The engineering and manufacturing world is rapidly changing — are you changing with it? The claim of “reinventing” the fundamental tools of an industry is a bold one, but that's exactly what's happening now as the design, engineering, and product development software that manufacturers depend on every day is rapidly responding to meet new demands and challenges.

BMF Material Technology, a pioneer in micro/nanoscale 3D printing, uses Onshape's cloud CAD platform for real-time collaboration between its team in China and their customers worldwide.

Onshape CEO Jon Hirschtick, an early innovator in the evolution of CAD, founded SolidWorks in 1993. SolidWorks was the first CAD system to run on Windows PCs rather than proprietary hardware that often costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. This platform shift suddenly made powerful CAD tools available to countless companies that previously couldn't afford it. He then introduced Onshape in 2012 — the first professional 3D CAD system to run online. This shift ended the isolation of engineers on their individual computers. With cloud CAD, design teams could now simultaneously work together on the same 3D model, seeing each other's changes in real time and preventing mistakes due to inadequate version control.

Hirschtick declared that “today is still the beginning,” and as an industry, “maybe we're halfway done” with advancing design and manufacturing technologies. Looking ahead, he more recently identified the five biggest influences impacting the future development of CAD software.

1. Autonomous Hardware

Some of the most pedestrian products now contain software or electronic sensors. That might be something like a coffee machine that remembers how much cream and sugar you like or even a pillow with electronic sensors to track your sleep patterns. Increasingly, hardware is no longer just hardware, making design teams more diverse and complex — and requiring tools that enable seamless integration with electronic and software components. Among the non-auto manufacturing companies currently developing self-driving car technology are Google, Apple, Uber, and Baidu (China's largest search engine). Car shoppers may soon be asking about a vehicle's software before inquiring about mileage or cargo space.

2. Additive Manufacturing

As new high-tech materials (metals, gels, polymers, composites, etc.) and processes are developed, 3D printers are no longer just for making prototypes. Singapore Airlines, which needs to maintain inventories of thousands of replacement parts, has a partnership with Stratasys to explore how to reduce repair downtime. Ford Motor Company recently filed for a patent for their proprietary method of 3D-printing of brake discs.

Additive manufacturing is also having a dramatic impact on medical products unimaginable just a few years ago. In 2019, German biotech company Bella-Seno is scheduled to begin clinical trials on 3D-printed biocompatible polymer breast implants that stimulate natural tissue growth.

3. Agile Product Design

Inspired by the idea of Agile Development, which has been widely adopted by the software world, manufacturers are taking a new approach to build products faster and with more innovation. Agile Design strongly emphasizes rapid iteration, tight communication among a geographically diverse team, and an openness to embracing change. Agile Design favors “responding to change over following a plan,” using customer feedback to determine the next set of priorities.

Big companies are embracing the concept of “intrapreneurship,” creating a startup effort within their organization that may become a separate spinoff. For example, GE Appliances recently launched FirstBuild, an engineering crowdsourcing platform where the best community design proposals are developed into commercial products.

Taiwanese startup Xing Mobility uses cloud CAD to keep its electrical and mechanical engineers in sync on its electric vehicle designs.

4. Information Flow as a Competitive Weapon

Finding cheaper labor and materials is only a race to the bottom. The real competitive edge for today's manufacturers lies in speeding up the information flow at every stage of the process. Old file-based technologies are still creating needless design gridlock — software crashes, corrupt files, and outdated data management tools are still blocking collaboration and slowing companies down. China's BMF Material Technology, a pioneer in micro/nanoscale 3D printing for precision manufacturing, is now using Onshape's cloud CAD system not for the CAD itself, but to share realtime design information with its global customers and teach them best practices for its 3D printers.

5. Millennial Workforce Expectations

As the largest demographic in the workforce today — and projected to be 75% of the workforce by 2030 — this generation grew up with mobile and cloud technologies and has never experienced life without it. Millennials also were raised on social networking, and have little tolerance when communication isn't instant and when tools aren't instinctively collaborative.

Having grown up with a flurrying assortment of new apps available 24/7, the new generation of workers isn't hesitant to throw out “old” technology and try on new solutions like they do clothing. Whether it's CAD or other engineering productivity tools, software developers must keep this fickle influx of new customers in mind. Now more than ever, companies must stay relevant and useful, or die.

Conclusion

None of these industry trends is brand new — they've been around for a few years now — but their influence on the economy continues to grow. As professional design tools continue to migrate to cloud and mobile (and perhaps to a yet-to-be discovered technology platform after that), CAD developers will need to keep focusing on the ongoing changes in the engineering and manufacturing workplace. It's a constantly moving target.

This article was written by Darren Garnick, staff writer for Onshape, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit here.