Industrial design moving to the clouds

Industrial designers, manufacturers and engineers from around the world met in Anaheim, California earlier this month to see the latest advances in 3D CAD; Alan Johnson was there.

LOVE it or hate it, cloud (web-based) computing looks set to hit the world-wide engineering design world pretty soon.

Autodesk spoke about it in depth at its user conference in Vegas last year, now SolidWorks, at its user conference held in Anaheim, California, last month, has announced broad details and release timelines for its ‘cloud’ offerings, starting later this year.

According to SolidWorks’ CEO, Jeff Ray, cloud computing offers big advantages for manufacturers and engineering companies.

“There are different advantages for different customers, but one prevailing advantage for all customers will be cost.

Ray likens it to a utility. “If you need electricity for your house you don’t buy a power plant. But if you need a computer today, you buy the whole computer with all the things it comes with, even if you don’t need 80% of it. So why should computing be any different to the utilities where you only pay for what you use.

“Cloud computing has been available to other users, but we are now going to make it available to engineers.”

Ray likens the transition to Windows-based computing in the mid 90s.

He says many manufacturers and engineering companies are already using cloud technology in their commercial systems such as ERP and CRM sys tems, income tax and payroll, plus many others.

“It’s only a matter of time before the head of IT department starts asking the head of engineering why do we have to keep buying all this hardware and infra structure.

“Just last week, Panasonic announced it has committed to deploying Lotus Notes in the cloud for its 380,000 users. It’s happening, it’s not some bold new experiment that we are going to try out on engineers,” Ray said.

While not expecting a huge rush, Ray believes take up will start as a drip, but then it will take off.

“It’s just how technology is adopted. You are always going to have those people out there on the leading edge who don’t care about the pain of change. And they will be the first to adopt it,” Ray told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

There are a number of details still to be announced, including pricing and who will host the system, though I’m sure it will be a third party to start with. My guess is Amazon, who is already involved.

However Ray was adamant users need not be concerned regarding the security of their data and IP.

“Security is not an issue. The consumer is already comfortable with online transactions.

“Today, most people do their banking online, they shop, they buy movie tickets, they bid on E-bay. They are giving out their credit card information out to strangers today.

“So the commercial market has already accepted the level of security that the internet offers.”

Ray says the manufacturing market tends to lag the rest of industry for good reason.

“We are naturally cautious and pessimistic. And that’s a good thing because we are designing airplanes and motor cars. We need to design from a high level of scepticism.

“What it means is that by the time we in the engineering community start to use this technology it’s already been shaken out in the commercial world.

“We weren’t the very first Windows app. And we aren’t the first cloud computing app that’s going to be out there. We just intend to be on the leading edge of applying that technology for our customers.”

Ray explained that the company will ship the cloud enabled technology later this year for data management using the Dassault Systems Enovia V6 backbone.

“We will apply it the way our customers design though. Every advantage you get from cloud computing our users will get, but they will get an experience consistent with how they like to work with SolidWorks.”

Ray was also keen to highlight cloud computing’s reliability. “No system crashes here.”

Several years ago now, SolidWorks invested heavily in online gaming tech nology, and this is clearly coming to light now.

“In online gaming, you open up and you jump in immediately. But not the entire game comes in, a lightweight form comes in just for that space and as you move through the model, it’s build ing up loading up additional images in the background so it’s there live immediately.

“We think we can use some of that, not all of it because you never really know the path an engineer will take. But like a video game, we believe you don’t need to load everything up front all at once.

“It’s exciting times; freeing up barriers to design. We are releasing more tech nology over the next two and a half years, than we have over the past 15 years,” Ray said.

What to expect in 2011 version

While the event was dominated by cloud computing, SolidWorks did allocate time during the final session for attendees to glimpse the 2011 version of SolidWorks.

Shaun Murphy, SolidWork’s Manager of CAD product management describes SolidWorks as a mature product, saying the company is now looking at refine ment. “We are making it smarter, faster and more stable. That’s our focus right now.

“For example, rendering and visualisation are key elements of design, because it is so critical to the communication phase of design ideas, whether that’s internally or to customer or supplier.

“So we looked at the process that requires more realistic rendering to make it easier, so we introduced Photview technology in the last couple of releases, but what we are doing now is retiring our older product, Photoworks, and building Photoview right into the CAD system.

“So now as you are designing, you can have a window open and it will actually be rendering it full time as you are working. This will be in SW2011,” Murphy told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“We have also made rendering easier; we have tried to make it a single push button.

“Users are quite excited; they can now get very good looking rendering results, photorealistic, as easy as just rendering, due to this new technology.”

On the complexity side, Murphy said SolidWorks is one of the easiest 3D CAD systems to use, “but we want to make it even easier”.

“For design engineers who don’t like the drawing part, it’s not the creative part of the process; in 2011 we are making the dimensioning a lot more auto mated. Our goal is to provide the right amount of control with the right amount of automation.

“In a move to make things faster, SolidWorks is looking at freezing the history component of a design so it doesn’t replay. Users will be able to replay selected areas of a model, rather than all areas,” Murphy said.

“In 2011, we are not covering new areas in breadth, we are looking at the refinement, the streamlining to make it more efficient.

“The big issue that we are addressing is the difference between formal and informal processes.

“Formal might be enterprise PDM, but many times you want to collaborate outside of the formality.

“It’s not a formal process yet, could be any number of models. But you still want control of those intermediary models.

“But you don’t want to go through all the steps for each one of checking them in and adding all their attributes and all the stuff into a formal PDM system.

“Now they can send an email to someone, they click on the link and they are able to pull the model up, provide feedback on it and put it back without seeing PDM. And you know it’s the lat est version, but it’s not formal.

“Collaboration is an informal process, but the designer still has control from one tool,” Murphy said.

Australian perspective

Mark Duggan, Technical Support Manager with SolidWork’s local distribu tor Intercad, says he is excited about the 2011 version, cloud computing and what it offers local manufacturers.

“My only concern with cloud computing is whether Australian Internet providers can provide a big enough pipe for the large CAD files. I guess we will have to see with the first release later this year.

“Melbourne and Sydney will probably be OK, but some of my clients in WA are still on dial up. I guess they will have to wait for Kevin Rudd’s high speed Broadband roll out, which could be a while.

“But the thought of computers no longer crashing and having to reload SolidWorks will be welcomed by all CAD users,” Duggan told Manufacturers’ Monthly at the event.

However he also predicts a slow start up, with SMEs to be the first to try cloud computing, mainly due to the lower costs and no longer requiring expensive computers to handle the large files.

“Some might be reluctant at first to put their IP in the hands of others, but in time they will realise their data is safer in the clouds then in their own office.

“It might take a bit of education to convince some, but once they see how secure it is, they will be OK,” Duggan said.

Though he does worry about those companies that don’t allow their design ers access to the Internet!

For more information on SolidWorks products call Intercad on 02 9454 4444.

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