Built-in All-Digital Collaboration is More Important Now Than Ever Before

Platforms that include design, such as 3DEXPERIENCE, have tools to make their users collaborative.

Dassault Systèmes has sponsored this post.

We engineers always knew we needed to collaborate. The more enlightened design software vendors had been telling us how for years. Remember the conferences? Every year, we listened politely about advanced technology, about AR/VR, real time chat with team members on the other side of the world, working all at once on a single source of truth, of databases in the cloud that made this possible. This year, everything changed. COVID-19 rocked our world. Conferences went away. Offices were abandoned. In our panic of being separated, remote, we found it impossible to collaborate. And then we remembered the technology we had once seen, the technology we hadn’t paid attention to—the technology that is now impossible to ignore.

We only discovered the collaboration technology that was there all along, right under our noses, baked into our design software programs. So relevant, so timely, perfect for the circumstances we find ourselves in. It seems to have anticipated our need—like a vaccine that precedes the virus.

Collaboration not only took care of the loneliness and seclusion we had sunk into, it also offered benefits. It made it possible to do simultaneous product development. Rather than a linear, step-by-step product design, we were all in this together, all steps (concept, discussion, design, simulation, prototype, manufacture, distribution, in-service, maintenance, end of life) now simultaneous. The collaboration, the common model, made it possible to have a lot going on at once. For example, why not have simulation happen in the concept stage, or design, for example? Isn’t that when most of the product cost is determined?

(Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

(Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

Collaboration is the Unopened Gift

Collaboration technology was like the gift from Grandma that sat under the Christmas tree still wrapped and unopened from last Christmas. You knew it was a hand-knit sweater. You had no use for it. But now, faced with a long dark winter, wouldn’t one of those sweaters feel warm?

The collaborative tools you had no use for now appear to be helpful. You can hold an online meeting and see people’s reaction to your design. You cannot do that in a physical meeting with everyone behind masks. So important is the need to be able to read the room that the use of online video meetings continues even after lockdowns are lifted. As a plus, you can stay in the safety of your Plexiglas-fortified space and not risk a crowded conference room.

Engineers used to working in solitude may never have thought they would miss the camaraderie, the connections by the coffee machine or the cafeteria, but can now find themselves too isolated. For them, peer-to-peer collaboration got easier with online collaboration. You can talk to your peers at the touch of button. You don’t have to grab the face mask before you poke your head into their space. And for peers further away, you don’t have to get in your car or risk air travel.

Connect the Product Lifecycle

Best practices, promoted by high-priced consultants and heard from the stage at our technology conferences and promoted in the industry media, have long offered the idea of product design as a digital stream of data that starts with a concept, enters design, gets simulated, detailed and manufactured, all as bits and bytes, a stream of electrons and pixels that travel from one screen to another. It’s a magical stream, too. Information flows upstream and downstream—even sideways—over the whole ecosystem.

The geometric data, central to a design, can be easily shared, flowing in a digital stream, travelling wherever needed, delivered whole and true to form, keeping everyone aligned and on message—as opposed to what normally happens.

In reality, marketing can vet a 3D design (not a dumbed down version of it, or a sketch) to see if it meets with their ideas of what the market wants, based on research data, social media and focus groups. They can add a little tweak here or there to make it more attractive and salable. The digital stream flows both ways. Engineers can study the market research data to deduce what the customers want, what they like—or didn’t like—in last year’s model, for example. Purchasing agents can check if the materials or components specified can be easily sourced, avoiding broken supply lines (thanks, COVID). The public relations team can warn of the embarrassment from a public outcry against rare earth materials procured from a conflict zone. The manufacturing engineer can peer into the design to see if a robotic assembly is warranted or if human labor is sufficient, either domestically or offshore, and have time to plan for either.

Where They Work. Does it Matter?

It’s rare these days to have everyone working in one location. That may have been a problem before, but as we are forced to embrace built-in digital collaboration, we find the problem has all but evaporated.

Online collaboration is what offsite workers or those in remote locations have been forced to use for years. They now find themselves on equal footing with those in HQ. This promotes a sense of equality and connection not previously felt in satellite offices and outposts.

Online collaboration effectively removes the disadvantage geography has created. Where you work is no longer an issue. On a small scale, digital workers have distributed themselves from office to home. If you are going to be presenting on camera, what difference does it make where the camera is? Feeling more comfortable, safer and not having to waste hours each day commuting has made workers more productive. Another benefit is that companies are free to seek talent outside their normal commuting radius, and draw talent worldwide, without relocation upheaval and its expense, limited only by language and time zones.

Single Source of Truth

From the vantage point the pandemic grants us, we see how manufacturers may have grown too fast, too much and too often. A company that has HQ in one place, manufacturing in another, sales and maintenance everywhere, may never have a chance to pull it all together. Acquisitions can boost revenue initially, but carry a debt forward due to collaboration and data sharing issues. We hear stories of one aerospace company that created a product only to discover that its foreign office had created an identical product years ago. Such is the problem of operations that are loosely connected and continue to operate in siloes.

(Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

(Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

The manufacturing world needs to take an example from the highly-connected retail and consumer service industries.  Point-of-sale terminals have replaced cash registers in modern retail. Businesses benefit from a common, constantly updated database. An airline ticket bought in one part of the world immediately subtracts that seat from the global inventory—it can’t be bought by anyone else. Only if everyone is using one database, and that database is immediately refreshed, is this possible.

We may be little behind retail and consumer services in the manufacturing world, but we have a plan, and we have the technology. We can have every design accessible by all stakeholders, not just the designers. Every executive, marketer, purchaser and factory manager can see the same design and access the same data. This is possible with the design stored in the cloud and in a shared database. All eyes see the same product, not a copy of it, not an outdated version, not a color that was deemed unsalable, nor a material that cannot be procured. One design for all, one database of record, or as it is reverentially referred to by its practitioners, a single source of truth.

The Internet has provided it. The relational databases that store geometry have facilitated it. The cloud hosts it. And if you’re lucky, your design software vendor supports it.

Gone are inefficiencies of the past, the duplication of parts or entire products, the searching, missing what others have done, the frustration of discovering that you have reinvented the wheel. Or going forward with a design that, unbeknownst to you, had been revised while you had been head down, working on it.

A single source of truth also allows for more rapid product development, since the design is no longer trapped in a linear stream with each stakeholder controlling its passage. Think of the time you wanted to work on a model but it had been checked out by another engineer, preventing you from working on it, or even seeing it.

The Ultimate Design Review is Virtual

Perhaps no type of meeting will be impacted as significantly by virtual collaboration than the design review. Your first thought will forecast a negative impact. How can you even hold a design review when no one can come to the office? You will be in denial. This can’t be happening. Life is over.

(Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

(Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

Enter the next stage, a reluctant and miserable acceptance of too many teleconferences, with some talking over each other, others with lips but no sound because their mute is still on, a gallery of vanity worried about how they look on camera, technical difficulties from cheap, consumer laptops, home offices with too little professional equipment and too many kids and dogs.

But you got better with it. You turned the page. You became more accustomed to attending online meetings as your boss got less trigger-happy about calling them. You are more adept at sharing your screen and showing your glorious design—the real one, not a screen capture embedded in a PowerPoint slide. You manage to avoid what was once the longest minute in your career as you fidget with the projector, the sweat when you think you have the wrong cable, the images that go off the screen, or the animation that played just fine yesterday—as you hear your boss drumming his fingers on the table.

With an online design review, you didn’t have to drag a physical prototype into the room, or show a scaled down and less impressive version of it. An airliner, or its wing, even its landing gear reduced to the size of a toy. The majesty of a bridge, shown against its setting or the jaw-dropping detail, down to the rivet, or a section view of a 3D model of the next supersonic transport. Instead, you are showing your design in the comfort of your design software interface, zooming, panning, animating, dazzling with an animation of a mechanism or unfurling a flow simulation. Looking at the faces on the screen, you can see they are suitably impressed.

And you did it safely and conveniently. You didn’t have to dress up—except maybe just from the waist up. You didn’t have to travel to a foreign and unfamiliar office and worry if they had the projector and screen. You didn’t have to worry about catching COVID from being in a room with so many people for so long—nor do they have to worry about you bringing the virus from wherever you came from.

And if you are the type to dread design reviews of any sort, virtual or physical, you will find comfort in having to do far fewer of them. With everyone having access to the design on the cloud, and being digitally collaborative, there is no longer a need for as many internal design reviews. Less digitally enlightened customers may still think they have to continue with old-style design reviews, but modern collaborative applications can extend to anyone—so long as they have an Internet connection and a web browser.

Under One Roof – The Integrated Collaborative Design Platform

At the heart of a manufacturing company is its design data. This puts the design software vendor, responsible for creating design data, in the best position to be able to present design data to all stakeholders. Design software has always been able to create, show and inform about the design to its users. The most sophisticated design software vendors are able to add geometric search to help you find similar designs, but most of the major design software vendors have added collaboration tools to grant access to design data to the product ecosystem, outside their traditional user base.

The software industry has demonstrated that it is easier to add collaboration tools to a design platform than it is to add design tools to a collaboration platform. Consider communication apps available today. They might be for consumer use (Twitter, for example) or for corporate use (like Slack or MS Teams). All fail at showing engineering data, such as 3D solid models in their native format. Users must resort to awkwardly sharing screens or screen shots or resorting to PowerPoint. “My favorite software is PowerPoint,” said no engineer ever.

Several platforms that include design, such as Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE, have added enough tools to make their users totally and comfortably collaborative. They have the comfort of staying with their favorite and familiar application and full confidence that native data will be shown in full fidelity.

There is no doubt that email has become the ubiquitous choice for communicating with others. Also, users continue to attach design files and PDFs to emails, making the email system an ad hoc file storage system that is both clumsy and unsafe (see Last Word: Security below). Anyone who has tried to follow an email trail on a project will appreciate all messages naturally separated by project inside a project-centered collaborative design platform.

Platforms that include design and collaboration have also added project management tools to allow setting workflows, assigning tasks, accepting assignments, setting individual accountability and tracking, showing calendars, setting milestones and updating task status. Workflows can be templated, roles and tasks clearly defined, to save time on subsequent, similar projects, leading to a better learning curve and improved profitability.

A Homegrown Solution? Careful.

Companies that cobble together a collaborative solution, each aspect filled with best-of-breed applications (native design software, plus MS Teams for real time communication, develop their cloud interface for Amazon Web Service, for example) will saddle their engineers with various, disparate interfaces—and their IT department with the burden of creating and maintaining a polyglot, nonuniform system.

Such a homegrown solution may look tantalizing in the early planning, especially if your leaders are prone to call their products unique and only possible due to proprietary processes. “How could anything on the shelf be able to handle our unique products and processes?” is a not uncommon refrain in companies that mistake difference for superiority. If a company includes significant software skills in-house, you might also hear “Aren’t we a software company?” This could lead to creating a software monster that is outside the core competency of the company. Companies can also oversimplify the requirements, only to discover the complexity required in the creation of collaboration software.

The collaborative system is unveiled and expected to be bulletproof and robust. It is expected to hit the ground running, save for the most minor instruction. Universal adoption is demanded. It will, over time, require resources to stay functional, handle enhancement requests and bug reports but, as often happens, the developers that have created it have moved on, lost interest, or both.

The Last Word: Security

The last word, and quite possibly the most important concern for those wary of cloud-based anything, the ones who see an elephant in the room, has been security. From startups with everything resting on a unique disruptive idea for the next big thing, to ultra-competitive consumer companies (think Apple guarding its latest iPhone design) to the military, where security is always a national concern, it is vitally important that the design be accessible to good guys—and be denied to the bad guys.

Design software vendors, long used to users who kept design data locally, with locks and keys on doors, have had to protect data stored remotely with encryption and password access.

While locked doors provide an obvious and visible security, we should be reminded they are often compromised. Champions of online data storage would argue it is easier to break into a locked office and steal a drive than it is to break into a cloud server with multiple levels of security and make sense out of encrypted data. In addition, a file’s protection can be centrally controlled. From an admin interface, a project manager can turn off access to a file for an uncertified vendor, for example. Try doing that by retracting a design file you sent attached to an email.

Email systems, as mentioned previously, make for clumsy and unsafe file storage. They are more easily hacked. In the process of being delivered, an email – and attached files – can be replicated on several servers, many of them not secure. There, the files sit unencrypted, accessible to anyone who can hack into them. As this is being written, several U.S. government agencies are reeling from their Microsoft Office 365 email systems being compromised and Russia’s foreign intelligence is suspected.

Also, datacenters are patrolled by guards. We’re guessing your company, no matter how security conscious it is, does not have armed guards. Being the focus of security concerns the way data centers are, these data centers have taken great pains to not only add security to prevent hacking but also to guard against data loss of other types (hardware failure, natural disaster, the elements, etc.) with frequent backups and redundant hardware—again, far beyond what you have in the office.

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