Ten years ago I wrote a blog about The future of CAD without files? My conclusion back in 2011 was the computing and information paradigms are shifting from file-oriented to data (and web) oriented. The initial signs are here. The speed of this movement is questionable. Manufacturing is a slow-changing environment and engineers are very reluctant to change.
Looking back a decade, I can see so many things improved in the way we manage information. The computing power is skyrocketing, cloud/SaaS systems are becoming a norm, fully functional professional 3D CAD systems can run in a browser and we can have video calls (aka web meetings) practically everywhere these days. As we move towards the digital future, building digital twins, organizing information into a digital thread, the question of what will happen with “files” is becoming more and more interesting.
I’ve been observing the trajectory of technological and product development in CAD, PLM, ERP, and other engineering and enterprise software for the last few years and I wanted to share my take on what I think will be happening with the “files and documents”.
Files are Dead, Long Live Files
The history of a word file goes back to the 1940s when it was used as a term to call a place to store the results of computation. The comparison was made to call a file a place to store a table as a “file of punched cards”. Later, in the context of modern Operational Systems (OS), files were considered as a one-dimensional array of bytes. Without going too much back in the history and specific technical description of how different OS keep files and folders, we can only say that most CAD systems and a variety of other engineering applications are using files as a primary way to store and share information. PDM and MRP (later ERP) systems were a first step towards distancing from files by organizing databases and providing data-oriented access. However, for the last 40+ years of these applications, file nature didn’t change and they are still as popular as 10-20 years ago.
Web Applications and Files Future
The appearance and progress of modern web technologies and web tools for the last 20 years, brought the idea of file disappearance and replacement of files by native web applications running in the browser. The idea was welcomed by everyone, produced many great applications and tools, but didn’t kill the presence of the file. In the domain of office applications, the web tools such as Google Docs and later Office 365, eliminated the real need to store files, yet even these applications keep the notion of online “documents” and mimicking the file paradigm in their user experience. The situation is not different in the MCAD development space. The most prominent solution such as Onshape that was created as a browser application, is using the document user experience paradigm. Solidworks, one of the most popular MCAD applications, continues to use files and although the complexity of file usage and data management is well-known in the industry, most engineers keep using files and not outrageously rejecting the idea of file storage because of their familiarity and portability.
Will Network and Internet Speed Save Files?
Slow internet speed was initially considered as a file-killer. You probably remember a lot of debates about CAD file sizes and their portability over the internet and low bandwidth connections. Web tools were calling the end of files explaining how web tools are more efficient and can be streaming information to the client instead of downloading the files. All these reasons are absolutely valid and new tools are making huge progress, the increased network speed for both internet and WAN connections are about to become a game-changer in many technologies that were about to die just a few years ago. Superfast cloud file storages and internet connections allow uploading and downloading files with high speed and it is coming to some people as a surprise. It takes literally seconds now to download CAD files from the storage and upload it back.
Digital Obsolescence and Files
Have you heard about digital obsolescence? The concept is actually very fascinating and speaks about the fact that many files will become technically unreadable because applications supporting these files will stop working. It sounds like bad news and demands some action from vendors and industrial companies. I personally know the company that decided to back up all their data as a virtual machine image with all old technologies and products installed to ensure that they will have tools to read old files. While digital obsolescence is one of the most prominent arguments to give up on files and store data in “platforms” and “web applications:”, I can see resistance from many companies and users to give up on files. Even using web applications, these companies will try to export and save information as files. The personal security, ownership, and willingness to control the data are winning.
Will the metaphor of files become obsolete?
As much as we focus on new tech and web product development, the key element of the progress is to break from some basic metaphors that are limiting our thinking about what new technology can achieve and what it can do. The well-known “document” metaphor, has cast a long shadow on what we think about the digital transformation and, in my view, has the potential to block some future digital innovation.
When we develop applications we use many metaphors to represent information and processes. Think about page, file, folder, document, inbox, desktop, library, etc. If you think about all these metaphors, they are all based on some sort of “print a document” metaphor. If you check many applications developed solely for the cloud and don’t do anything with the documents (or files), you will realize that many users are still seeing these applications via the document metaphor. For example, although Onshape doesn’t do anything with files, all Onshape users are navigating their world via Document metaphor, which is pretty much the same as a file browser for Solidworks files. In my own experience, OpenBOM is managing product structure using a combination of databases (graph, document, etc.), but for most of the users “Bill of Materials” or “Catalog” are representing Excel-like document metaphors.
Conceptual metaphors can do a good thing because they can help users to find common familiar grounds to understand the application. At the same time, I can see how the Document metaphor is still used in many applications and prevents users from opening their eyes and seeing information and communication processes differently.
To break through the new horizons of applications and digital transformation, there is a need to find new metaphors to replace old ones. This is going to be a way to liberate the information and processes from old ‘document-centric metaphors and approaches.
What is my conclusion?
A decade later after the call for CAD files obsolescence, I want to say that the process is much more complex than I’ve seen it originally. Applications are morphing under the influence of technology and existing metaphors are refusing to die and to be replaced with a new one. The process of information liberation will be long and not linear. So, answering the question above – files and documents won’t be disappearing any time soon. At the same time, new paradigms and metaphors need to be developed to make a technological process towards the future digital world. Just my thoughts…
Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital network-based platform that manages product data and connects manufacturers, construction companies, and their supply chain networks. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.