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Social Networking in Engineering

May 19, 2009
The changing face of collaboration in engineering.

Authored by:
Leslie Gordon
Senior Editor
[email protected]
My blog

Points to ponder:
• Like it or not, social networking is increasingly affecting how engineers work.
• Virtual worlds may soon be a handy way for designers to test products with consumers.

Apple Unibody,
Engineers Tips Forums,
Innovation Connection FEA tutorial,
Siemens PLM Software,
Vuuch Design Discussions,

Social-networking technologies such as blogs, wikis, and RSS feeds are changing how engineers work. This is happening even though many older engineers think social computing is just a distraction. Such skepticism hasn’t stopped other engineers from dabbling with microblog sites such as Twitter. And like it or not, major CAD developers are starting to weave these capabilities into their software.

One company in that category is PTC. President and COO James Heppelmann says, “Because LinkedIn and Facebook are really just Web sites, companies can’t deploy them in predetermined ways against business objectives. Microsoft, though, has come up with software called SharePoint that can be used in corporate environments as a social-computing platform. It includes technologies such as IM, chat, forums, real-time presencedetection, a Web framework to build-in new Web parts, and the like.”

Social product development
SharePoint comes preinstalled on Microsoft server O/Ss. The application integrates with Outlook and Microsoft Project Server and includes functions for imcollaboration and file sharing. “SharePoint is useful in and of itself for social computing. But in its vanilla or generic state, the program does not support product development,” says Heppelmann.

To get what PTC calls a social product-development system, the company has layered its Windchill Product- Point software with the Microsoft stack. “SharePoint is both an application and a package that lets users develop new code,” says Heppelmann.

The firm took the idea of sharing document files and turned it into the concept of sharing CAD files and structured file sets. To illustrate the difference: A Word user, for example, might create a document and save it to a SharePoint site. The file gets uploaded, some metadata is created, and so forth. A Pro/Engineer user might save the model of an airplane to the SharePoint site. But here the CAD might generate 7,500 files and 7,000-odd relationships of how components fit together. Outside observers logging into SharePoint would see all the files in the context of all the relationships.

“The most-sophisticated version of SharePoint facilitates the concept of My Site, letting users branch off and create a site for a special team or project,” says Heppelmann. “The software also has a People Profile function which lets users search for individuals with a needed skill, for instance, thermal analysis,” he says. “A lot of companies see SharePoint as their supplier portal. It involves external individuals in the business in a collaborative way that is careful not to expose too much information.”

In some ways, SharePoint can be considered the new Windows,” says Heppelmann. “Instead of logging into Windows, users will start their computers and log-in to SharePoint,” he says. “PTC and other firms have developed software to make SharePoint more specific for engineering and manufacturing companies which must tie in CAD data, visualization, product structures, and change management. Retail companies would need different capabilities.”

Heppelmann says he also uses social-networking technology off the job. “My current hobby is building a fourseat aircraft, a complex project for one person working in their basement and garage,” he says. “I must ask many people about engines, propellers, and avionics. Turns out, there is a forum for individuals who build aircraft. The forum is a useful tool for interacting with peers trying to solve similar problems.”

Other areas of interest
Going somewhat against the trend, a young industrial designer has not yet involved himself too deeply with social networking. “So far, I haven’t really used it as an engineering tool,” says Joe Moak, product design lead at a leading computer and consumer-product company. “A friend talked me into trying Twitter. It amazes me that I can blather about mindless things there and people seem to actually care. However, the site came in handy when I was having difficulties with the CAD software we use. I complained how the commands I love were goofing up imported surfaces. One of the Siemens PLM guys wrote back within minutes and explained how to eliminate the problem. I found this quick feedback impressive and helpful.”

Moak says he joined the Industrial Design (ID) group on LinkedIn, just looking and watching for now. “The discussions are a little disappointing,” he says. “I expected that industrial designers would be forward-thinking and would experiment with new tools and technologies, but that’s seemingly not the case. Most conversations involve students looking for ways to get into the industry, or help on a specific type of sketching. Alias has a group there, but it is mostly specific to the software.”

To really innovate, designers must understand manufacturing processes and their constraints well enough to push technologies, says Moak. “A good example is the Apple Unibody design — surprisingly, the whole thing is CNCed. Machining the units was actually more efficient and gave a more aesthetically beautiful product than other, more-intuitively sensible methods,” he says. “Yet the ID forum has no discussions about manufacturing constraints that can be pushed and about those that can’t. And — a big disappointment — there is not a lot of discussion on where the industry is going.”

An engineer who works as a consultant says he, too, has not yet jumped entirely into the social-networking fray. “I’m a bit old school and don’t text, so I would probably first turn to the telephone,” says Principal Engineer and owner of Campbell Consulting John Campbell. The firm specializes in structural design, simulation products, and services. “The roadblock I’ve run into with social networking — especially as someone who works from home — is fighting distractions,” says Campbell. “From that standpoint, I have not yet found social-networking tools advantageous.”

Campbell says he has never gone to the Twitter site. “Working with something like Twitter sounds almost like texting,” he says. “My worry would be that it pulls you away from your day-to-day tasks. However, I’ve used LinkedIn a number of times to get questions answered.”

The most useful site Campbell has found is “I first visited the site for FEA information, and it has since expanded, including forums for automotive, chemical engineering, electronics, materials, and mechanical. Discussions range from drafting issues to corporate survival. Users can create groups, a lot like LinkedIn. Users can also pose questions and get notified by e-mail that someone has responded.”

Campbell says that as a manager, he understands that engineers are looking for information. “Going back to my old school days, the Internet certainly helps. But I still use a lot of hardcover references to get knowledge. I also go through examples in software tools before I go to sites like LinkedIn or even forums, partly because replies take a while — you can pose a question on LinkedIn and probably get an answer in two days. Granted, I have gotten excellent responses.”

Finally, a chief engineer at a large engineering consultancy in aerospace, defense, and automotive industries as well as heavy-equipment and mining equipment firmly supports social networking as a business tool. “I’ll be beta testing the Web-based Vuuch Design Discussions software with my groups early next year,” says Matthew Loew of Daxon Engineering. “The software addresses the problem that products in CAD are organized with product structures and Bills of Materials (BOMs), but design discussions about products and the underlying engineering intent can be lost in engineers’ e-mail in-boxes.”

The software combines the functions of a blog, IM, and e-mail, using associativity to tie everything together. Each Web 2.0 function has a distinct advantage. Blogs provide a permanent record for anyone to see later on. IM is a dynamic way to get information. And e-mail commonly contains attachments with useful information and commentary. The software also provides traceability between requirements and product models.

“I am also active on LinkedIn managing a group for Simulation Driven Engineering to build a community of like-minded individuals, and use the tool for recruiting and business development as well. I, too, use Eng-Tips regularly as a way to get technical questions answered and participate in a community,” says Loew.

The point of using the discussion software is to help support coordination of large-scale engineering activities across multiple sites, multiple shifts, different networks, and evolving requirements says Loew. “The software along with current methods such as concurrent engineering, engineering modeling, and integrated requirements analysis should help boost our ongoing efforts to shorten development time, boost quality, and cut customer costs.”

Virtual worlds and collaboration
According to “Getting Real Work Done in Virtual Worlds,” a recent report from Forrester Research, virtual worlds are on the verge of becoming valuable work tools because they have advantages over other approaches to communication and collaboration. Major CAD developers such as Siemens PLM are experimenting with 3D virtual worlds such as Second Life as a new way to collaborate and engage customers.

“We want to test ways a virtual world might be leveraged for next-generation CAD,” says Director, PR and Social Media Dora Smith. For example, we use our Innovation Connection Island to connect with customers by featuring their products. We worked with Solid Edge customer Razor Scooter to provide a design tool on the island that lets visitors design their own scooter and take it with them. It’s just a short step from this kind of interaction to that of providing product designers an interactive way to test designs with end consumers, in real time.”

Smith says Siemens PLM has also used the island to promote and educate audiences on new CAD technology. “Last May, we did a virtual product launch in Second Life simultaneously with a live event in Boston,” she says. “Second Life let us reach attendees who could not attend the live event. We also hosted a scavenger hunt to promote a product launch. It was an in-world event where contestants won in-world as well as real-world prizes.”

The island also helps introduce potential customers to technology such as FEA, says Smith. “We also continue to experiment with customers and partners such as the Univ. of Cincinnati on the intersection of virtual worlds with 3D modeling and collaboration. UC used our JT data format to import 3D data into Second Life. This is important because data import and reuse are key to engineers’ increased use of Second Life and other networking tools.

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