The fact the mashup exists without really having to invent anything is evidence enough.  The ideas only need refinement and a healthy dose of iterative development to bring about some interesting new UI innovations.

Of course, the internet being the way that it is (meaning dysfunctional), most of the reaction to this particular demo is quite severely polarized.  One the one hand you have something like:

“OMG!  Elon is a wizard and will save us all and take us to Mars on his electric hyper banana!”

And on the other side of the equation you have:

“Leap Motion sucks.  I can’t think of any way to further erode my CAD productivity short of cutting off my arm.”

It’s true the demo is rudimentary, really limited to spinning and sectioning an existing model via a Leap Motion controller plugged into Siemens NX via an existing API.  The controller interprets Elon’s hand waving which in turn become control inputs for NX’s existing visualization.  Perhaps the demo, some might argue, should have been called “A somewhat cool new CAD Viewing technique.”  Of course, such accuracy would have negatively impacted the amount of fabulous PR generated.  Grafted in towards the end of the presentation are some nods to Occulus Rift, as well as  laser sintering on an EOS printer.  Both are very cool technologies all by themselves, but not really the core focus of the discussion.

Of particular interest is the response from some CAD users, who are quick to point out that the technology is problematic, imprecise, and would be wholly inappropriate for actual design use.  After all, finely manipulating edge curves or changing parametric expressions with hand waving is far more challenging than spinning the model randomly.  Many rightly point out that holding out your arms to the screen for any length of time is likely going to hurt quite a bit.  However, condemning a technology in its infancy is premature, the ergonomics of precision motion control seems to be a solvable problem.  The mouse is not the final stop on this technology train.

Those inclined to clutch their mice until the end of all things, are no doubt channeling a prior generation’s genetic memory.   It wasn’t that long ago where skeptical engineers shook their T-squares at the utterly ridiculous notion that the future of design involved “clicking” line endpoints with electrons on a CRT.  Just like young engineers today who probably can’t draw a straight line to save their life, so too will newer generations be completely incapable of using menus and mice.  Get ready for it.

The impending rise of these interface innovations, coupled with intriguing possibilities for abstracted computation and virtualization through the cloud, as well as commoditized hardware and motion controls available in game consoles,  contributes to the mounting evidence that CAD may be about to reinvent itself.

But wait a second, isn’t the title of this article Tony Stark’s PLM?

Yes, the most interesting aspect of Elon’s presentation about the future of design and manufacturing is the utter absence of any mention of PLM.  Not a peep.  Could it be because Elon’s not a big fan of process as Josh Mings aptly analyzed a while back?

As much as this demo has been compared to “Iron Man”, few have picked up on the fact that Tony Stark largely was not authoring CAD on his own.   Instead, Tony was mashing up existing design assets and data analytics with the constant aid of JARVIS.  JARVIS is Tony Stark’s PLM.  Don’t remember?  Have another look:

So to summarize, we have a popular forward-looking tech demo, modeled after “Iron Man” by a reasonable real-life approximation of Tony Stark… except JARVIS is wholly missing.  My thought is that while CAD technologies seem to be pushing forward, even SpaceX may be still be banging rocks together when it comes to PLM.