Are engineering software developers pushing the collaboration envelope so that distributed users can edit complex 3D models at the same time?
Ever since the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, many CAD/CAE/CAM companies have been trying to leverage online technologies so users in distributed environments can “get more social” to improve their designs. For example, years ago, CAD software already featured tools such as embedded chat that let users communicate with each other remotely one-on-one or in small groups. Currently, many packages include hooks to social media tools such as YouTube videos and online forums. In fact, individuals in all areas of CAD are engaging with each other like never before and it is social utilities on the Web making this possible.
But what about pushing the social collaboration envelope by giving remote users the capability to edit complex 3D models online at the same time? This idea actually arose as early as the mid-1990s with the former CoCreate, which ran its CAD software on a server, developing a system that let team members control the cursor and thereby work concurrently.
Nanosoft’s Evan Yares said, “Previous collaboration features were technically interesting, but they failed to impact the market. However, improved standards along with other more advanced enterprise applications might now make the concept more realistic. In fact, current research at Brigham Young University uses existing high-end CAD packages and ties them together with a ‘game engine’ framework. Students work together as if in a multiplayer game to edit 3D models while wearing headsets that let them talk together as they work. The researchers claim that such simultaneous group access leads to significant productivity improvements.”
To understand the concept better, consider the simple analogy of editing a document in Google Docs, a cloud-based application that lets enabled users simultaneously open and edit a document from anywhere. The approach works well as long as measures are in place to prevent users’ edits from “colliding.” But editing a CAD model poses more challenges because models are often built using a recipe of uniquely related and ordered features. Any change in a defining parameter by an uninformed user could cause the model to crash.
This all begs the question: Has the rise of more advanced technology caused major developers to create tools to support the concurrent editing of complex 3D models?
Asynchronous collaboration on the forefront
“As described, concurrent collaboration is cutting edge because most engineers don’t see the value of editing a 3D CAD model simultaneously with other users,” said Rob Stevens, VP of Sales and Marketing, of the online site GrabCAD. “Our service is mostly asynchronous.”
Basically, GrabCAD lets users upload and download free CAD models—not exactly a new concept—but the company has a slightly different take. Say a bike frame manufacturer is designing a frame and wants to put wheels on it. Although the company doesn’t make or sell wheels, it spends the time to design the wheels anyway just to be able to showcase the model. In GrabCAD’s approach, because users have already uploaded models of bike wheels, the bike manufacturer merely needs to find an appropriate model to put wheels on its bike.
“From the collaboration angle, our users are professional engineers who want to share their designs with a small group and work together on a project,” said Stevens. So that everyone in the world can’t see the work, we launched Workbench, a private visualization tool for CAD.”
The tool lets designers start a project online and drag files like a CAD model, image, and movie into a project. Designers type in the email addresses of those they want to share the design with, providing a link to the design. Clicking on the link lets group members see the model displayed on their Web browser. They can spin, rotate, section, and measure the model, and even sketch on it. And with the recent integration of GrabCAD with Autodesk’s cloud-based AutoCAD 360 and Fusion 360, the members of the GrabCAD community can now edit their models in 2D and 3D, both in the public Library models and private Workbench models.
The site makes for a productivity improvement over how many engineers today collaborate, said Stevens. “For instance, designers might take screenshots, paste them on a PowerPoint and email them to the team. The ensuing feedback helps the designer reinterpret the model. This approach is inefficient and time consuming.”
“GrabCAD is almost like a Facebook because it includes a stream of comments about a design. Users can leave for a day, come back, login and see that ‘Bob’ uploaded a new version of a design, ‘Sarah’ didn’t like the color, and ‘Henry’ says it’s too expensive to manufacture. All this is happening in a secure location.”
According to Stevens, the company provides some synchronous tools that let users see who is online, but users are more interested in asynchronous features.
“That’s because it’s rare for everyone to be online at the same time,” he said. “What companies are really worried about is how to move projects forward faster by avoiding the lengthy delay of getting busy engineers to take screenshots.”
Stevens believes the idea of real-time gamification is probably two steps ahead of industry. “Traditionally, engineering has been very closed,” he said. “Twenty years ago, mechanical engineers just sat at their desks and created designs. Engineers attended big design review meetings where everyone shouted out comments, then went back to their desks. It was solitary work. That is starting to change, with engineers using online communities and crowdsourcing for ideas and talent. But getting designers to share their CAD model with anybody at all is in itself a big a step. The next phase might be doing this in real time, which probably has a relatively narrow application right now.”
Getting designs to market quickly
CAD going social in the sense of real-time design and collaboration is an interesting topic because it narrows down the idea of ‘social media,’ which most engineers think of as fluffy,” said SVP and General Manager of Mainstream Engineering at Siemens, Karsten Newbury. “Most CAD companies try to build software that addresses engineers’ challenges. This dictates the approach companies take in developing tools.”
According to Newbury, in looking at collaborative design, the biggest challenge engineers face is to get their job done. “Most designs today involve multiple parties across the supply chain or multiple entities within the company, so working together on a design productively and efficiently is critical,” he said. “We think the right direction is probably a mix of the asynchronous and concurrent approaches.”
Collaboration in most companies is driven by the need to get designs to market ever more quickly, said Newbury. “The capability to react quickly is important mostly because of the rise of mass customization,” he said. “Customers want their own personal flavor of a standard product. The more a company can meet that demand, the bigger the competitive edge it will have.”
A significant challenge to collaboration is model reuse. “When companies want to change designs quickly, they need to have the capability to reuse designs, not reinvent them from scratch,” said Newbury. “Unfortunately, engineers must often recreate designs from scratch because it’s hard to understand the design intent of someone else’s initial model. Technologies such as our Synchronous Technology (an advanced form of direct modeling) in Solid Edge make it easier to reuse existing data in different designs by letting users create designs without worrying about the history tree. Multiple individuals, therefore, can make changes and don’t have to fear that the model will crash. Whether the approach is offline and iterative or more and more real time, changing data independent of its source without breaking the model is paramount in supporting efficient collaboration.”
To help address these challenges, Solid Edge also integrates with GrabCAD, a secure community, which offers an offline-online combination that makes a lot of sense, said Newbury. “Of course the word ‘secure’ is important here. Should a company expose a design to an open community, the company would obviously risk having its intellectual property stolen.”
Also, collaborative design benefits from in-context learning. “In the typical sense of CAD going social, Solid Edge now includes built-in YouTube functionality. Designers can use Solid Edge as a YouTube recorder to share a design problem with another user, or as a search engine to find a video that addresses a problem,” said Newbury. “And we just started an online community, which is monitored by experts, where users can post questions and get answers in real time.”
For synchronization in a multi-user environment, although the technology today doesn’t support concurrent collaboration, a SolidEdge plug-in leverages Microsoft SharePoint (of course, other software does this as well). “The tool leverages SharePoint as its ‘source of truth’ so an updated model ‘knows’ when a change has been made. This allows for data integrity, up-to-date models and effective collaboration. The real question is how concurrent collaboration really needs to be to maximize productivity while avoiding design conflicts,” said Newbury.
Addressing the problem of different workflows
According to Rob Maguire, senior product manager of AutoCAD, “The social angle is one piece of collaborative design. For example, our AutoCAD 360 software supports the simultaneous editing of DWG files in an online, browser-based context.”
Autodesk and some of its customers do use gaming engines, not for real-time editing, but for visualization, said Maguire. “For example, in the design of the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium, the architects used a gaming engine to load in AutoCAD and 3D Studio Max models that let them visualize the line of sight to the field from every seat in the house,” he said. “Abstracting this approach could lead to concurrent editing.”
Another AutoCAD feature called Design Feed allows users to associate comments with specific points or areas inside a given drawing. For instance, say the drawing is of a set of stairs. A user can take a picture of the physical stairs and associate it with the AutoCAD drawing by adding the photo to a comment in the Design Feed. Comments about the design are sent through an email feature and are spatially located in the drawing to help users resolve problems and add context.
“However, concurrency based workflows raise a lot of questions when it applies to complex 3D models,” said Maguire. “For example, CAD users expect data integrity and must have a high confidence that all of their changes are pristine. Because of potential editing conflicts, a more sophisticated sort of transactional model is needed—such as a product data management (PDM) system—than currently provided. Without PDM in place to manage the 3D data, a human is needed to make a judgment call and pull everything together, which can lead to mistakes in large assembly environments. The trick is developing a program that provides high data confidence in an easy to use, accessible way.”
It is difficult to generalize the process of concurrent editing because each workflow is a little bit different, said Maguire. “For example, say a group is collaborating on designing new restaurants for a popular fast food chain. Because the chain restaurants are almost all alike, with similar roofs, signs and the like, they are a configurator type of design. Contrast that to the design for a car engine. When a hundred people are working on the design, the tolerance for error is much less and the need for collaboration is much higher. What happens when a manufacturing engineer changes a feature and a performance designer changes the feature to something else at the same time? Creating software that can resolve these kinds of conflicts is a large task but perhaps might become possible in limited cases for specific industries and workflows.”