Product design has evolved over the years I have been involved in technology publishing, and the growth of technologies that enable collaboration has had a lot to do with it.
When we first published Desktop Engineering in 1995, in small- to mid-size companies there wasn t much happening in terms of collaboration and team building. In fact, mechanical engineers, who were just starting to embrace 3D MCAD on their workstations, were often totally separated from the electrical and manufacturing engineers. They were charged with creating a mechanical model under the constraints of management and industrial engineers. While enterprise companies were the early adopters of 3D MCAD and CAE, especially automotive and aerospace companies, major engineering efforts by the mid-sized companies were often a compromise of disparate individuals with a lack of communication with each other.
Tear Down That Wall
I remember Tony Lockwood, the founding Editor-in-Chief of Desktop Engineering, often referring to design engineers "throwing the model over the wall" to manufacturing. More likely than not, the manufacturing engineering team would include the electrical engineer to make sure all of the electronic components worked within the design.
About 10 years ago we started to see the walls crumbling. Part of this was because of analysis and simulation software being validated by real-world testing. Analysts opened their doors to the design engineer, and some simulation software was democratized. It also moved forward in the design process. Still, in the mid-market, simulations were often accomplished just before the actual prototype was manufactured and tested. Multiple iterations of simulations were only available to those that possessed high performance computing systems, and even then the process of completing multiple simulations was a manual process. Of course there was optimization software, but it wasn t widely used.
During the last 10 years, with compute power increasing and following Moore s Law, the use of simulation software has increasingly been used in the very beginning of the design process. Complex assemblies and systems have been modeled and meshed, then simulated. Collaboration has become the prevailing method of working on and completing a design.
Industrial engineers who used pens, crayons, clay and other materials to describe to the designer what the CAD model should look like are using readily available design software to express ideas that can be simulated before the parametric model is created. Prototypes can be printed and tested. Complete, large systems that just a few years ago could only be simulated as parts or small assemblies, are now being virtually tested, giving the engineering team a high expectation of what the outcome will be when the prototype is built. Electronics are designed with the mechanical model. Electronic components are often specified in the beginning of the design process and simulated as part of the complete system.
As engineering technology and processes have improved, so has the outcome of the designs. The Mars Curiosity Rover demonstrates how all of the design processes are coming together to create an optimized and successful design that cannot be physically tested as a system until it is deployed in, do I dare to say, a real-world environment.
It s easy to look back and see the changes that have influenced design engineering, but I would like to stick my neck out and look into the future of design engineering technology.
First, whether you like it or not, cloud computing is here to stay. We will be using it in the next few years in ways that even the experts cannot predict.
Second, your desktop engineering workstation will not be going away. It will not be replaced by an iPad or other tablet. It will continue to become more powerful. Local computing will be a better option for a long time to come. You will be accomplishing design challenges on it that you never thought possible today.
Third, while your jobs are not going to be getting any easier, your tools will be easier to use. This will be driven by design tools that are being made for non-professionals, like the maker market and gamers.
And last, processes that you have thought were beyond your expertise or means will be available to you in a very short time. Things like collaboration systems, sharing of designs, and optimization software to handle all those simulations you will be doing on your tricked out workstation.
And you will be designing things you never even imagined. I guarantee it. Happy New Year!
Steve Robbins is the CEO of Level 5 Communications and executive editor of DE. Send comments about this subject to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.