We’re Still Stuck in the Industrial Age of Engineering – Here’s What Needs to Change, Now
The industrial age had a great run. We built a lot of stuff, created an entire country’s infrastructure from the ground up, and sent some men, women and monkeys into space. All around, we’ve done some amazing things by pure force and ingenuity. But things have changed now. We’re in a new age, a period marked by collaboration and anyone being able to make anything. The problem is, our way of engineering hasn’t kept pace. At companies around the world you’ll still find a bunch of engineers using the tools and methods of their fathers, and we’re all struggling to let them go. But do we know anything different? Something needs to change.
Out with the Old, in with the New
Here’s the problem with the industrial age of engineering – there’s a huge focus on integration, and not enough on collaboration. This problem begins when graduates enter the professional world rich with the specialized knowledge of their particular trade. They’ve got all the know-how and theory, but how about communicating and collaborating with engineers in other disciplines?
Walk into an engineering department and you’ll likely see a bunch of specialists, all working on a seperate piece of the puzzle. But the real question here is, do any of them actually understand the bigger picture of what is being designed, and what everyone is trying to accomplish together? Most likely not. This problem extends beyond just our communication abilities and workplace cultures. This method of thinking and doing has trickled down into how our tools work as well, and it’s very rare to find an ECAD tool that can directly communicate with an MCAD tool.
The siloed approach to engineering and product management as a whole just isn’t working.
Regardless of which came first, the tools or the culture, we all do the same thing – Shove a bunch of stuff in a box, export it out of your design tool, and all of that beautiful effort that you spent weeks or months on suddenly gets reduced to mere digits and empty shapes wherever it winds up, most likely in your MCAD software.
There is something seriously wrong with this picture. We have a ton of old habits, old methods and old processes in place that really just need to go. We need to stop passing our designs down the assembly line and turning a blind eye when our part is done. Ultimately, we need to get out of this industrial age of engineering, and that all starts with our file formats.
We Don’t Need Another File Format
As far as sharing our design data goes, relying on interchange file formats is the best answer we have. But consider this, how can you go about packaging the depth and complexity of a PCB down into an exchangeable set of data? Something has get dumbed down in the process, right? You take a complex design, and out comes a basic board shape with little to no indication of design intent in your MCAD software.
While we could keep chasing after better file formats, hoping this solves the problem, we think it’s just time to stop translating our data entirely. Here’s what we currently rely on:
New file formats just keep coming, adding old problems onto new.
- DXF/IDF – These file types were introduced back in the 1990s, and we’re still using them to exchange our 2D/3D CAD data. DXF is mostly obsolete now, and only provides basic 2D information. And IDF isn’t all that much better, providing some 3D data without any real intelligence to put things into perspective.
- STEP – This is one of the better formats on the block, but the file sizes in these can get huge! And for all of that mass, what do you really get? The last time I opened a STEP file in my MCAD software I got a bunch of blank looking shapes and what really amount to a sad representation of what I had spent hours creating in EAGLE.
- Parasolid – This file type uses a geometric modeling kernel and gets us a little closer to an accurate representation of our original design data, including benefits like copper trace data. The real problem with Parasolid though is that it’s not a universally available file format. Some CAD tools support it, others don’t. It just depends on how much you’re willing to pay Siemens for it.
Here’s the real problem with all of these file formats, they all assume that your world of engineering exists in some kind of vacuum. We’re all familiar with the saying of “Throwing it over the wall.” This is exactly what we do when we package up our design into an interchange file format. This isn’t working.
Post-Industrial Engineering, Here We Come
Here’s the good news in all of this doom and gloom, there’s some change coming for the future of our CAD software. So what does the future hold? We like to envision it as a bunch of specialists all coming together, not in an assembly line, but more like a cyclical process, where ideas can flow just as freely as our design data.
In this new engineering future, the evolution of a design takes place in a revolution. There is no linear start and stop point. Things shift fluidly, we adapt, and stay agile. This needs to happen, without any of the stifling boundaries that currently exist between disciplines. The best thing about this vision? It won’t require a single interchange file format. I’m sold, how do we get there?
Step 1 – Replace File Formats with Intelligent, Connected Tools
First step, we need to seriously look at how we are going to build the CAD software of the future. These tools need to start bringing engineering disciplines together into a complete ecosystem. Fusion 360 is a great example of this as it combines design, simulation and CAM specialties into one seamless world. Now if it only had PCB design capabilities!
We’re ready to move beyond file formats, bring on some cloud-based connectivity!
What we don’t need is just another PCB design tool. We need a tool that allows us to design a PCB, communicate with our mechanical designer, and share data instantly, all in one place. And by bringing together ECAD and MCAD disciplines in this seamless world, we’d all benefit from a greater understanding of the product design process as a whole. That includes aspects beyond our day-to-day engineering, including lifecycle management, procurement, manufacturing, and business decisions.
Step 2 – Make it Easy to Communicate and Collaborate
As our tools shift, so will our needs in communication and collaboration in the workplace. This means we need to start working in parallel with our fellow engineers. Imagine being able to design a mechanical enclosure and PCB side-by-side with your colleague. No more having to finish, stop, wait, and make revisions. It all happens at once.
Making communication and collaboration easy is a key part to the success of post-industrial engineering.
This approach of improving communication includes several practical aspects that need to be included in our tools, like the ability to comment in real time, design concurrently, and get complete visibility into all aspects of the product design workflow even outside of your domain. In this new world, there will be no closed gardens or set of walls. Everything will be super transparent so we can all get work done, together.
Step 3 – Bring the Product Design Process Together, Including Manufacturing
Manufacturing is a huge part of the traditional product design workflow, but seems to get left out of the mix until the very end of our design process. But imagine this, what if your product design team included a manufacturer from the very beginning? So every part you chose, and every engineering decision you made was done so in the mindset of making a manufacturable product right the first time.
It’s about time we brought manufacturing into the product design mix.
We so often only find out about manufacturing issues until they’re too late, running around playing email and phone tag with our fab house to get a quick fix made. In the future, we see our design tools integrating manufacturing directly into the mix, not just at the end of our design process, but at the beginning as well. And who knows, maybe one day we won’t even have to deal with Gerber files. What if your manufacturer had direct access to your design data within the ecosystem that you’re all working from? That would be awesome.
We’re Ready for Some Change, How About You?
The world is changing out there, and so are the product we’re creating. The vision that we outlined above is not a rose-colored glasses approach. It’s real, it’s possible, and it needs to start happening, now. We have one last prediction to make – one day in the future, we’ll all be product engineers. Gone will be the days of electrical, mechanical, or layout designers. They’re all going to become one and the same, and we’ll all be universal engineers, masters of a variety of domains.
Until that day arrives though, we’ll keep sticking files in black boxes, tossing them over the wall, and hoping that change arrives sooner rather than later. It might be sooner than you think though. Have you seen the new One-Click Make and One-Click MCAD in Autodesk EAGLE? They connect you directly with manufacturers and mechanical design tools alike. Try Autodesk EAGLE for free today to check it out!