Distributed design is now the norm: Why CAD must evolve to support it
By Jon Hirschtick
The wide-bodied Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a long-range passenger plane designed for comfort. The celebrated aircraft’s unique features include: more headroom (higher ceilings and overhead luggage bins), more legroom, a “comfier recline,” 21% more fuel efficiency, bigger windows and “infinity mood lighting.”
When the first Dreamliner came off the production line on July 8, 2007 (not coincidentally “07-08-07”), there was much industry fanfare. Boeing hired former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw to host a red carpet affair for 15,000 employees and even commissioned a Dreamliner theme song. Chief rival Airbus graciously sent a congratulatory letter to Boeing, declaring it “a great day in aviation history.”
But beyond the funky mood lighting and more comfortable coach experience, the Dreamliner represented a landmark moment in distributed design. Instead of building a complete aircraft under one roof, the 787 would have its major components designed and built in many different factories spread across the globe. The cargo doors, for example, would come from Saab in Sweden; engine parts from Rolls-Royce in England; and wing sections from Mitsubishi in Japan. In total, 17 design teams in 10 countries would play a major role.
On a varying scale, Boeing’s distributed design and manufacturing chain shift has become the norm rather than the exception. As the lead founder of SolidWorks and now as the lead founder of Onshape, I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time visiting CAD customers and have witnessed some dramatic changes in the way product ideas become a reality.
Three profound things have happened to design teams, most noticeably over the past decade:
- Teams have become highly fragmented. There used to be a team in one location for design and another location for manufacturing. That same product might now be built by 20 different fragments of teams.
- Teams have become global. Your industrial designer could be in the UK and your circuit board could done by a guy in Canada, who used to work for you, but is now a contractor. Your molds might be made in Mexico, but the molding could be done in China – except for the European models. For those, you get a tax credit so you’ve set up a shop in Spain.
- Team members change all the time – and quickly. We’re living in a world where the lines between employees and freelance contractors are increasingly blurred. According to the nonprofit Freelancers Union, one out of every three people in the American workforce today is an independent contractor or temp. The career website Truelancer also cites a freelancing “surge” in Asian Pacific countries, claiming contract employees are more than 10 percent of the Singapore workforce and more than 25 percent of the Indian marketplace.
What’s particularly fascinating to me is that this quantum shift to distributed design is happening for both the world’s largest companies and also the smallest companies starting out in somebody’s kitchen. Check out this Kickstarter page for Formlabs, now a booming 3D Printing company, from when they were just a tiny startup:
Even though they had a shoestring budget back then, the cloud enabled them to have an engineering team distributed across three countries. This scenario was unimaginable only a few years before.
Companies of all sizes are now betting their futures on distributed design and manufacturing. This new process puts new demands on CAD. File-based PDM systems have tried to address this issue, but they are too complex and force users to deal with the frustrating process of checking out and copying files.
Traditional 3D CAD just wasn’t built for distributed design. How do we know this? Because we are the ones who originally built it. (All of Onshape’s founders played significant and early roles in building SolidWorks.)
Onshape is a cloud-based 3D CAD system built from scratch for distributed design, allowing multiple users to work on the same designs at the same time without the confusion of multiple versions. All the version control and collaboration is built into our core system, so there’s no copying, no files and no need for a PDM system in the first place. It’s almost as if your team is gathered under one roof again.
*Jon Hirschtick is the founder of Onshape, the first professional 3D CAD system to run on a web browser, phone or tablet. He previously founded SolidWorks, was the director of engineering at Computervision, and began his career as an intern at the MIT CADLab. His hobbies include magic, golf, blackjack, 3D printing, tennis and yoga.