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The World as Your Workstation

By Bertrand Sicot

Bertrand SicotSam, a sales engineer, lingers over lunch with a customer, looking at a tablet computer displaying a 3D solid model of a product on which two other engineers are working. The customer tells Sam that he is interested in the product, but he needs a variation on the original design.

Sam modifies the product to his specifications during lunch. He’s also able to reassure the customer that the modification won’t affect the product’s performance, that the parts to meet the customer’s requirements are available, and that his company’s production line can accommodate them without any inconvenience. With the knowledge that his company can produce the customer’s variation without extraordinary costs, Sam sends the specifications to the product development team–and signs a deal with the customer on the spot.  

The concept sounds simple: Put engineering data, knowledge and processing power where business occurs, which could be on sales calls, the shop floor, or someplace on the road. But while business has been mobile for years now, product development has been tethered to desktops since the computer-aided design era began. Processing requirements and the cost of applications for designing, testing and manufacturing products meant that only a fraction of product design could be performed in the field. The serious tasks–such as major modifications, simulations and performance optimization–had to wait for engineers and designers to return to their desks, where they had access to wired networks and enough computing power to operate the full range of software they needed to complete their work. Being out in the field, on a shop floor or on a customer site meant being cut off from the computing assets needed to perform every facet of your job.

The lack of processing power and application functionality are obvious drawbacks to being away from the office, but they’re not the only ones. Engineers and designers working with customers or partners in the field are also largely cut off from one another "or, more specifically, one another’s data. They can communicate through email and cell phones, but they don’t have direct access to all of the data for a given product. Design engineers onsite with a customer are unable to determine the effect a late-stage design change has on tooling, machine layout or production costs. And the product manager on the road cannot approve those changes without accessing the corporate network or product lifecycle management (PLM) system.

The State of the Art
New mobile computing paradigms make portable devices a gateway to a new collaborative model, where everyone connected to product development can access all of the latest data on a project. From calling up the most current design iteration for a sales meeting to modifying the design in real time, emerging “cloud computing” infrastructures will eliminate boundaries to fully mobile product design. Applications are moving from the desktop to the Internet, making it possible "in theory, at least "to design in 3D on any device with an Internet connection.

Over the next few years, purpose-built applications and viewers will bring product designs to all of the platforms that your employees, partners, and customers use "including desktops, mobile devices and browsers, with experiences appropriate to the platform. New delivery models will provide on-demand access to software, processing capacity and data storage, ensuring that mobile designers and engineers always have the right tools for the job, regardless of where they are. The result will be increased creativity, greater productivity and livelier, more interactive collaboration.

Engineers and product designers’ careers are built around knocking down barriers through the design of new and improved products "products that perform better and more efficiently, at lower production costs, and with minimal impact on the environment. Yet, they’ve had to accept limitations on their creativity and collaboration because their primary tools kept them in the office, even though much of what they do occurs somewhere else.

Desktop CAD software freed product design from high-powered workstations by putting essential design tools on everyday PCs. Mobile engineering goes the next step, putting those tools where products go from design to reality.

Bertrand Sicot is CEO of Concord, MA-based Dassault Systemes SolidWorks Corp.  

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