Four Game-Changing Technologies that Redefined Engineering in 2015

As we round the corner on 2015, technologies that were more lip service than actual products have finally become part of daily design routines—a sign, perhaps, that engineers are ready for the next wave of innovation.

Unlike years past when engineers were thrilled by advanced modeling functionality or appeased by usability enhancements, this year’s bumper crop of design-related innovations seemed to reach higher and promise more lasting impact on engineering workflows.

Sure, there was the usual assortment of cool bells and whistles headlining the latest CAD and 3D software releases. Yet 2015 brought technology advancements that will forever change how engineers make use of critical design tools while doing wonders to enhance collaboration, empowering extended teams to share and evolve designs from anywhere and on their device of choice.

2016 certainly promises to usher in a fresh wave of technology—think the Internet of Things (IoT) and augmented reality–that will give pundits and early adopters plenty to chew on during the next hype cycle. (More on what to watch out for in 2016 in a subsequent post) But for now, here are five game-changing technologies that really came together in 2015, making a big difference in the lives of engineers today—and for the foreseeable future.

1.   Composites.

A cross-industry focus on energy savings and cost reduction has shifted attention to lightweighting as a major design goal. Composite materials, considered a linchpin in slimming down and simplifying designs, has gained significant traction in industries like automotive, aerospace and defense, wind turbines, and boat building, among other sectors. According to market research company Research and Markets, the global market for composite materials is expected to grow substantially, reaching approximately $36 billion with a CAGR of about 7% between 2014 and 2020. Efforts like Boeing Dreamliner 787 and the redesign of the Ford 150 truck are widely cited proof points of the potential for composites to radically recast traditional designs.

The 787 is the first major commercial airplane to have a composite fuselage, composite wings, and use composites in most other airframe components. Photo Mark J. Handel via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the fervor over composites, the medium presents some challenges for the average engineer, who isn’t necessarily versed in how to optimize the stacking order and direction of composite ply layers.

2.   Cloud and mobile software deployment.

We’re been hearing about how the cloud and mobility is redefining enterprise IT, and finally, that shift is starting to play out in the engineering space. Many of the major players, including PTC, have finally rolled out cloud-based deployment options that promise more flexibility, less reliance on IT, and faster time to deployment, opening up high-end design capabilities to small- and mid-size players who might otherwise not been able to afford them.

Robots make petit fours on the factory floor at Colony Brands. Colony is an old company, well known for its holiday foods. It’s also one of the earliest adopters of PLM cloud software. [Screen capture]

 Mobility, too, is starting to find its way into select engineering applications, albeit not on the same scale as mainstream business systems. Mobile variations of PLM and 3D viewing capabilities give engineers the flexibility to participate in design reviews while on the road, or access key design data at a client site all from the convenience of a mobile phone or tablet.

3.   Simulation everywhere.

It’s not necessarily a new technology, but simulation really hit its stride this year. Thanks to tighter coupling between CAD and CAE tools, including streamlined user interfaces and in some cases, the ability to access key simulation functionality from directly inside the CAD environment, analysis-led design has become a mainstream best practice, giving companies an innovation edge. According to the Worldwide 2015 CAD Trends Survey report from Business Advantage Group, simulation is a key growth area, used by 40% of internal users in today’s market compared to only 31% last year.

European automaker Brink uses simulation to design innovative tow hitches. The company says that simulation technology has reduced its physical testing efforts by 35%.

As robust CAE capabilities become more accessible to mainstream engineers, not just simulation specialists, companies are leveraging analysis far earlier in the design cycle as well as conducting a greater number of simulation studies.

4.   More accessible 3D printing.

Now that high-performance 3D printing capabilities are available in office-style, reasonably priced models, the technology has fast become a fixture in engineering departments as a resource for design exploration and to crank out rough, early-stage prototypes. Despite the relative simplicity of the hardware, engineers have struggled with prepping and optimizing CAD models for 3D output. Happily, 3D printer manufacturers and 3D design tool vendors made some ground this year, partnering to facilitate smoother 3D printing workflows.

Honorable mention: Subscription licensing.

While subscription licensing may not be a new technology, it deserves mention as a game changer in 2015. The days of companies willingly forking over hundreds of thousands of dollars for upfront software licenses is definitely waning. Maybe it’s all the attention on utility-based pricing for Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or companies’ reticence to shoulder significant upfront investments, but there’s been definite push-based on traditional licensing. In fact, a recent PTC survey found that 90% of customers were angling for subscription pricing for their design tool software to allow for more agility for evolving business conditions.

If you’ve been following, but not necessarily experimenting with any of these new developments, now is definitely the time to take action and shift engineering workflows into high gear.