What is the Killer App for the Modern Engineer?

References Cited

What is MCAD?, Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), What is Product Data Management (PDM)?, What are Enterprise Business Platforms, Solutions and Apps?

A couple weeks ago, I asked a question that has been on my mind for a while: do engineers have the broadest reach within the enterprise? I’ve always thought there’s been a little bit of a misconception that an engineer’s sole focus is on new product development and more specifically, design work. Instead, just about every day for an engineer is a firedrill where they’re scrambling all over the company to resolve issues across a number of product’s lifecycles. So after coming to that conclusion, I started thinking about another question: what technology would best enable engineers to do their job?

CAD Technologies and the Engineer

We kinda flew by CAD really quickly in the above paragraph, but I think it’s worth revisiting again.I’ve personally seen a need for easier-to-use and more accessible design tools in my observation of engineers. And I think the point here is part of the subtle distinction between designing and documenting products. Engineers could use CAD to help them explore design alternatives, to accelerate their calculations and dimensionally lock in the details of a design once it has been set. However, after some discussions on various LinkedIn engineering professional groups, I’ve found that an engineer spends about 10% to 35% of their time doing design work. Addressing this share of their work would definitely help but it wouldn’t revolutionize their job.

Efforts to make CAD work for engineers are being addressed by PTC (in development with Creo), Siemens PLM (Synchronous Technology in NX and Solid Edge) and Spaceclaim.

Collaboration Technologies and the Engineer

What about collaboration? Much of what an engineer does on a day-to-day basis is provide leadership to a variety of other functions in the company to resolve issues across a product’s lifecycle. That translates into lots of conversations, lots of phone calls, lots of meetings and lots of emails. I’ve firmly believe that email is not enough. There’s simply too many ways to loose the correspondence. And furthermore, collaboration in product development needs a context. Social computing applications and systems may well get the context right, but it’s a bit early as of yet. These technologies are just now being adopted. But they could be a high impact technology for engineers.

We’re seeing offerings from Dassault Systèmes (in development with Bluekiwi), PTC (SocialLink), Siemens PLM (Teamcenter Community) and Vuuch.

Mashup Technologies and the Engineer.

Another extremely challenging aspect of an engineer’s job is dealing with all of the enterprise systems across a product’s lifecycle. Most likely, design artifacts are managed within PDM or PLM. Released product records exist in Enterprise Resource and Planning (ERP) systems. Individual supplier and supply chain network information is captured in Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) and Supply Chain Management (SCM) systems. Customer data resides in a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. The list could go on and on. The important point though is that the engineer needs to access information in any and all of these systems to lead the day-to-day company wide effort to resolve product issues. The frequent means to doing that is to go find someone with access or have the engineer maintain 10 different login identities, which is unreasonable. Alternatively, a type of technology could address this sort of problem directly: the mashups (wikipedia entry). What is it? Here’s an excerpt from wikipedia that provides a pretty good definition.

In web development, a mashup is a web page or application that uses and combines data, presentation or functionality from two or more sources to create new services. The term implies easy, fast integration, frequently using open APIs (an interface implemented by a software program that enables it to interact with other software) and data sources to produce enriched results that were not necessarily the original reason for producing the raw source data. The main characteristics of the mashup are combination, visualization, and aggregation. Mashup is important to make more useful already existing data, moreover for personal and professional use.

Essentially, a mashup could provide an engineer the capability to access, control and change data and information within all of these systems as appropriate and necessary. But while this type of technology seems to offer some real promise, it has been available for some time but hasn’t yet been adopted at high rates.

Mashup technologies targeted as the product development space are offered by IBM (Product Development Integration Framework, PDIF) and Microsoft. [EDIT: Added on 1/5/2011] Another solution in this area comes from Siemens PLM in the form of HD-PLM. It has a capability to connect to many enterprise systems and layer that information on top of a 3D model. Could be a very powerful way for engineers to consume and then interact with data from various systems. However, the primary way they are positioning it in the market is as decision support enabled by access to PLM information in the context of the 3D model, not necessarily various other enterprise systems.


So, what’s my point in all this? I actually have four.

  1. From a technology perspective, engineers are underserved today.
  2. Making CAD accessible to engineers would improve but not revolutionize their job.
  3. Replacing email with more effective collaboration technologies, perhaps social computing, could have a high impact on engineering effectiveness.
  4. Enabling multi-system access through mashups could also have a high impact on engineering effectiveness.

Now it’s your turn to chime in. Do you think the new efforts around CAD will be more effective? Is all the talk about social computing hot air? Why haven’t mashups been adopted at a higher pace? Sound off and let me know what you think about these questions or other issues related to this post.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.