Why Do Engineers Need the Cloud?

Sept. 24, 2014

Today’s typical engineering workstation boasts compute power beyond the dreams of the team behind NASA space missions of the 1960s and 1970s. And yet we can always use more. In fact, mechanical engineers will find creative ways to hog all the compute power you can throw at us. We need the cloud because it promises to provide a near-infinite amount of it.

Most of the stuff we do in three-dimensional computer-aided design (3D CAD) runs superbly with the resources that today’s engineers have to work with. But there are definitely moments when some of us wish we could set a supercomputer loose on the task at hand—as with simulated testing, for example. Will the exterior of my spacecraft survive the intense heat of reentry into Earth ’s atmosphere? How will the exhaust gases flow in the combustion chamber of the rotary engine I’m working on? What will happen to the front end of my supercar design in a 30-mile-per-hour collision? Complex physical simulations such as this can require immense processing power—power that you may already have at your fingertips if you work at NASA or Nissan.

But what if you work at a small to medium manufacturer? What if your company only has a dozen or so engineers?

Good news. By delivering a quantum leap in processing power to any engineer with high-speed Internet and a credit card, the cloud threatens to disrupt the inherent advantages of scale and location. In other words, from here on it’s no longer where you are or how big you are; it ’s the strength of your idea, your ability to rally others around it, and your skill and agility in execution. This is not to say that this means the end of big companies: Deep pockets and the ability to marshal vast resources still matter. But “big” has less of an inherent edge, and slow and stupid become bigger liabilities.

In today’s global economy, planetary wisdom is increasingly indispensable. What builds planetary wisdom? Enabling engineers to apply more raw compute power to design problems. Cloud computing makes it possible to analyze a much wider spectrum of risks. Thousands of alternative models can be run in parallel, making simulation a discovery tool instead of a mere validation tool.

All Heads Converge in the Cloud

For me, this is where it gets really exciting. Coming from one side, we see the cloud putting powerful new tools within reach of start-ups and individual engineers. On the other side, in our GrabCAD community, we see, in front of our eyes, almost 1.5 million engineers and designers developing a new collaborative culture that empowers start-ups and individual creators.

Remote collaboration isn’t new, of course. Since the prehistoric 1,200-baud era, engineers have been exchanging CAD files by modem and FTP. More recently, they have been doing it via file-sharing services such as Dropbox. But collaboration remains clunky. File versions get out of synch as bits and pieces of projects are scattered in hard drives throughout the team. Laptops get left in airport restrooms. E-mail attachments fall victim to hackers.

Even where collaboration is well organized, under the status quo the work remains locked inside CAD programs accessible only by the “priesthood,” the engineers and designers equipped with the full and correct 3D CAD package. That makes it difficult to show other stakeholders—management, marketing, purchasing, or suppliers—how the project is progressing. They are completely locked out, so their feedback fails to make it into the loop.

The key is to get the right balance between easy, accessible, and universal:

Easy enough that anyone can see what’s going on, even non-engineers who have never seen CAD in their lives.
Accessible so that users can see their data and updates wherever they are. With the cloud, it’s easy to make data accessible to any computer, but today, users expect to have access from smartphones and tablets as well.
Universal in terms of being able to support all CAD platforms and any other kind of file a user might care to share on a project, such as photos, video, or text.

Wrapping heads around a New Business Model

Still, some industry executives have trouble getting their heads around the idea of appearing on the same stage as their rivals. To get over this obstacle, I have to explain it in terms of real world retail.

When deciding where to locate a brick-and-mortar store, you strive to position them where the customers go. But when you have the four biggest players in a particular category, one on each corner of an intersection, then that place becomes a magnet for whatever it is you sell.

CAD executives would be wise to get their heads around it, because the same tsunami of price destruction that leveled music and publishing is heading straight for them. These vendors still have customers paying $10,000 per seat for CAD packages they don’t fully understand how to use and, in some cases, that they don ’t use every day. Plus, they are paying a 20% annual “maintenance fee” to get a software upgrade every two years.

With cloud-based software, you can see in real time how real people interact with your product, and you can improve it accordingly. At GrabCAD, we have learned this lesson by building our Workbench tool closely with our user community. If any users encounter a problem with Workbench, they can click the icon on every page that says: “I wish this page would . . .” And the chief executive officer receives an immediate notification. I know because I’m the CEO. If you are having trouble uploading a new file version, you can click “request file support.” That generates an e-mail to everyone in our company, creating a huge level of awareness that usually results in the bug being fixed within minutes. This approach strips bureaucracy out of product management and keeps our engineering customers happy. And as everyone knows (or should know), “happy engineers create better products.”

We are just getting to the really exciting part. A new collaboration culture is taking shape. New cloud-based tools either have emerged or are emerging. And we now have the platforms needed to facilitate collaboration. The stage is set.

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