Who Needs a Mobile Workstation?1 Mar, 2016 By: Randall S. Newton
With today’s portable powerhouses, everyone can take their CAD show on the road. But just because you can make that investment, doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
It took a few years — and several generations of improvements in central processing units (CPUs) — but today we have mobile workstations that provide the power and fine-tuned performance of desk-side workstations, in a truly portable package. Today’s mobile workstations also offer a wide variety of options, allowing buyers to mix and match features and capabilities to find the product that best fits their needs.
In a future article, I'll describe in more detail what distinguishes PCs from workstations in today’s market; here, I’ll focus instead on who needs a mobile workstation — and who doesn’t.
Let Workflow Demands Dictate Hardware Selections
Not every CAD user whose work takes him or her outside the office needs a mobile workstation. For the user who only needs connectivity and office applications, any business-class notebook computer will do. If there is a need for review and markup functionality, then a business-class notebook with plenty of RAM (8 GB or more), a discrete graphics processing unit (GPU), and a faster CPU (an Intel Core i5 or better) is enough. A mobile workstation should be considered for users who need to design or edit designs remotely. Complex visualizations created for client review will also benefit from the power of a mobile workstation, if you use real-time rendering.
In addition, the ability to take a mobile workstation to a job site or client office can yield a significant competitive advantage. Many engineers, architects, and designers are trapped in a segmented, and often circular, workflow like this:
- Perform initial work in office
- Leave office to get client feedback
- Return to office to edit
- Go back to the client to present the edited work.
Having a mobile workstation makes it possible to streamline this process, sometimes completely eliminating multiple trips to the client.
Get a Handle on Massive Data Sets
The volume of data created by professional applications continues to get bigger and bigger. AEC users are discovering the utility of working with 3D point clouds — and at the same time, discovering that point clouds can be gigantic. Product designers also use point clouds (created during metrology scans and reverse engineering), and are increasingly using up-front simulation, which also creates large data sets. In all these use cases, the data sets are routinely measured in gigabytes. Fortunately, modern mobile workstations have room for more and larger hard disk drive (HDD) or solid-state drive (SSD) storage units, and can be upgraded with the RAM required for adequately processing such large datasets.
I recently talked to a facilities contractor for NASA who uses a mobile workstation with two LiDAR 3D point cloud scanners and a 2D scanner for gathering stitching details. As the data comes in from each scanner, the contractor uses Autodesk ReCap on-site to stitch together the point clouds and assemble the 3D model, which will then be converted for use in Autodesk Revit. Errors that would typically only be discovered back in the office are now found on-site and corrected immediately. Recently, this system condensed a job that would have normally taken 16 weeks into three-and-a-half weeks. The cost of the mobile workstation became trivial compared to the time compression it enabled on just one project.
Virtualization technology is used more commonly for enterprise applications than for engineering, but new technologies are changing the value model. If an engineer is working remotely with a connection to a virtualized high-performance computer (HPC), local processing will go faster with a mobile workstation as the remote appliance instead of a consumer or business-class notebook. If the use of a virtualized HPC is linked to remote data gathering (as in the example above), then local processing power becomes even more important.
The Wow Factor
On a different note, sometimes it is worth spending a bit more to send a message. Depending on the situation, the use of a mobile workstation when visiting clients or jobsites can be like flashing a badge of professionalism.
Please note that I do not consider the use of an Apple MacBook Pro (MBP) to be an example of this. Apple does not consider the MBP to be a mobile workstation, and it is not certified by independent software vendors for use with professional applications. Packing an MBP into a client meeting may send the right message for professionals who create digital media, but engineering has different standards. Don’t confuse cultural cool with professional cachet.
Meet the Need
Ultimately, the quality of every tool has an impact on the user’s level of productivity. Chefs don’t buy their knives from TV infomercials; loggers don’t purchase their chainsaws at the neighborhood hardware store. Instead, they purchase professional tools from professional vendors. If you do serious professional design work outside the office on a regular basis, you need a machine that reduces or eliminates compromises. For most engineers, architects, and other technical professionals, that means using a mobile workstation.