Better Design Reviews: The Kids Don’t Know They’re Born*

I’m not sure whether it’s the fact that my eldest son is starting big school soon or the fact that next week I’m turning 40, but when the folks at PTC asked me to look at today’s vastly superior design review systems, I couldn’t help but think back to how things were – back in the day, as they say.

Those of you getting grey hair (or losing it) will be more than familiar with how things used to be.

When I started working in engineering, we had just started using computing tools extensively — Pro/ENGINEER was indeed our tool of choice for blow, rotational, and die cast mold design. We then created technical drawings to both communicate with the customer and to assist with progressing that information onto the shop-floor.

So we used all those tools to build parametrically constrained and intelligent models, hours of work to define the surfaces and intricate details –then laid out 2D drawings, added all the annotation, GD&T you’d expect.

Then we printed them out.

Yup. Thirty grand’s worth of software, running on 20 grand’s worth of UNIX workstation – and the end result was a paper drawing. Then what happened when we wanted to collaborate with the folks in purchasing, the client, the suppliers, and the shop-floor? We trampled around with A0 paper drawings, usually sheafs of them.

If the client was remote (and they typically were), that meant either posting or jumping in a car. To communicate that information electronically, we had a fax machine (anyone that’s tried to fax a scaled down tech drawing knows that’s as useful as a chocolate teapot). No email, no Internet.

Now consider how things are today and will be in the future.

We can share intelligent engineering information, whether in the form of a 3D model or a 2D drawing, in seconds. We can beam that information at the speed of light to whoever needs it. We have a plethora of formats and means to do it. In a PLM environment, we can trigger workflows and change order processes that inform the relevant parties. They can load up the task, inspect the information, make a decision, and progress things. We’re not sat on the A14 waiting for Big Terry to get some water back in the radiator of his Vauxhall Vectra that’s seen better days.

Traffic on the A14. Photo Mike Snoswell, via Wikimedia commons.

We also have such a wide range of devices available to consuming that information. Consider the smart phone that’s in your pocket (or, that you might be reading this on). That’s a high-powered computer, permanently connected to the Internet, that enables this. That’s just phones. We have iPads, Micosoft’s Surface devices – I’ve even heard of an engineer signing off on a change request using the web browser on his monochrome Kindle on the beach in the Caribbean. We’ve even got Internet-connected watches. By the Gods, we’re spoiled.

We’ve also got rich software to enable those interactions. Software and associated services that can feed us lightweight, fully interactive 3D models of amazingly large datasets. On a device that will fit in your cargo pants’ pocket. When you stop to consider how far we’ve come, it’s breathtaking. But not as breathtaking as it will be.

Look at the resurgence of interest in virtual and augmented reality (mostly driven by companies like Google and Facebook spending, literally, billions on it). You can pick up an Oculus Rift for $300 on eBay and the consumer, product variant is due soon. For those that haven’t seen them, they’re a stereographic headset that tracks your movement.

Given the right support, you can walk around a digital model as you would a physical prototype. Microsoft’s HoloLens looks to do much the same, but enables the mixing in of the real-world environment. Smart phones will soon have 3D scanning capability. If you thought our tools today were impressive, just wait – remarkable things are coming. And we, as creators and consumers of digital 3D information, stand to make the best of them.

[Ed. *British idiom, meaning “unaware of their good fortune.”  Happy Birthday Al!]