Collaboration is not a new buzz in engineering domain. CAD and PLM companies are using this term already few decades in order to explain how their products can help designers, engineers and other people in a company to communicate and be efficient. Recently so called “social technologies” came to disrupt this space. For the last few years, we’ve seen many tries to introduce new type of “social collaboration”. However, most of them didn’t change much – it was still about “how people can work together”.
At the same time, social technologies and (specifically) communities of users raised again an important question related to the value of “asynchronous collaboration”. On my long redeye flight back from San Francisco tonight, I was reading 3DCAD World article – CAD Goes Social. Article speaks about challenges of synchronous collaboration using CAD systems. Here is the passage, which explains potential challenges of “working together on the same 3D CAD model”.
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.
Social networks, photo sharing, professional community and online communication are raising question of increased value of asynchronous collaboration. GrabCAD is a community of engineers, open engineering marketplace and provider of GrabCAD Workbench (Collaborative Product Development) tool. The following passage explains some differentiators of GrabCAD approach (including quotes from GrabCAD VP Marketing Stevens):
“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. 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.”
These two examples made me think about two approaches and use cases that might stand behind. After all, I don’t think synchronous and asynchronous are mutually exclusive.
The main driver of synchronous approach is to put everybody on the same page at the same time. Time is important because not everything can be written. Sometimes, you need to explain the problem and actually show it in the model / assembly. Complex geometry, decision making, analysis, design suppliers situations – these are typical examples when synchronous access to CAD models will provide huge value. It doesn’t mean people will be actually editing models together.
Opposite to that, asynchronous approach can help people to collaborate around the same context regardless on their time and location. This approach can be invaluable for teams working on large projects to improve communication, track decisions and change management. Asynchronous tools can help to crowdsource ideas and sparkle discussion in global teams.
What is my conclusion? Seamless collaboration is key to success in a team. Global teams is a reality in a modern engineering and manufacturing world. The situation is not going to change in foreseeable future. So, companies will continue to invest in how to improve collaboration. The scenarios and use cases can be different and it will require variety of approaches – synchronous and asynchronous. The simplicity and cost are two key elements of successful collaboration. Just my thoughts…