Four Ways that a Tablet can Actually Make Design Engineers more Productive
John Hayes posted on March 17, 2015 |
Microsoft and Siemens are now offering full CAD on a tablet

Years ago mobile phones gave us freedom from our desks. Then the Blackberry gave us freedom from our desktop email.  Then smartphones combined those tools so that everyone reaped the benefits of mobile productivity. 

Mobile is better.  If you are thinking that doesn’t apply to engineering, here are four applications that might make you reconsider whether you really want full CAD functionality on a tablet. 

1.       Client Meetings

Say you are reviewing a design with a client.  Rather than having to sit them down in front of a monitor, you can show them the design on a tablet.  You can even turn the device over to them, so they can use their fingers to rotate, pan or zoom.  This level of interactivity promises to help you gather requirements faster and with greater accuracy. 

One early adopter, machine designer Bob Mileti, is a case in point.  He built an assembly of 1,000 parts on his tablet and was able to drill down to a level of detail that showed the threads on the screws.  That gave him the confidence to bring his tablet to a client meeting to explain design decisions and conflicts on their factory floor right where his machine was going to go. 

2.       Answering questions while you are away from your desk

You check your email when you are in an airport.  Everyone does.  But what if that email has a question about a design?  If your smartphone or tablet could open that model, you would be able to answer a detailed question remotely.  Smartphones allow you to open other documents like pdfs, spreadsheets and presentations.  Why wouldn’t you want to be able to open and interrogate a 3D model as well? 

Viewers are a good technology when there is nothing better, but actual 3D modeling is better.  As another example, one of Bob Mileti’s customers had  a change requirement on a rush tooling job.  Bob wasn’t in the office, but he had Solid Edge on his Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (SP3).  When he got the email from the client he simply opened his CAD application on his tablet and made the change.  No big deal. He was able to “get [the] customer off the ledge.”

3.       Factory floor

Tablets can replace PCs on the shop floor because they are portable.  To match a shipment that comes in from a machine shop for example, the QC people need to be able to view a model for documentation.  Rather than having a centrally located PC on the shop floor, a tablet is an easier and more portable answer, especially for big parts.

4.       Maintenance operations

Documentation is never 100%.  When a maintenance person is inside an engine or other assembly, they need to rotate, pan, zoom and explode a 3D model in order to know what’s behind the sheet metal.  Tablets are the ideal way to deliver a model to a maintenance person.

You might have to wrap the device in a rugged case for this application, but most devices have those available. 

At this point, based on the demonstrations I saw, the CAD models have to be either developed on the Surface Pro 3 or docked and synced with a central server.  For maintenance and factory floor operations, a cloud-connected application that pulled up-to-date model data would be even better. 

How a Design Engineer Interacts with his Tablet

I met Bob Mileti at a Mobility for Design Engineers seminar.  He was also a guest at a webinar on that topic. (Watch the replay.)  

Bob is really happy with his Surface Pro 3 tablet. He designed an entire assembly on it just to test it out. Now, he says it’s "his go to" machine.  I watched him pan, zoom and rotate using finger gestures.  He says that for showing people his models, the finger gestures are the way to go.  Simon Floyd from Microsoft pointed out that so far, SolidEdge is the only CAD program that really takes advantage of all of these interface options. 

Here are a few ways that Bob uses the tablet interface.

Finger Gestures

Say you are showing a design concept to a customer.  The tablet format lets you interact wherever you are.  They don’t have to stand over your shoulder, come to your office, sit around a conference table etc. 


Bob uses the stylus to select points and to select navigation.  He uses all 4 ways to navigate (mouse, keypad, fingers, stylus), which may present a barrier to adoption for many users.  After all, we are still only getting used to using finger gestures on our laptops. 

Keyboard – Just like on your workstation, the SP3’s keyboard is ideal for commands and keyboard shortcuts, like switching from grabbing a part to grabbing a face, and of course, for inserting or changing dimensions.


While gesture controls have taken over a lot the controls you would have done with a mouse, the mouse is still useful to select points and to navigate.  In fact, many users will likely use the mouse instead of a stylus for those actions.  Not only are users more accustomed to the mouse form factor, it is way more stable if you are a coffee drinker.

So will you be using a tablet for engineering work any time soon?

Mobility is the new normal. According to Simon Floyd of Microsoft, 66% of employees use personal devices for work purposes.  Thirty-three percent of employees that typically work on employer premises also frequently work away from their desks.     In fact, CYOD, or “Choose Your Own Device”, is becoming common in many offices.  Employers who have embraced the CYOD philosophy have realized 9% more productivity compared to only 5% for BYOD. 

Today, most people carry a minimum of 3 portable devices including a phone, tablet and a laptop.   The Surface Pro 3 is designed to allow design engineers to combine two of those devices into one.  While the SP3 still isn’t a smartphone (who’d want to hold a tablet up to their face anyway) it is a potential replacement for your laptop.

I’m considering using a Surface Pro 3 instead of a laptop.  The battery life is longer.  You can run multiple applications at once, say Solid Edge plus engineering documentation at the same time.  And while the price point is higher than a laptop at around $1,500 for a version that will run CAD, it’s truly portable in ways that my laptop is not. 


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