Not so very long ago, users of 3D data were a special class. Depending on the brand of computer-aided design (CAD) software that their employer had invested in, they had licences to operate the systems and certificates to prove their competence. Often, they worked at different types of machine: “Mine isn’t a computer, it’s a workstation.”
Licences and qualifications are still an important part of CAD professionalism. But CAD, 3D, PLM (product lifecycle management) and other three-letter abbreviations of engineering are no longer the exclusive preserve of the “technoscenti”: they’re going mainstream.
The process has been going on for a while and talked about for even longer. It is almost six years since Bernard Charlès, the charismatic CEO of Dassault Systèmes, talked about “democratisation” being the next phase of 3D development. He followed this prediction with the catchphrase “3D everywhere”.
For a while, outside the big automotive and aerospace companies that have always allegedly been able to afford the latest systems, nothing much seemed to happen. But now, increasingly, that omnipresence of 3D information is coming about, and there are two big factors behind this, with different players in the CAD and PLM markets leading the way on each of them.
One factor is that the complex and heavyweight programs involved, that previously needed dedicated servers and local processing power, are now much more freely available through the cloud. The other is the extension of system capabilities so that they handle not just physical product data but lots of other information, too.
Peter Thorne, managing director of the design and manufacturing technology analysis group Cambashi, says: “One side is that the vendors are broadening the scope of specialist tools. We’ve had tools that were specific to tasks such as sheet-metal and flow-in moulds for many years.” Systems such as CAD and PLM were seen – not entirely correctly – as engineers’ property. “The other side is that they’re broadening the number of functions in manufacturing that they’re relevant to,” he says.
So current moves make engineers’ data easily accessible and newly relevant to other people, and add other people’s data to the single system, forming a single hymnsheet that all can sing from.
Thorne has some doubts about the way that moves to make product and design data accessible through the cloud will play out in engineering. “If you go to most designers and say that their data will be at the far end of a network or somewhere else entirely, they’ll think that you haven’t understood what highly interactive engineering software is really about,” he says.
But, he adds, these moves by software vendors are not just about the existing engineer users and their ways of creating and manipulating product data. “If you look at Siemens PLM, one of its targets with the new HD PLM workbench is the casual user,” he says.
This may lead into new concepts such as “personal manufacturing”, where individuals can create the products they want, and which is being likened by some to the revolution in desktop publishing a generation ago.
But you don’t need to look that far. A much bigger market is an industrial mainstream that has seen itself excluded by cost and complexity from some of the previous CAD and PLM systems. This market includes smaller businesses and single operators that haven’t been able to afford the software or the computing capacity to run it. And it encompasses individuals within existing user companies who have not in the past accessed product data as such, or even regarded what they do access as “product data”, since they don’t come from a CAD background.
Cloud computing is just one of the trends making this kind of information newly available to others. An under-sung theme of CAD and PLM launches in recent months has been the exportability of data to familiar programs such as Word and Excel, so that it works on user interfaces that look pretty much like the screens we all get when we switch our machines on. The implication is clear: data that previously only engineers could access and interpret is out there for all to see and use.
It’s cloud that makes the headlines in this area, though. All of the big PLM vendors have cloud systems in their sights. But the big advocate for cloud in the CAD and PLM markets is Autodesk, which previewed its 2013 releases of design, manufacturing and architectural systems a few weeks ago. Virtually everything is now available to be run in the cloud, rather than on a server near your desk.