Old concepts are sticky. Think about QUERTY keyboard. It was designed almost 150 years ago with a special reason – to prevent typewriter hammers to jam. Characters were mounted on metal arms or type bars, which would clash and jam if neighboring arms were pressed at the same time or in rapid succession. The solution was to place commonly used letter-pairs (like “th” or “st”) so that their type bars were not neighboring, avoiding jams. Back in 21st century every new mobile device is still using the same keyboard layout.
Files and folders is another outdated concept coming from the age of wooden cabinets with with folders and paper information. Our lives are digital this days, but folders / files paradigm is still with us. You can find it on every computer and cloud storage applications developed by Dropbox, Google and Microsoft.
It was very natural for every CAD applications to use files and folders to store information. There is no need to educate people. Everyone can understand that. Even more, files can be easy controlled, transferred and back up to another storage.
To manage CAD files is a painful job
Storing CAD design using files and folders has a hidden flaw. The nature of CAD design information is to have many dependencies. Geometry, Features, Parts, Assemblies, Drawings, etc. CAD applications used multiple files to save them. Dependencies between files created huge data management problems. Combine it with the need to manage file versions and you are welcome to the hell of existing product data management (PDM) paradigm. Engineers are avoiding use of PDM at any cost. Sales people are avoiding to sell PDM together with CAD systems because it can slow down sales.
The integration between CAD and PDM is painful. One of the biggest challenges is to manage integration between multiple CAD systems and single PDM. Few years ago, I shared some of my thoughts about architecture and trends around Multi-CAD and PDM integration. Companies are forced to use multi-CAD PDM integration. But nobody likes them. It is like going to dentist – lot of pain implied. CAD vendor can use some internal knowledge and API to develop better PDM for its own CAD system. The best CAD / PDM bundle is typically provided the the same vendor who is developing CAD system. It gives a possibility to support specific CAD features using APIs and development skills not available outside of CAD vendor R&D. The same APIs and features might even not be available for multi-CAD PDM systems.
What cloud technology can change for CAD/PDM?
Introduction of cloud technologies is bringing opportunities to solve old painful problems of CAD / PDM collaboration. Few companies tried to accomplish that in the last 5 years. You can find few examples in my earlier articles – 3 challenges to develop cloud storage and collaboration tools for engineers; CAD, cloud PDM and special cloud sync. In my view, this is an intermediate state – to hide file management from user on the desktop and synchronize desktops and cloud environment. CAD application is still on your desktop. Files are still around. To synchronize files between distributed network of desktops used by many engineers is a complicated task.
Another option is to move CAD application to the server. The moment of time, you think about that, the paradigm is going to change. It is like a keyboard, which is not supposed to jam anymore. There is no files to manage on the desktop, everything can be controlled and managed by databases and server applications. No files to download, upload to the desktop. All communication is going via browser. This approach has many advantages. It allows to simplify user experience at front end of application – browser and mobile app. It removes the dependencies on local data and can simplify the way collaboration can be organized between people. Finally, there is no painful check-in/check-out function that takes time and create an additional complexity in front of engineers.
Recent SolidSmack article – how collaboration works in Onshape brings a great overview how Onshape is solving problems of data management and existing PDM paradigm. Few days ago, I attended Onshape webinar – Version Control, Branching, and Merging.
This video brings a good perspective how cloud technologies can change the way typical PDM problems can be solve – no check-in/out, management and comparison of revisions. It also expands the scope of collaboration by allowing people to do simultaneous editing of data and merge branches.
Was Onshape first to eliminate files from CAD application?
Onshape wasn’t a first company that tried to eliminate files from CAD and design applications. The first example that comes to my mind is CATIA V6. It was initially released by Dassault Systemes about 10 years ago and bundled CATIA with ENOVIA (data management system). I’m using other CAD vendors can come with examples of vertically integrated CAD/PLM applications that eliminating file management and providing unified environment supporting design, engineering and collaboration workflows.
Does Onshape solved all problems?
Onshape is taking a very promising approach of using Amazon infrastructure and specialized NoSQL databases to manage information. It can scale, but might have some potential data management challenges that can grow with the complexity of design and functional requirements. Other CAD vendors are moving to the cloud too. Multiple cloud CAD application can introduce a new “old” problem related to multiple PDM applications bundled with cloud CAD systems. Read more in my article – How cloud CAD can avoid “double PDM tax”.
What is my conclusion? Existing CAD file management and PDM paradigm is old and has many problems. It is a time to change it. The new cloud and databases technologies are avaialable and can support to make a change. Technology might be an issue, but vendors will solve it. In my view, people are the most problematic part of the equations. Will CAD / PDM existing paradigm stuck with files similar to QWERTY keyboard on iPads? It is a good question to ask CAD and PLM architects and sales people. Just my thoughts…