A look back over the last few years of engineering digital transformation and where we’re going next.
Has “Digital Transformation” actually worked or was it all just marketing hype by the big CAD companies?
Over the last decade, we’ve heard non-stop about “Digital Transformation” and “Industry 4.0”. It was meant to change everything about how we worked, and who we were. Now we’re a few years on, its a good time to take a look back on what’s working, and where the industry is going next.
Before we can answer that question, we must answer a much simpler, and more important question:
Not big hand-wavey answers like “it's about the power of the digital twin” or “bringing the power of the cloud to engineering” but a few clear specific use cases or changes. When I ask 10 different engineering leaders, I get 10 completely different answers. The reality of our industry is digital transformation, at least one form of it, happened decades ago!
Once upon a time, in the 1980’s, our calculations would be documented by hand on pen and paper, our drawings were on 2D drafting boards, and every test was manual and physical. Then computers happened. In a few short decades, we’ve transformed our end-to-end process to move from paper, into software, and we reaped the benefits in efficiency. We’ve gone from static pen and paper calculations to editable spreadsheets, we’ve gone from 2D paper drawings to 3D parametric CAD, and we’ve gone from manual physical testing to a mix of physical testing and simulation, throughout the design process. Our process has been digitally transformed and for the better!
So what are the big CAD players on about when they talk about Digital Transformation being the future? Is it real or one big hype train to try and make you pay more for your PLM solution? Well the reality is that there is something meaningful there, but its a lot of smaller-scale improvements across the lifecycle.
Digital Transformation, at least how we’re seeing Siemens, Dassault, and the other CAD companies use the term, is a big word for “better integration of our tools”. Now our processes and tools are all digitised, we can find real benefits in deepening the integration across them.
So how have we done in the last few years at this integration?
The CAD companies have done a surprisingly good job on the manufacturing side. We’ve integrated CAD with Simulation and then linked that into our Manufacturing systems, and then into IOT on real products. With each one of these links, companies (typically larger ones) have found real efficiency gains.
The problem is that when you speak to engineers on the design, analytical, or conceptual side, they all say the same thing. That digital transformation has still not improved their lives in any significant way.
Digital Transformation is failing on the design side. Engineering has moved from predominantly CAD, to a multi-disciplinary mix of mechanical, electric, aero, design and other engineers, all needing to collaborate to get a single product shipped. These teams work with CAD of course, but also work with a range of other key design tools (Excel, MATLAB, Python, ECAD, etc) to be able to model, understand and improve their design.
Especially on large-scale complex projects, most engineers feel that over the last few years, their lives have gotten worse! Whereas before they were able to spend the vast majority of their day heads down doing engineering work, they are now bombarded with a barrage of emails, meeting requests and lengthy design reviews. This is all in the name of staying in sync with the changes that are happening across their multi-disciplinary teams. So why is this happening?
System complexity has been rising quickly over the last few decades. Every day our products become even more complex, even more multi-disciplinary, and the core problem, even more interdependent.
The central element is that as our products get a little bit more complex, it adds an exponentially larger amount of design synchronisation effort across the design team. One small change in a mechanical engineer's Excel spreadsheet may have 3 knock-on consequences in other engineers' work, each one of those will affect 5 more, and then 25 more. You see a chain reaction of design changes propagating across your entire organization. This isn’t just one person's change happening in isolation. In reality, everyone is making design changes every day and they are rarely ever in sync.
Every extra engineer brings more connections for existing members of the team, resulting in an exponential slowdown in design time, and an exponential increase in effort to sync, and by extension cost.
Each of these changes seem small: half an hour here, two hours there, a one hour design review which dragged into a 3 hour design review. But taken together the minor daily inconveniences add up in a major way. In todays industry, where time to market is such a crucial factor, these issues can mean the difference between success and failure.
Systems are now more complex, and we’re using more tools than ever before - but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Here are a few tips to streamline and better integrate your engineering process:
We live in an era of specialist, not generalist software. If you’re using a "Swiss Army Tool", you’re probably getting the worst of many solutions, rather than the best in the one you care about.
Signs of this are if you are trying to do everything through ever more PLM bolt ons, or your one main spreadsheet is growing more and more fragile and unwieldy.
Software is expensive, and the price won’t work for everyone, but you’ll get higher ROI on a few great tools rather than one mediocre one. This is especially true once we account for the increasing power of APIs.
Most modern tools have good APIs. APIs can work for you, saving you hours or days of administration work, and making sure things don’t fall though the cracks.
As our systems become more and more complex, with more tools and models, a design change in one place affects changes everywhere. It is easy to start drifting further and further away from your requirements, and only catch it days or weeks later.
But with all of this data and information digitised there is no reason you can’t leverage computing to act as a safety net and catch this drift before it happens.
Here’s our mandatory plug - if you’re looking for a tool to help with this, take a look at Flow.