Seeing into the future: Eureka asks three CAD companies what they see as emerging technologies

It is that time of year when new releases from CAD vendors hit the market and these are interesting times. Many are talking paradigm shifts, future trends, and the new and unique capability on offer to move design and engineering forward.

What is interesting is that there doesn't seem to be much commonality between the vendors and many of them are embracing radically different philosophies in their approach, resulting in some really new and unique offerings.

The explosion of mobile markets and social networks is something PTC wants to capitalise on. It has recently launched Windchill mobile available from the Apple App store, with plans to soon make it available on Android and Windows mobile.

Taking on another trend, the rise of social media, the company is keen to introduce Facebook and Forum-esque style features and functionality to its PLM system which it's calling SocialLink. It has already introduced this in Windchill and hopes to cement the idea, and practice, in Creo later this year.

The use of social media for commercial purposes is something that is definitely increasing and many companies are trying to embrace it. Chances are if you are over 50, you think it is a waste of time. If you are under 30 you can't imagine working without it. And those of us in between are very much that, somewhere in the middle trying to make it work. The philosophy of improved web functionality broadly comes under what is being dubbed web 2.0, and the leveraging of social media in the workplace is, in turn, being called enterprise 2.0. PTC believes a paradigm shift is upon us where we are moving away from email and in to social networks.

"In general, industry has been hesitant about this," says David Blair, Vice President of emerging technology at PTC. "But increasingly we have CIO's coming in with iPad's. They recognise the value and understand the world has gone mobile.

"The future of product design needs to better leverage the people in companies. Rather than ask the person next to you, imagine if you could reach out to people across the company. While email is great, you have to know who to send it to."

Many SocialLink features have Twitter style functions so you can target a specific user using the @ sign (@eureka), parts can be 'hashtagged' so they are grouped topics (#designsoftware), and people can choose to follow specific projects and people and get notifications around these.

The idea is that users have profiles which they assign to networks. You might have product specific ones, and technology specific ones like plastics. But the system is also intelligent and will store previous projects that are all searchable, so people can see if anyone else has designed something similar, seen previous problems and contact those individuals if necessary.

"People can share ideas, ask questions and problem solve," says Blair. "The product manager can write a blog rather than send out a weekly email to say how the project is doing, communities around plastics can share best practices, or if you are stuck use it as a online digital suggestion box."

The value is that if you have a problem involving a plastic mould for example, you can post it, and everyone in your company who has plastic expertise or follows the plastic network can see it and offer help. It could be an engineer in another country that you would never have known about that can help. It could be the manufacturing plant that designers never usually here from that can offer advice on what would be best in terms of manufacturability.

PTC wants to make it very easy to use Winchill and Creo as an enterprise 2.0 system and has very much embedded its functionality within these systems. It will be one button to post, follow or comment. Of course, security and sensitivity of who can see what, can be – and should be – managed and would need to be put in place. How much this will add to productivity and how much this will act as a medium for procrastination remains to be seen.
But the fact is, enterprise 2.0 type systems are likely to become much more embedded in working practices in the future.

But, this philosophy of interconnectivity by PTC's PLM system is not shared by relative newcomers to the CAD industry, Space Claim. It has recently launched Space Claim 2012, its ninth release since the company was launched five years ago.

Space Claim wants to offer a CAD system that keeps its functionality while being easy to use. It says that out of the 25million mechanical engineers on the planet, only 1million are actually CAD users. It sees that as an enormous untapped market with big potential for its product.

Peter Kelly, sales director of Northern Europe at Space Claim, says: "Everyone is bringing products to market that are easier to use, but we are still a factor of 10 or 20 times easier. When you talk about 3D geometry along the engineering process you have got a draughting team and you have got other engineers that need to be involved but sometimes struggle to really get on with the really complex systems. That is our general fit."

Space Claim philosophy is to remove as much 'bureaucracy' as possible from the design process and keep its software simple, easy to use and highly interoperable with other CAD systems. It wants to give engineers tools that ensure they spend most of their time designing and the least amount of time inputting geometry.
But its software is still capable of performing complex engineering tasks. It uses direct modelling which is intuitive, allowing non-specialist users to simply click on objects to move them, pull them, make bigger or smaller, and has many normal Window-style functions such as undo.

Blake Courter co-founded of Space Claim says: "It seems like a really simple idea but it is not the way that CAD has worked. It is a very hard problem to solve but we have solved it in a number of ways. We are interoperable with everybody. But that is more than just geometry; it levels the playing field as everyone can work with everyone else's data."

In simulations, for example, Courter says Space Claim is being used as a preparation tool for setting up the simulation and getting geometry ready for meshing. "A lot of simulation users have to start from scratch as they can't reuse the CAD data," he says. "When they hear from Space Claim that they can actually reuse the CAD data it saves them a lot of time."

Autodesk has also recently launched software in the form of its cloud based PLM system, Autodesk PLM 360. The company has taken a u-turn, previously vowing never to enter the PLM market.

A frequent criticism of PLM is that the bureaucracy of it all can lead to diminishing returns, with people getting lost in box ticking exercises, data entry and performance analysis. The fact that so much data needs to be managed can detract from the original point of it all; problem solving, designing and adding value.

But Steven Bodner, VP of product development for Autodesk PLM 360, disagrees. He says: "Talk to the compliance manager or the VP of quality or someone in finance who is in charge of supplier management. It is a very different story and we hear that these systems become much more enabling."

Autodesk say the fact it has never done PLM before is one of its greatest assets. It doesn't have any heritage, or baggage, to carry around. It can take a fresh approach. Autodesk defines its PLM system in broad terms and includes business applications, project management, requirements management, quality management, compliance, field service and warranty to name a few.

"We found in many cases people implement a PLM system but all they really use it for is PDM," says Bodnar. "They could get all kinds of value out of adopting our PLM solution while using another system for its PDM activities."

While PTC is looking in to possibilities of cloud based systems, it is not making the leap just yet. And the same should be said from a social media point of view for Autodesk. While it has carried out a project called project Blue Streak which allows users to comment on designs and easier online collaborate, it is not committing just yet.

"We have the idea of social screens in our PLM product," says Bodnar, "though we have not turned on the switch to that part yet. We don't want to try and force yet another social system on people. I already use at least six. Do I really want another one? We'll let users plug in which ever one they want instead of forcing ours specifically on them."

Justin Cunningham

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