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April 17, 2019

Last week I attended COFES (Congress on the Future of Engineering Software). It was my 5th time going, and I have written about COFES several times before. The idea of COFES is to get thought leaders in the engineering software space in a relaxed atmosphere where they can have the valuable conversations which usually happen in between presentations.

More and more businesses, even if they are on their journey to a digital transformation, are understanding that technology is not the main challenge businesses have today. The biggest challenge organizations have today is transforming their business and culture. There was a great session by Allan Behrens on the “Digital Realities” which discussed the challenge and some potential solutions.  I have written many posts on this topic, but I will concentrate on the technology side of things for this post. 

There was no shortage of information on the technology that was discussed; however, I thought I would make very brief summary on several topics that resonated with me for numerous reasons.

  1. Cloud
  2. IoT
  3. Virtual / Augmented / Mixed Reality
  4. Simulation
  5. Additive Manufacturing
  6. Women in Engineering

1. Cloud

It was interesting that many of the industry experts admitted that their predictions on how fast cloud will disrupt the engineering space were wrong. They still see the cloud as a disruptive technology; however, it is being adopted much slower than they anticipated.

There was no doubt about the value the cloud will bring to the engineering industry, but there are some unique obstacles that need to be overcome before it becomes the disruptive trend. These include dealing with the size or amount of data required in engineering and the realities of the internet always being “on.” In many parts of the world, the bandwidth, latency and quality are simply not there. However, even with some of these challenges, there are some use cases which are perfectly aligned with what the internet can deliver today and is delivering today.

As some have predicted, the transition to the cloud will be more gradual – focusing on collaboration and communication rather than core engineering.

Some of the discussed challenges which need to be overcome were:

  1. The Size of Data. Currently the size of data we deal with is huge for a cloud solution. This can be solved by using innovative methods to reduce the size of the CAD data, improve the performance of the cloud, or core engineering to the cloud (will require other challenges to be solved first). The future will most likely be a combination of all options.
  2. Bandwidth. Related to the size of CAD data, if we continue to require moving vast amounts of data (files or non-files) it will require a fast, reliable and always on connection in a significant part of the world.
  3. Accountability. This is not a technology problem but rather a business If a breach happens who will be to blame. Currently if a company puts their corporate Intellectual Property (IP) on one of the cloud providers and there is a breach, the cloud provider takes no responsibility via the cloud providers agreement. This is a non-starter for some companies.
  4. Uncontrollable Costs: The cloud is supposed to bring costs down, but there are many cases where it does not, especially when you need a lot of resources, which most engineering companies do. Also, not knowing what your costs will be does force some companies to choose something that is more known, even if it is less scalable.

2. IoT

IoT was one of the top technologies discussed at COFES. There has been a lot of marketing hype about IoT, and many companies are going all in and focusing on IoT solutions. The reality is that most companies are not coming close to attaining the benefit they have planned from implementing IoT. They get some sexy-ish dashboards, but very little business value is realized with it.

Putting sensors on everything and collecting information is the easy part. The challenge is how does one connect and analyze the data to make beneficial and actionable business decisions. The promise of IoT is awesome, but what’s slowing the benefit of IoT is not having standards or a platform which will be able to collect and connect/link the data and allow for effective analysis.

Microsoft led a good discussion where they were asking the attendees what is needed from their platform and what is not needed. I found it interesting especially because I did not really understand the complexity and challenges that an IoT platform faces today.

3. Virtual / Augmented / Mixed Realty

There are some good technologies in the Virtual and Augmented Reality space which solve some unique but valuable use cases. However, the consensus (or at least mine) was that there are still some gaps in the workflow and technology which need to be overcome for it to be pervasive.

Most of the solutions that leverage VR/AR/MR do require some source data such as CAD data. Some discussions I had made me wonder if at least a portion of designing will be using one of these technologies. I do not see it for detail CAD/engineering but potentially for LOD 100 / Conceptual Design.

4. Simulation

Simulation is a very hot topic these days, but more importantly businesses are investing a lot in simulation. I was surprised to see that the simulation market is larger than the PLM market according to several of the market analysts. The benefits of simulation for many companies to improve quality, lower cost, innovate with new designs, etc. make it a good investment.

Vendors with simulation products have the vision to democratize simulation by allowing non-simulation experts to be able to use simulation. There was still a discussion in the group that, because democratizing simulation is going to take a while, should we start by making current simulation easier or focus on including “simple” simulations for the non-simulation expert? I believe most vendors are working on both ends with the assumption they will meet in the middle. However, the question is if they will ever meet in the middle. There may always be simulation experts which require specific tools and non-simulation expert designers that can benefit with some level of simulation. These are two different users with completely different needs; therefore, I do not see them meeting in the middle.

5. Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing is no longer a pure R&D technology as there are several companies using it in production. It is still not pervasive, but it is starting to show progress.

There were some challenges that were mentioned which will need to resolve before additive manufacturing can reach its full potential.

  1. Supply Chain & Counterfeit parts. With the ability to send technical data packages to be 3D printed you are exposing all your IP. This will require a huge level of trust and security measures with your partners. I blogged about this similar topic in my Will 3D Printing Follow the Music Industry? blog post.
  2. Certification / Classification Approval. Who will certify 3D printed parts? How will they be certified? The different machines, technologies, filament, etc. can significantly affect the characteristics of your part. Certification of parts will have to go through some transformation before we will see additive manufacturing take off in manufacturing industries.
  3. Quality. As mentioned above the quality of printed parts can be dependent on many factors. It was mentioned that one company was getting a high number of defects on a particular part they were printing. Their investigation (which I think took a long time) found out that the parts which were failing were printed at the same time when a train was scheduled to pass 150 yards from the building.
  4. A Lot of Post Processing. I was surprised to hear that there is not one single 3D steel printed part that does not have to go through a rigorous amount of post-processing after it is printed. In many cases it takes away all the benefit from 3D printing the part.

6. Women in Engineering

My favorite session was a panel discussion called “Women in Engineering.” The panel members talked about some of the challenges they faced which really moved me and hit me emotionally. I have so much respect for the panel members that shared their challenges, and I know it resonated well with the audience. It was probably the only session where no one was looking at their phones.  One of the last questions to the panel members was what we could do to promote diversity and fairness in our companies and industries. There were many good suggestions, but one stood out to me. “Even though there are many allies that support diversity in the work place, it is everyone’s responsibility to speak up when there is a situation where diversity is not being supported.” I do believe most people want diversity in our work place; however, if/when you encounter a situation where diversity is being challenged, it is our responsibility to speak up to support diversity.

Closing Remarks

COFES, as always, was a great event that allowed me to talk to other leaders in various industries about the intersection of technology and business. There is no shortage of technology discussions; however, I am continuing to see the transition to start talking more about the business problems than just pure technology.

There is a lot of technology available these days and the problems they will solve are unimaginable. The challenge engineering software leaders are facing is more related to how we implement available technology, rather than the technology itself.

The marketing hype of technologies paints the picture that everyone is doing fantastic and innovative things and if you do not invest in all these technologies that you will be left behind. Even though there is truth in that, the reality is you need to first determine your business vision & goals then choose the technology which will allow you to attain it. Do not start with technology and then find a problem to solve.

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