By Barb Schmitz, Senior Editor
The highly dispersed and globalized nature of product development has drastically changed the way products are developed. It has also dramatically increased the need for effective and safe ways to collaborate on product designs from the earliest concept phases through to final detailed design.
Product design and development today is largely a global effort. Global design teams must work together and collaborate on designs across times zones as well as geographical, cultural and functional borders. Though global design efforts can yield long-term benefits, they also add new communication, control and collaboration challenges as well as increased risk of IP theft.
As a result of these changes, the ability to efficiently and securely collaborate with design participants and supply chain partners has become increasingly critical. Without the right tools and standardized processes in place, effective collaboration between global design teams becomes nearly impossible.
Challenges in collaboration
Collaboration needs vary from company to company and depend upon the complexities of the product development process and supply chain. Increased outsourcing has lead to a greater need for collaboration tools as has the extension of design teams to non-engineering members.
Without effective tools for collaboration, organizations take longer to make decisions, waste money on repetitive tasks, make more errors, and have less visibility into design processes. Conversely, collaboration enables companies to increase accountability for tasks, maintain control over flexible processes to ensure quality compliance and reduce or more accurately understand costs.
The most common collaboration challenges include the need to:
• Manage manufacturing partners in disparate geographic locations
• Coordinate distributed product design teams with external customers, consultants and suppliers
• Maintain specification and model version control throughout design cycle
• Overcome challenges of coordinating efforts of multidisciplinary teams
• Find ways of communicating in lieu of face-to-face meetings
• Protect design IP while sharing design data
If manufacturers use unreliable communication methods, such as the manual transfer of design data between disparate systems, then effective collaboration cannot happen, resulting in confusion, mistakes and costly delays. In addition, using antiquated means of collaborating, such as email attachments, FTP sites, or DropBox can open up organizations to IP security issues and miscommunication.
Despite these issues, many organizations are still relying on those tools in order to collaborate with those outside of their firewall. Kevin Schneider, director of Fusion 360 at Autodesk, has talked to many Autodesk customers to determine some of the business challenges they were having and found that the means by which companies were collaborating was in his words “flabbergasting.”
Schneider described a common scenario of how companies are using a menagerie of tools to collaborate and share data with others. “Some companies actually use PowerPoint and FTP sites for redline and markup processes,” said Schneider. “They put pictures of the various designs in slides and use PowerPoint between manufacturing, the contractor and the design firm to mark up the images as ways of documenting decisions.”
Stephen Endersby, senior Product Portfolio Manager at SolidWorks, has also seen many of these same shortcomings when file-sharing tools are used for collaboration. “With pressure on time during the product development process, collaboration has to be dynamic and interactive between team members,” said Endersby. “File sharing tools cannot meet this collaboration need.”
Jon Stevenson, the VP of Technology at GrabCAD, saw first-hand the problems engineers were having with current collaboration tools—or a lack thereof—when developing the company’s Workbench product. “We were seeing companies using tools such as DropBox, FTP sites or email attachments to share files,” said Stevenson. “Engineers need to be able to communicate and collaborate in the context of the 3D model.”
Requirements for collaboration
Safe and effective design collaboration requires digital environments that support communication and coordination as well as facilitate leveraging cross-disciplinary ideas, knowledge transfer between design team members, and the secure sharing of digital design data between parties.
Maintaining control of who can see and/or modify product data is also an extremely critical component of collaborative design tools. “You must be able to control the access and visibility of the data and conversations that go on in your collaborative spaces,” said Endersby. “This control has to be easy to manage and deploy on a day-to-day basis. Security and accessibility go hand in hand with collaboration tools.”
In addition, the data must be accessible 24/7. With today’s geographically dispersed design teams spread over multiple zones, the ability of design participants to access design data anytime from anywhere takes on paramount importance. “The modern work period is no longer limited to the traditional 9-5 Monday to Friday, so this information has to be available at anytime from anywhere,” said Endersby.
Establishing a single data source for design data is also essential. Enabling all design team members to have instant and secure access to the data they need—when they need it—keeps projects on schedule and streamlines review cycles.
PDM systems provide a digital infrastructure that facilitates collaboration among cross-disciplinary team members and provides a way to trace sharing of product data, maintaining version control and keeping IP secure. Expense, however, is often cited as a reason why the majority of small- to mid-sized companies still have no data management system in place.
“PDM can be expensive and hard to deploy and administer,” said Stevenson. “That’s a cost that a lot of engineering departments can’t absorb. If you only have 5-10 seats of CAD, it’s hard to justify spending $50K on PDM software.”
Collaboration in the cloud
More and more software is now being ported to the cloud. Cloud implementations offer many benefits, such as lower costs, faster deployment, lower maintenance costs and increased scalability. Via the cloud, design participants can access, download and edit shared models (even really large models) anytime from anywhere with Internet access.
Several vendors have ported solutions to the cloud that can be used for design collaboration. GradCAD’s Workbench is a cloud-based collaborative product development platform that enables users to manage, share and view CAD models with no upfront—or ongoing—IT investment.
Approximately 35,000 users are already signed up and are using Workbench to collaborate and share CAD models with suppliers, customers and partners. Stevenson says that product’s functionality was developed in direct response to the shortcomings of the tools being used today for collaboration.
“We set out to build a system that was low risk, easy to get up and running within a day without the assistance of IT department, was secure and one that enables you to easily share files with people outside of engineering within your company or outside of your corporate firewall,” said Stevenson.
Autodesk 360 is another cloud-based platform that can be used for collaboration purposes. Users simply upload a project file to Autodesk 360 with any type of data—not just design of Autodesk file types. The person who sets up the project can determine who has access, where it resides, and how it is retrieved.
There are concerns regarding hosting intellectual property on the cloud and outside the confines of the corporate firewall. Autodesk’s Schneider believes that these fears regarding security will lessen as people become more educated about the cloud.
“I’ve visited with customers who will berate me with security concerns regarding the cloud, and yet that very same engineer will take a model and attach it to his Gmail account and email it to me,” said Schneider. “So there’s a bit of education that will happen over time. People are afraid of change but I think over time, people will get more comfortable with it. We’re not seeing security as a barrier to success.”
SolidWorks has also introduced a collaborative design environment with its Mechanical Conceptual product, which shipped in April. This cloud-based, secure collaborative environment enables users to work together on the same assembly design simultaneously, with automatic locking and real-time updates to ensure version control. Users collaborate through chat, screen capture and on-screen annotation. Project authors can define access permissions to secure IP.
“Mechanical Conceptual enables ‘unstructured’ collaboration through the online communities where all stakeholders can comment and the design ‘story’ is captured in chronological order so you have a single document that describes and details any design decision or review,” said Endersby. “The review process is now no longer a roadblock to design but rather a benefit. By embedding the online communities within the design environment, designers can see and incorporate feedback into their designs on the fly resulting in rapid design progression.”
Engineers Using Mishmash of Tools to Collaborate
Design teams are currently using a combination of tools to share files, all of which are inadequate for various reasons. Let’s look at each one:
Pros: Easy and fast way to share files with others.
Cons: Typically not approved by IT departments; people commonly make mistakes when using, which can lead to inadvertent file sharing. Renaming files can corrupt the CAD assembly since many CAD programs rely on files having specific names.
Pros: Fast and efficient way to transfer large amounts of data; enables some control over transfer; and has an automatic backup.
Cons: Not designed to be a secure protocol; no encryption of data; requires IT assistance.
Pros: Enables easy access, safe sharing and file version control for engineering departments.
Cons: Expensive; can be hard to deploy and administer. Requires IT assistance.