Hexagon’s Nexus Aims to Be The Rosetta Stone for Engineering

SVP of Software talks about cleaning up Hexagon’s mess and building the next generation of manufacturing apps and services.

“Nexus has two identities,” says Arno Zinke, SVP of Software at Hexagon AB. “It’s the internal platform that we needed to clean up our own mess and it’s also an offering that makes it easier for third parties to build on the capabilities we’ve created.”

That level of candor is refreshing in a world where every new piece of software is marketed as a “solution” (often one looking for a problem, rather than the other way round). You won’t hear many global organizations admitting that they have a mess that needs to be cleaned up but, in this case, Zinke’s description is apt.

Hexagon is a sprawling organization, with divisions encompassing everything from agriculture to mining to infrastructure and, of course, product design and manufacturing. That means a lot of data: equipment statuses, building codes, product specifications—all of it scattered across various formats and siloes. But if engineers have learned anything about data, it’s that extracting its full value means being able to leverage it in the right ways by making it available at the right times.

That’s the idea behind Hexagon’s digital reality platform in a nutshell: make data more accessible within and across organizations. And what better place to start than inside Hexagon itself?

According to Zinke, Nexus began as an internal tool for three reasons. “It’s about the gravity of the platform—getting buy-in from other parts of the organization. It also demonstrates commitment, because if you’re using it internally then customers know it’s not just an experiment. And finally, it’s also about maturity: eating your own dog food. If you never use the platform because it’s not mature enough, why would you turn it over to external customers?”

Openness and Transparency

Zinke frames Nexus as being data-centric, designed to be open, transparent and accessible. “If I want to share a PDF with you,” he explains, “I don’t care what you’ll be using to read it and you don’t care what I used to produce it. We think it should be exactly the same with engineering data.”

In practical terms, that means users can read and write data using Nexus without needing a proprietary application programming interface (API). This is epitomized in the recently announced Nexus for Developers, which is intended to accelerate third-party app development for Nexus by providing the software development kit (SDK) building blocks to connect other products and services to Nexus.

The goal is a kind of networking effect: the more products and services that are connected to Nexus (and to each other), the more valuable the platform becomes, not just for Hexagon but for manufacturers as well. Most manufacturing engineers have heard the familiar complaint about data siloes, where the design and production teams practically speak different languages because of the diversity of their toolsets.

Nexus could be the Rosetta Stone for engineering, if it can deliver what Hexagon is promising.

The Limits of Interoperability

For a platform built to connect innumerable engineering workflows, files and formats, ‘interoperability’ is clearly the rallying cry for Nexus. Asked about the limitations of Nexus’s interoperability, Zinke points out that it’s important to distinguish between syntactic interoperability and semantic interoperability.

The former is purely concerned with reading data but this is still a powerful capability on its own, because it enables engineers to do computations, perform statistical analyses and so on.

In contrast, semantic control requires understanding and preserving information across different applications as well as different programming languages. “Semantic interoperability requires working with different bodies that focus on the standardization of data or leveraging existing standards,” Zinke says. “The other aspect of it is ease of integration, which is more on the API/SDK side. We embrace the web ecosystem so that it’s easy to integrate with web apps and cloud apps. These days, web technology can be easily integrated with desktop systems, which is what we do ourselves.”

Hexagon’s approach here is based on open-source technology, specifically Microsoft’s Fluid Framework. This is another example of a development decision that would have been unusual from a large corporation such as Hexagon—or, for that matter, Microsoft—even a few years ago.

However, as Zinke points out, there are clear benefits to taking an open-source approach and avoiding proprietary technology wherever possible: “If you build proprietary tech, you now need to maintain it forever and it’s harder to adopt because your customers need to think about licensing and proprietary contracts. It doesn’t help you scale and it’s also not differentiating.”

What’s Next for Nexus?

While the scope of Nexus is undeniably ambitious, its rollout is proceeding at a more measured pace. This is reflected not only in its early development as an internal product, but in how it’s being delivered to Hexagon’s customers, subsidiaries and partners. “We’re currently in the preview phase, if you will,” says Zinke. “So we’re intentionally restricting the number of users until we get to the pilot phase in Q4 of this year.”

By that time, the Nexus ecosystem will include not only Altium, the electronic design automation software company which was the first to connect its cloud platform, but Nvidia’s Omniverse as well. And with every additional cloud and platform that connects, Nexus becomes that much more useful to designers and engineers, even though they may not realize it on a day-to-day basis.

“The idea is not to disrupt any workflows,” Zinke says, “because many of our customers are using desktop apps, so we don’t want to break anything but just, step-by-step, make those more powerful. In those cases, they’ll just see the new capabilities enabled by Nexus. For developers, there will be those building blocks to connect the data fabric, with visual collaboration, compute capabilities and so on.”

If data is the lifeblood of manufacturing, then Nexus is aiming to become a new circulatory system to invigorate its vital organs—CAD/CAM, PLM, and so on—rather than replace them.

The question is: Will the host accept this transplant?