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As Britain approached the end of its second month of lockdown and social distancing, prime minister Boris Johnson pinpointed manufacturing and construction as the particular industries that he felt could support a safe return to work for employees. The rest of the country, he said, should continue, if they could, to work from home, making use of the many collaboration and networking tools that have made teleworking an essential reality for millions.
The irony to all this is that collaboration and networking have been utterly intrinsic to manufacturing for over two decades now. The extended engineering teams of the 1990s, who would crowd around whiteboards or use, if they were lucky, 3D collaboration software on desktop PCs to mark up annotations on CAD/CAM engineering models generated on workstations and even mini-computers, are now fully fledged engineering enterprises with virtually every networked desktop and handheld device available.
At the heart of this evolution, if not revolution, the way in which products have been conceived, designed, manufactured and operated over these years has been through only a select number of engineering software products. Among this elite band has been SolidWorks. Part and parcel of the company’s job to address the needs of the modern engineering enterprises has been to take advantage of the almost quantum leap in networking capability that design and manufacturing teams now have at their disposal.
But let’s step back for a moment and see what the general challenge is for manufacturing.
Successful installations need to offer more than proficiency, or even excellence, during design and manufacture. There is a long list of disciplines in the modern day manufacturing process: conceptual design; initial engineering design; prototyping, including the likes of wind tunnel analysis and increasingly computational fluid dynamics; design simulation and crash tests; procurement, supply and ordering; marketing; service and maintenance; and factory production. To name but a few.
Constant collaboration and communication
The complete manufacturing process has evolved to the point where there are many interconnected disciplines taking place, often at the same time. Information availability is therefore absolutely mission-critical – each member of the team needs to have access to the right product information at the right time.
If anything goes wrong or needs adjustment, there is no “back to the drawing board” any more. In fact, not for a long while. It’s all about accessing the right type of data at the right stage in the process, meaning that all of these stages have to be completely interlinked. Indeed, their success depends on constant collaboration and communication between the various people engaged in carrying out their individual activities, who may be located virtually anywhere in the world.
Many of the modern world’s most famous engineering projects could only have been realised by bringing together talent from around the globe with a multitude of different departments and workflows in one extended, virtual team.
And it’s not just engineering and design these days – collaboration has to extend to marketing and sales so that marketable and sellable concepts are what is ultimately built and put on sale. Crucially, this information also has to extend in a business-relatable form to boardrooms. Photorealistic rendering of finished products are not just pretty pictures – they are pretty essential.
This has been the fundamental model of engineering for the past two decades. The only difference between two decades ago and now is that the design and manufacturing tools have become a lot more sophisticated and the extent of networks and their capabilities have increased commensurately. Innovation has needed to accelerate quickly as demands on manufacturers have accelerated so much as well.
Turning to cloud to keep pace with change
How quickly the design production environment is changing is not lost on Alan Prior, senior director of technical sales, EuroNorth, at SolidWorks owner Dassault Systèmes.
While acknowledging that the general model has been improved by the evolution of the capability of point solutions, he says one of the most significant changes has been that such functionality used to be available to only the largest engineering firms. Not any more, he says, thanks to the now almost pervasive nature of the cloud, for one.
“With this whole cloud and collaborative environment [have come] new startups. They might not necessarily be your SolidWorks user, but it’s exciting seeing these guys doing some of this stuff. They are very new, very innovative; they work so fast and go so quickly from idea to product. Those are the people pushing the boundaries”
Alan Prior, Dassault Systèmes
“With this whole cloud and collaborative environment [have come] new startups,” he says. “Think about electric vehicles, think about a small company that [makes] prosthetic artificial hands and things like that which are all 3D printed. Those guys are the ones that have no legacy ingrained engineering practices in terms of adopting these kinds of technologies.
“They might not necessarily be your SolidWorks user, but it’s exciting seeing these guys doing some of this stuff. They are very new, very innovative; they work so fast and go so quickly from idea to product. Those are the people pushing the boundaries. I just think we’re seeing the pace increase exponentially,” he adds.
And where the pace of change has taken engineering is that it is now almost essentially app-based, like all of the leading businesses. For example – and demonstrated with no little panache at this year’s 3DExperince World event for the SolidWorks community – it is now possible to open up the SolidWorks software on an iPad, grab a 3D rendering and then pull apart an engineering model.
All the while, the prospective and resulting changes in the manufacturing, assembly and machine are all calculated on-the-fly as these functions, just like the 3D model, are interconnected in the cloud.
But if there is no suitable communications network to support the device, such capability just doesn’t happen. Is there a grand assumption that the network is just going to be there, and be capable from all the wide area networks?
Network reliance and reliability
It’s something that SolidWorks, and indeed Dassault Systèmes, is built for, says Prior, who adds that the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has shown how much businesses take critical network capability for granted.
“We’ve had to make sure, for our business continuity, that all of our networks – our VPNs [virtual private networks] and our collaborative spaces – are working efficiently, so the reasonable assumption is that it has to be. Now we’ve got 5G, there’s more. There’s going to be more resilience within the systems,” he says.
“But there’s no doubt that [the network] is the thing that’s going to enable us to collaborate. Coming back to the iPad demonstration and some great work that we’ve been doing where you can add virtual or augmented reality to the iPad, say you’re on a production line – you’re out in the assembly hall and you want to check the components on an aircraft that have been installed.
“You take out your iPad and point it at the part of the aircraft that you are interested in, and you are connecting not only to the bill of materials and the production schedules to make sure the parts are in the right place, but it could put some augmented reality on the iPad so that you see a picture of a plane in front of you, but also superimposed on that your 3D model, maybe some schematics.
“And you’re checking on the iPad to match between the design and the physical product that you’re looking at. That will help us make that [process] more effective, more efficient and faster, so it’s much more of a real-time experience. That’s where the iPad comes in – you can walk around with it, you’ve got your design model available while you’re working with the product.”
Although this is a hugely profound and important step change in engineering design and manufacturing capability for the present, is it actually mainstream? For Prior, such capabilities can be the centrepiece of a change process and the transformation of the way engineers work.
Processes need re-engineering too
“If you think about why startups are successful in adopting some of these things, it is because they start with completely clean sheets of paper,” he says. “And they simply say we’re going to adopt the cloud for all of our design, engineering, ERP [engineering resource planning], PDM [product data management], testing, simulation… the whole thing. We’re just going to do it on the cloud. So we’ve got no legacy.
“[For] an Airbus, a Rolls-Royce or Jaguar Land Rover, or any of the big manufacturers, to get to that point they’ve probably got the technology available and they’ve probably got the money to get the stuff they need, but to change their processes while also running their business, that’s a huge issue.
“What we’re trying to do is not just say, ‘Hey guys, here’s some technology, I hope it will be very good for you’. What we’re saying is, ‘Here’s some technology and the value we think it can bring, [and here’s how] we think you can implement it’. That’s not easy. You’re changing people’s working practices, you’re changing processes, data sources, communications, collaboration environments. You have to change a lot.”
What Dassault has found is that the limiting factor is now almost the ability to re-engineer the company process. And that, as anyone will recognise, is not easy. Not only for the users, but also for the technology suppliers themselves. Prior also readily accepts this. “Absolutely have we had to go through it,” he acknowledges.
“[You] might see us [as] basically a bunch of engineers. We get quite excited about technology, but then we get quite reluctant to adopt new processes because, you know, we’re not great at being highly flexible and nimble – if we know something works, we tend to stick with it. We’re having to think in a different way, not only about how our customers will use the technology, but how we interact with our customers.
“For example, we are using our 3D Experience platform as a means of communication and exchange with a prospective customer. We’ve set up a community within the platform and we would invite some of the prospective customer teams to join that community and we start exchanging information. Rather than sending an email, we might put a post in this collaborative environment as we would expect the prospective client to start to see the value of communication and collaboration.
“Ultimately, we are a software company and we sell engineering software, but we are actually using our own tools, not only internally, but also with our clients and prospective clients. We are having to change the way we think. And the good thing about it is that it is exciting, and for a bunch of engineers to have this kind of technology available it’s stimulating. It’s challenging, sure, but the way things are moving and the way our teams are embracing these kinds of things, I find it inspiring, particularly the new graduates we’re getting in the younger cohort, the less experienced people and the way they’re embracing this way of communicating.”
One size does not fit all
Another huge change is not just the way in which the software performs, but also how it is made available to the clients. Indeed, at 3DExperince World, one of the keynotes expressed the notion that Dassault needs to be more like firms such as Adobe in the way it sells the SolidWorks software and undergo a sea change in its business model. In the software industry, many firms making a move require a change in the way revenues are recognised have found this to be a painful process.
While not accepting that the process will be painful for his company, Prior concedes that such moves do put pressure on the business as a business, but that in the era of cloud-based business, a change is totally appropriate. Flexibility is the key. “This is kind of an emotion,” he suggests. “As our customer base is thinking that maybe their commercial environment is changing and they might want different operating models, different purchasing models. We’re adapting now.
“What’s interesting, though, is the way that Dassault Systèmes has evolved. In the past, brands like SolidWorks [have adopted] some kind of subscription model. Now, with the cloud, you’re simply buying usage per user per hour. And most business models suit some customers. Some may say, ‘No, I’ve got a capital budget, I just want to buy some software. I know I’m going to be using it for the next 10 years, I can amortise that no problem. And my capital budget is what I use for that kind of expenditure.’
“So, we’ve got a mix. We have to be flexible to meet different levels of customer demand. And at the same time, we have to sustain the business with a commercial model that works for our shareholders. And I think it’s working, because we’ve got those options available, we’re not forcing customers into one or other options. All sorts of customers want different types of commercial models and different types of implementations.”
And the nub of the modern engineering environment? One size doesn’t fit all. Whether that is with regards to the functionality needed in the software that companies want to do their jobs, or in how they choose to pay for the solution or in the devices that they wish to use, such as an iPad. Whether a venture capital-funded startup or a small team of engineering consultants or a huge manufacturer in aerospace or automotive – they all need something different and find a functional and commercial model that suits them and their business. Nothing else fits the bill.