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Email: The Enemy of Collaboration

Chad JacksonLet’s face it: Design by its very nature is an iterative and collaborative process. In any design project, you will often try one thing to see if it works. When that fails, you try a different approach and eventually (hopefully) meet success. This happens again and again, day after day, as engineers develop new designs. The effort includes problem solving, trade offs and exploration. Iteration sits at the core of almost any design process.

That, however, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A change to your design will often affect the components connected to it. That’s where collaboration comes into play. As you explore new options, you have to make sure your design is compatible with everything else around it, which most often involves collaborating with your peers.

That’s the reality of engineering today: It is fundamentally about collaborative design iteration. Now, what is the most widely proliferated technology used to enable collaboration?

Yes. I did hear you groan. And yes, you are correct. The answer is email.

Practically every functional department in a company is utterly reliant on email. It is used to communicate with suppliers, the manufacturing floor, the quality department and many more. It’s everywhere.

Email’s Killer Issues

Now, email suffers from many general issues. It piles up quickly, especially if you’re out of the office. When you return, you might have to wade through a hundred or more unread missives, most of which aren’t relevant to your work. Time-sensitive tasks can easily get buried. Important emails triaged into folders can easily get lost. These are the issues that foul up the collaborative and iterative process of design.

There are other even more problematic issues. Email threads often include attached files, which provide the context of the engineering design discussion. Unfortunately, within hours of receiving the email, that file might be outdated as other thread participants mark it up with their thoughts or even make suggested changes. Even more disturbing, multiple people make their separate changes at the same time. That means there are different iterations of the file, each with different additional content. Keeping up with those changes, much less aggregating them back into one file, is a digital nightmare. For design, this is one of the worst-case scenarios. Suddenly, engineers already hard pressed for time must fight through the challenges of getting coherent feedback.

Gaining access to the file is only part of the picture, however. Another question is how to open that file. When we’re talking about 3D models and drawings, there are plenty of free viewers, but they take time to install.

A Single Source of Truth in the Cloud

It is in this context where cloud-based computer-aided design and product lifecycle management solutions make a lot of sense. Let’s explore why.

An important advantage when using any kind of product data management (PDM) or PLM system is that it offers a single source of the truth when it comes to managing different versions of a file, including 3D CAD models and drawings. Point someone at a design, even a specific version, and there is no room for confusion. The PDM or PLM system offers a unambiguous definition of that file.

When it comes to viewing and marking up design files, like 3D models and drawings, some cloud-based PDM or PLM systems offer a significant advantage: viewing and markup in the browser. There is no application to install. Once open in your browser, your changes are saved automatically as a markup. There is no need to send it back.

Lastly, there’s the need to textually provide feedback. Cloud-based solutions now offer the means to add comments to specific versions of designs, right alongside their markups. In this way, it works more like a discussion on a social media site, where everyone can see each other’s comments, allowing truer iterative collaboration.

Design by its very nature is an iterative and collaborative process. Using emails and installed 3D viewers have presented significant challenges to date. But the good news is that PDM and PLM systems, in particular those based in the cloud, offer significant advantages to improving the process.

About Chad Jackson

Chad Jackson is president of Lifecycle Insights (www.lifecycleinsights.com). Send email about this commentary to de-editors@digitaleng.news.