At the beginning of February I attended SolidWorks 2010 in Anaheim, California, and got a good look at how communication, teamwork, and risk lead to real innovation. It was a fun event attended by enthusiastic innovators. When engineers who create innovative products connect with their peers, they almost communicate telepathically. And when you’re in an arena with thousands of design engineers, you can just about feel the connections they make with other innovators.
James McLurkin was one of those innovators. He’s a roboticist and assistant professor at Rice University in Houston and showed up on stage with a swarm of autonomous robots. He demonstrated how 100 small boxes on wheels could communicate with each other over a wireless network, detect boundaries, and complete assigned tasks. They shared information and followed instructions. A hundred little robots running around a stage talking to each other and coordinating their efforts is a compelling sight.
McLurkin’s demonstration came right after we learned about the features SolidWorks would be incorporating into its solution this year. The audience was thrilled with the improvements promised by SolidWorks CEO Jeff Ray and his team, cheering with approval when it heard the top three improvements suggested by users were part of the next version. It confirmed the company viewed its relationship with customers as a valuable collaboration.
As users help make the tools of their trade better and better, and as software moves to the cloud, access becomes more transparent, files can be shared, and all collaboration improves. And as the universe expands—SolidWorks will now run on a Mac—it’s important to note that while tech details are important to users, engineers also love to see their ideas and the ideas of others in action. Robots, automobiles, airplanes, and even James Cameron’s latest movie, Avatar, are all created using engineering software that helps designers create better products.
I mention James Cameron because he was one of the speakers at SolidWorks 2010 and I found his keynote more exciting than his entertaining 3D movie. Cameron is someone who doesn’t mind taking a risk. He spent years and most of his own money working on a project that could have flopped. And he created new tools to bring his vision of an alien world convincingly to the screen, working with a small team to accomplish something that had never been done before. His story about letting the team control the creative process was inspiring and resonated with every engineer in the room who had worked with others to create something new. That’s leadership.
After he was done talking about Avatar, Cameron sat on a sofa on the stage and declared he was next planning to break a world record by creating a deep-sea diving vessel that he would personally pilot to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. At a depth of 36,200 feet, the deepest point on the planet, the pressure (15,750 psi) is one thousand times greater than standard atmosphere. Cameron said that while most preceding deep-sea vessels weighed more than 100 tons, he was working on a vessel in Australia that weighted only nine.
Now, I am sure he is using the best FEA and other analysis tools to create this design, but I really wanted to ask him why he wouldn’t want to overbuild just a little bit and make the pressure vessel, say, 12 tons. But then, he understands that to accomplish truly great things, a little risk is always necessary.
Steve Robbins is the CEO of Level 5 Communications and executive editor of DE. Send comments about this subject to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.