PLM Files Detox

October 21, 2014

zero-files-no-CAD-files

The digital life around us is changing. It was a time when everything we did was running around desktop computer. You do your job, Save As… and, yes(!) put it in a file that can give you control over the result of your job. That’s the reason why engineers are in love with CAD files and Excel spreadsheets – it gives them full control of what they do. Excels are getting messy within time, but we can start a new file or open a new Excel spreadsheet.

Rob Cohee of Autodesk reminded me how much engineers are in love with files in his LinkedIn article – My Name is Rob, and I’m Addicted to Files. I captured few passages from Rob’s article before. He brilliantly explains the full engineering enjoyment of control over design and related information.

It started out small with a .DWG here, a .DOC, there with a sprinkle of .XLS files in between.

I had the freedom to create all this data, and the power is nothing short of addicting. Critical design requirements, tolerance, specification, and performance requirements, assembly instructions, a digital folder of file after file containing all of this critical information. I was the Michelangelo of AutoCAD R13 C4, the DWG was my canvas, safety was my muse.

The drawing file became everything. It was my design, requirements document, revision control, my parts list, my BOM, my supplier and procurement instructions, my cut list, my everything. All that data, all in one place locked away in my CAD file that only I had access to make modifications. The control was dizzying, euphoric at times. Any change to the drawing file had to go through me and me alone.

Rob’s article reminded me some of my old posts – The future of CAD without files. I still like very much a diagram I placed there from O’Reilly Radar article – Why files need to die. Here is my conclusion back into 2011.

The fundamentals of CAD and design systems are files. We use them to store assemblies, parts, drawings. In addition to that, we use them as a reference in many places. Do think “file” paradigm will live with CAD and other design systems forever? The movement of CAD vendors seems to me the obvious application of modern web principles to the world of design and engineering. The initial signals are here. CATIA V6 pushed the limits and eliminated files by connecting CATIA system directly to Enovia back-end. Autodesk cloud experiments with systems like AutoCAD WS made existence of files on the disc obsolete. PTC introduced Creo Apps. It will be interesting to see if PTC will come with the future idea of eliminating files. I think the computing and information paradigms are shifting from file-oriented to data (and web) oriented. The initial signs are here. The speed of this movement is questionable. Manufacturing is slow changing environment and engineers are very reluctant to changes.

PDM (Product Data Management) was a solution to end CAD file mess. PDM systems came to hunt for CAD and other files. The intent was to bring files into order, manage revisions, share data and… after some time, to eliminate files. We can see it started to happen now in some high-end systems such as CATIA V6. So, why PDM failed to detox engineers from files? Here is the thing… PDM was invented to help engineers to manage and control data. It sounds like engineers should like PDM, since it helps them to control files. But it didn’t go according to the plan. PDM added "frictions" into engineering freedom to create data in the way engineers want. Name control, check-in/out, approvals, etc. As a result of that, PDM failed to become a friend and turned to be engineers’ nightmare. Engineers don’t like PDM and in many situations engineers were forced to use PDM.

Working environment is changing fast. We are getting disconnected from files in our digital life. Our everyday workflows are getting distributed, mobile, disconnected from desktops and… files. We want to get access to data and not to files. To make this process successful, we need to think how to remove frictions. When you go to engineering school, you learn about importance of frictions. But software is different. Especially these days. Frictions can slow down the process of software adoption.

What is my conclusion? Engineering and manufacturing is slow changing environment. Engineers are conservative and design minded. Therefore, many PLM tools failed to become a favorite engineering data management and collaboration tool. Large teams accepted PDM tools because they had no choice. I believe, the future won’t belong to files. We are going to see more data-driven environment around us. To establish such environment is one of the main challenges for PLM companies today. To make it happen, PLM vendors must think how to remove frictions between users and PLM tools. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


Do We Need Engineering Note App?

March 27, 2014

engineering-notes-app

Yesterday’s post about how engineers can collaborate in the office, made me think about another aspect of collaboration – taking notes. You may argue… Taking notes isn’t specifically collaborative activity. However, I can see it very tightly coupled with our ability to communicate and collaborate.

There are lots of applications for notes taking these days. Just to mention few of them – Evernote, OneNote, Word processing applications such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs. You can see a comparison of some popular applications here. Mobile is another interesting platform today for notes taking and it created a separate niche. Take a look here – Five best mobile note taking apps. Expanding even more, Evernote is transforming into platform and allows to other development specific note taking apps – The Best Evernote Apps for Organizing Even More of Your Life.

Do you think engineers are taking notes? I think, they do. I have to admit that I do… I also know few other engineers that taking notes. Now think about engineers using CAD systems and many other engineering and manufacturing applications. Do they need a special application to take notes? Maybe CAD should develop "note function"? Maybe new social collaboration tools will provide it? I don’t know. Nevertheless, I want to outline some specific functional requirements for engineering notes app:

1- Engineering context support. When you take notes, you want to be able to capture snippet of a specific content coming from CAD and maybe other engineering content creation tools (analysis, bill of materials, etc.)

2- Integrated camera for 3D, photo, voice and video capturing. It is very important to be able to capture real world content. Engineers can take this app to field trips or use it at shop floor. Ability to take photo, video or even capturing 3D model is extremely useful.

3 – Integrated measurement tools. Measurement is another aspect of engineering activity. To have ability to take measurement in the field or check dimensions can be extremely important.

What is my conclusion? There are lots of general purpose application for taking notes. Nevertheless, I think, customization is important. To have note taking app tailored for the needs of engineers can be an interesting option. Especially, if this app will support a specific engineering context. If you know one, please let me know. I didn’t find it yet. How to make this app? This is a tricky question. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


How engineers find path from emails and messages to collaboration?

March 14, 2014

email-message-collaboration

We are really bad about managing ourselves. The natural people behavior is to create mess. Life is getting more dynamic these days. We are swamped into the ocean of information, data streams, social networks, emails, calls, etc. If you want me to do something, send me an email. I’m pretty sure you are familiar with such type of behavior? I’m sure you do. This is our way to get our of mess, so we can track everything. It is true for both private and business life. One of the most requested feature in all PLM workflow systems I developed was to send notifications via email. HRB article Stop using your inbox as to-do list speaks about why we should stop this bad behavior. I liked the following passage:

The reason so many of us fall into the trap of conflating email and task management is that email is inextricable from much of what we do in work and in life: many of our tasks arrive in the form of email messages, and many other tasks require reading or sending emails as part of getting that work done.

While there are those who solve this problem by simply tracking their to-dos using the task manager within Outlook (or another email platform), that approach comes at too steep a cost. Keeping your tasks in your email program means you can’t close that program (and its attendant distractions) when you want to plow through your task list. Having both activities as part of one application also means that you’ll still have to flip from one view to the other; even if you open a separate window for your task list, you risk losing sight of it in a sea of open emails. Most crucially, defaulting to the task manager that is built into your email client means you don’t get to choose the particular task manager that works best for your particular kind of work, or work style.

Email became the pile of all activities I need to do. It is a mix of emails, tasks, alerts and everything else that eventually comes to my inbox to distract me. I want to resolve this mess. At the same time we all panic when messages are starting to come into multiple channels, since we are afraid to miss them. So want both – to keep all messaging activities together and focus on what is important and what needs to be done. It is a time to come with David Allen’s Getting Things Done method. Such method and systems can work for individuals, but what happens in groups, especially when these groups are sharing common tasks? This is where we get social these days.

Social became such a buzzword for the last few years. How many times you’ve heard "Facebook for xyz" or "Twitter for abc". I guess a lot… One of the companies that comes to my mind in that context is Yammer. The idea of Yammer was simple – go viral by combining people messages in activity streams. Microsoft snapped Yammer for $1.2B few years ago. Now Microsoft is converging Yammer with SharePoint – an attempt to create social collaboration system. Mobile has very strong impact on our life these days. Does mobile+social is a future big deal? For some of people it is really big deal – especially when we speak about Whatsapp acquisition by Facebook. Companies are recognizing the importance of messaging platforms. Example in engineering and CAD space – Autodesk (disclose – my current employer) just released mobile group messaging application Autodesk Instant.

So, social chat, social messaging, social networking are good. However, where is the line that turns emails and messaging into collaboration? The difference is big. What can differentiate between social email facilitating communication and system that allows people to collaborate (work together)? I posted Will Microsoft-Yammer kill social PLM? Not yet… The topic differentiating messaging and collaboration is context (piece of data). This data is presented in a contextual form allowing people to make operations and activities together. The simplest "collaboration" is commenting on Facebook photo. In the context of engineering activity, it can be more complex. What about drawing or 3D model? This is a good context for common work. So, collaborative nature of the system is first of all to allow access and common activity on the contextual data. Technically it can be done by sending email with link to the file on FTP site. But it is so 95…

What is my conclusion? I don’t think there is a clear boarder between email,messaging and collaboration. It is blurred. However, access to contextual information and data representations such as photo, spreadsheet, drawing or 3D model is the most important thing that differentiate between any type of fancy email / messaging and collaboration. By accessing these pieces of information together people can work together and get job done in an organized form. Engineers are surrounded by huge amount of complex information. So, collaboration is clearly way to go. However, don’t underestimate simple messaging, especially for some downstream tasks. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


CAD, Engineers and Online Communities

February 19, 2014

cad-engineers-community

Remember our life before internet? The meaning of community was about social group that shares common values. Actually, the history of communities is longer than history of CAD software :). So called "Community Rules" were mentioned in one of the first scrolls found in Qumran Cave. Community word often explains common geography or environment. However, in human communities it is usually comes down to needs, belief, intent, risks, etc. Internet expanded borders of social groups and made possible to create virtual communities. The result – massive creation of online communities (social networks). Some of them, such as Facebook, started as a virtual continuation of physical social groups (academic organization). Social networks today represent huge segment of online internet activities.

The success of social business and social networking raised multiple questions among developers of business software. Collaboration still remains one of the biggest problem in organization. Geographical distribution is another reason why companies are looking how to improve communication. Software vendors are coming with the ideas of software to collaborate similar to social networking web sites. In addition to that, community creation is related to customer activities. This is where a potential to link collaboration in an organization and customer activities.

So, what is the secret of successful community creation? I was reading The collision of communities few days ago. Article brings some interesting perspectives on community organizations and some driving factors behind community work. Among them, article speaks about Jelly (Q&A search), Wut and Secret (anonymous status apps). These are communities too. Author compares these communities with communities companies are creating these days. Fundamentally, in order to be successful, communities are sharing the same common behavior and interest. Here is my favorite passage from the article:

Every social startup that launches hope to have a large, organic community organize around their product. They hire community managers and product managers spend a lot of time thinking about how to increase engagement. Jelly, Wut and Secret, each different in application, have at it core, the need to build and cultivate a vibrant community to succeed, and in order to do so, they must remember the first community rule: He shall guide them with knowledge and instruct them in the mysteries of wonder and truth in the midst of the members of the community, so that they shall behave decently with one another in all that has been revealed to them.

Engineering software companies are joining the bandwagon community building. Social CAD, Social PLM, Social Collaboration – for the last few years we’ve heard a lot about how community driven (social) software will change the way we do business. We can only speculate about successes and failures of social software. However, I want to bring two examples of communities related to engineering software – SolidWorks Users and GrabCAD.

SolidWorks has large and successful community. Nobody can argue. The common interests and needs among them is to share knowledge and experience of how to use SolidWorks. In my view, it was extremely important to all participants since it allowed to them (engineers) to get CAD system support. Most of SolidWorks users are working for small firms that had no budget and engineering IT to help them.

GrabCAD is an interesting example. Started few years ago as "Facebook for Engineers", it succeeded to gather about 1 million engineers to share CAD files online. Here is my pure speculation how it was done. Re-use is one of the fundamental engineering behavior. You can save a lot of time by re-using existing design even if you will modify it. Back in my university years, to have an old similar project was a huge time saving factor in every project I did. GrabCAD provided to engineers models to reuse CAD models for the best price – free. In addition to that, it helps engineers to self-promote their work.

Think about these two examples. In both cases, focus on identification of "community rule" was a key to success. It should be something that will drive common interests and benefits of all participants. Wikipedia article about organizational communication can be a good source of learning and additional information. Here are few assumptions I captured:

All we really need to understand communication in organizations is (a) observable and replicable behaviors that can be transformed into variables by some form of measurement, and (b) formally replicable syllogisms that can extend theory from observed data to other groups and settings. Organizations are mechanical things, in which the parts (including employees functioning in defined roles) are interchangeable. What works in one organization will work in another similar organization. Individual differences can be minimized or even eliminated with careful management techniques.

What is my conclusion? Ask two engineers about how to do a project – you will get 3 options. To work with engineers is like herding cats. Nevertheless, the focus should be on identification and capturing of behaviors that can help engineers in their everyday life. Be prepared to discover something different from traditional organizational goals like "improve quality" or "decrease cost". By capturing and replicating engineers’ behaviors you can find a recipe to organize a successful engineering community. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


Why engineers need exploratory search?

December 13, 2013

engineers-exploratory-search

Search. One of the most powerful changes in experience we’ve seen for the last 10-15 years. It is interesting, but search was with us many years. Search or find was a functionality in every enterprise application already 20-25 years ago. However, before Google made us to believe and experience the power of web search, the importance of this function was clearly underestimated. Because of Google wide adoption, we associate almost everything in search innovation with Google. It is not unusual to hear that vendor or developer is comparing what they do in search with Google.

Interesting enough, search innovation happens outside of Google Headquarters too. Old article from 2007 – Top 17 Search Innovations Outside Of Google speaks about it. Have a read, compare your notes from 2007 and draw your opinion. Several innovation mentioned in the article aree very resonating with PLM, engineering and manufacturing. The following two are my top choices – result refinement and parametric search. Here are passages I captured:

Results refinement and Filters: Often a natural next step after a search is to drill down into the results, by further refining the search. This is different from the "keyword-tweaking" that we’ve all gotten used to with Google; it’s not just experimenting with keyword combinations to submit a new query, but rather, an attempt to actually refine the results set [akin to adding more conditions to the "where" clause of a SQL query] – this would allow users to narrow the results and converge on their desired solution.

Parametric search: This type of search is closer to a Database query than a Text search; it answers an inherently different type of question. A parametric search helps to find problem solutions rather than text documents. For example, Shopping.com allows you to qualify clothing search with a material, brand, style or price change; job search sites like indeed let you constrain the matches to a given zip code; and GlobalSpec lets you specify a variety of parameters when searching for Engineering components (e.g. check out the parameters when searching for an industrial pipe ). Parametric search is a natural feature for Vertical Search engines.

Another interesting writeup that drove my attention last week was LinkedIn post – The Changing Face of Exploratory Search. Daniel Tunkelang, speaks about modern trends in search, such as entity-oriented search, knowledge-graph and search assistance. The conclusion Daniel made in his article is that future of search is in combination of faceted search and search assistance. He called it exploratory search. I found the following quotes very insightful:

Exploratory searcher has a set of search criteria in mind, but does not know how many results will match those criteria — or if there even are any matching results to be found.

Combining entity-oriented search and knowledge graphs has led to the use of faceted search interfaces that expose entities to searchers and encourage searchers to combine entities into precise search queries.

Search assistance offers the promise of making faceted search more accessible to the average searcher, enabling searchers to compose faceted search queries as they type. Indeed, search assistance makes it possible to expose untrained searchers to a richer set of relationships than typical faceted search interfaces, approaching the expressiveness of a database query language like SQL. Facebook’s Graph Search offers a taste of what is possible by combining faceted search with search assistance. It encourages people to create structured queries inside the search box, using suggestions along the way to guide the process of query construction.

PLM vendors are looking towards how to provide search as part of user experience. For most of user today, search is a natural part of application. At the same time, engineering and manufacturing data is semantically rich and interconnected. The complexity of products is growing. Product configurations, bill of materials, suppliers, manufacturers and many other data islands. All together creates a complex data access problem.

What is my conclusion? Customer demands is to have simplicity of Google combined with the complexity of product configuration, multiple bill of materials, variety of document configurations, manufacturing and supply data. The idea of "exploratory search" can be very compelling for engineering and manufacturing data. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


Why PDM stuck in non-web age?

July 27, 2013

Web as a platform. You can hear many conversations about that nowadays. Started as cloud talks, it comes more to the point where we can see the discussion about how “world wide web” is changing user experience and computing paradigms. One of the strongest trends coming on top of massive shift towards web paradigm is consumerization trend in enterprise. Lots of technologies, applications and paradigms were proven during past decade with “consumer space”. These techs are trying to find their paths towards our working places.

Thinking about engineering and manufacturing software these days, I can see a significant shift towards web (and cloud) computing and software. Autodesk joined web race by introducing many cloud products over the past 2-3 years (Autodesk 360, PLM 360, Fusion 360, CAM 360, etc.) After yesterday announcement made by Dassault System about new cloud based portfolio, I need to revisit my 2 years old blog – PLM Cloud: differentiation or “anti-cloud rant”?

I want to speak today about PDM (product data management) or EDM (Engineering Data Management) in early days. The PDM discipline is around since mid 80s. Few days ago, GrabCAD published an interesting blog post covering some historical PDM roots. Nevertheless, despite all changes, look back 10 years and now. Not much changes you can find. I still can see massive amount of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets flying around in and out engineering desktops and manufacturing facilities. The spreadsheets is one of the main evidence of the fact engineers are stuck on their desktops.

I was reading an interesting interview by Scott Moyse – Synergis Adept Trumps Windows File Management. This is a journey of the company implementing product data management this year. What struck me the most is how deep PDM philosophy is connected to folders/files hierarchy paradigm. Here is an interesting passage I captured:

SM: What system did you use to manage your documentation prior to purchasing Adept? RH: Pretty much Windows Explorer (file manager). We had secure drives and it was divided into folders and file names. People would search the servers to find drawings, and if they didn’t have AutoCAD they opened them with DWG Trueview.

SM: Have you maintained that folder structure for Adept? RH: Pretty much, I would say we still have same folder structure that we put into Adept’s database. Using Adept’s Library Browser, we can still see the folder structure and drill down to a specific file. Now we search for our files with Adept’s Library card. We just type in whatever information we want in a search field and the file comes up. But the Windows file structure is still there because Adept doesn’t scramble or move the files.

Thinking more about that, I came to my top 5 reasons why I think engineers love their files and folders. It also explains why PDM “stuck on the desktop”:

1- Majority of engineering stuff lives on the desktop or shared network drives these days. These are large files and perception that moving these files to web environment is complicated, painful and not necessarily needed.

2- Most of engineers are convinced that they can collaborate using “file exchange paradigm”, so they don’t think how to make a change. CAD file viewers are probably the only one mainstream web technologies came to engineering space that takes files from desktop and file servers to outside of engineering space.

3- Engineers have limited interests to share. For many years, engineering departments were treated as “black boxes”. Engineers must do design and provide the result. Manufacturing and operation can do the rest. So, it developed sort of “comfort zone” for most of engineers – don’t touch my stuff I put in my folders.

4- Many engineers are concerned about IP (Intellectual property). Especially, not very computer savvy engineers are afraid of the wild behavior of the web spreading viruses and stealing identities. So, typical engineering position – I don’t want to be responsible for potential leak of IP outside of the company.

5- There is no real Excel replacement on the web. There are many products that trying to mimic Excel. Microsoft SharePoint made lots of work converting spreadsheets into online data services. However, there is nothing online yet that can take a full flexibility of MS Excel spreadsheet and put it online.

What is my conclusion? In the world of web and social networks, engineers remain one of the most conservative group of people working entirely on the desktop. Desktop remains a comfort zone for most of engineers. How to get engineers out of this comfort zone? This is a question many CAD and other engineering software developers are thinking about. New design and collaboration tools are coming these days to make engineering to cloud transformation happen. It will come as a combination of new design tools, shifting paradigms and influence of new generation of engineers. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


PLM, Engineers and Collective Memory

January 24, 2013

Many years ago, one of my mentors told me that "the worst pencil is better than the best memory". I liked it. Since than, I have no trust in remembering things. I started to take notes. I switched to be completely paperless 4-5 years ago. The biggest problem on my way to become completely paperless was the ability to capture information at the time you need it coming from multiple sources. Finally, iPhone and combination of apps allowed me to create an environment where I can keep track of my activities and get access to this at any time.

Engineering people are bad organized (please, don’t take it personally). Processes and work planning are not going well with engineers designing and creating new products. Companies tried to create innovation process management software, but in my view it was very unsuccessful. At the same time, I can see a need of engineers to capture information alongside their everyday activities.

One of the products I’m using to capture the information on a daily basis is Evernote. It supports many ways to capture notes using web and mobile versions including capturing of videos, pictures, website links and many others. Combined with search function, it helps to keep things organized. Evernote is not alone in this market. Two additional notable companies in this space – Clipboard and Snip.it. The last one was snatched by Yahoo few days ago. Watch the following two videos if you are not using similar products in your life.

From Personal to Collective Memory

I found a total absence of tools that can help engineers to capture their everyday working activities. Of course, engineers are not prohibited from usage of Evernote, Google and many other tools. At the same time, one of the key elements in capturing the activity is contextual relationships to information. In case of Evernote, it is photo, voice memos, videos, etc. To make engineering and design context capturing can be an interesting opportunity, in my view. They key element is efficiency. Engineers won’t tolerate even additional 30 secs of their working time. However, to memorize design idea, concept or decision can be extremely powerful.

The next interesting step can come with the ability to provide information around a particular item, drawing, product, customer, etc. collected by different people in organization. Such type of clipboards can become a sort of collective memories. The potential value can be significant – lost ideas, forgotten decisions, potential customer problems and many others.

What is my conclusion? Our memory is not efficient. To be able to capture information around engineering and design activity is still very untapped place. Usability is a key. Vendors can learn from tools like Evernote and others how to create a tool you can use in your everyday life in any environment. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Image courtesy of [keattikorn] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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