CAD Manager's Newsletter #127

27 Apr, 2005 By: Robert Green

Show Report: COFES 2005, Part 1 — Event is an unmatched opportunity to peer at what's ahead for engineering software

Ever heard of COFES (Congress On the Future of Engineering Software)? Don't feel bad if you haven't. I hadn't either until about three years ago. I actually had the chance to attend my first COFES in 2003, and went again this year. I even met a regular CAD Manager's Newsletter reader while I was there!

From the perspective of a CAD manager and technical consultant, COFES is an unmatched opportunity to meet with executives and technical gurus from hardware, software and consulting firms throughout the world. There's simply no other place I know of where you can have lunch with the business executives who make the decisions that determine which computers and software we'll all be using two years from now. If you're unfamiliar with this conference, check out the COFES Web site to see what you're missing.

There was just too much information to be gleaned at this event to fit into one newsletter, so I'll present it in two parts, concluding my report next time. Here goes.

General Impressions
Each COFES event I attended had a certain feel that seemed to permeate all meetings and sessions. This year's vibe was very much about the business of engineering: Whatever the software, whatever the country, whatever the design discipline, there's a definite move toward understanding business metrics.

I have been focused on the business of software for a long time, so I'm glad to see that discussions about future technology are finally more about what makes business sense. This year's COFES seemed to operate on the belief that future technology will facilitate global business and support the dynamic distribution of engineering and manufacturing around the globe. As a result, this year's event brought a noticeable lack of "gee whiz"-type technology.

Operating Systems and Hardware
At COFES this year, Microsoft presented some of the new technology components of its upcoming Windows operating system release. The major trend to watch will be a bottoming-out of flat-panel screen prices and a big shift toward multiple-monitor flat-panel graphics displays. It seems we'll finally have enough screen real estate to approximate a physical desktop and will thus spend much less time opening, closing and maximizing Windows displays as we work with our software. The fact that Microsoft views multiple-monitor systems as a native aspect of its operating system design means I'll spend less time fiddling with multiple screen drivers and drag-and-drop problems.

Elsewhere on the hardware scene, I continue to see and hear about faster and cheaper workstation platforms, with vendors keeping an eye toward easy configuration of drivers and operating system components. We can continue to expect to have a radically better computer every 18 months or so at the same price as the previous one. We've become so accustomed to the inevitable rise in computing power that we don't even notice it any more.

Adobe's Presence
I was very surprised to see Adobe have such a presence at an engineering conference, given that Adobe really hasn't done a lot in engineering markets until just recently with Acrobat Professional 7.0. It's clear that Adobe is embracing more intelligent publishing — including layers and even 3D geometry — and that the company is taking advantage of all the document-handling technologies, particularly around digital signatures and version control, to really enter the engineering market with a bang.

If you haven't explored Acrobat Professional 7.0, you may want to educate yourself on the possibilities. I can also foresee much tougher competition between Autodesk's DWF, Solidworks eDrawings and other publishing formats in the coming years. The savvy CAD manager will keep an eye on the publishing format wars, but will now view Adobe as a much more serious player in the CAD market.

I really expected to hear a lot of philosophical debate about outsourcing at COFES this year, but was surprised that most companies expressed the attitude that outsourcing is here and software must work well for companies that need outsourcing solutions. So the debate was not about whether we should outsource, but how to best outsource and compete.

Much discussion took place about the future of engineering being the identification of product features and optimal design rather than just cheap production of goods. The collective attitude seemed to be that once everything can be manufactured cheaply, being cheap will no longer be a driving factor. Products from iPods to Harley Davidsons were cited as examples of how brand identification and product features drive sales even when the products aren't the cheapest available in their markets.

I was most interested in one particular outsourcing counter trend. Designers today can use a variety of software to control so much of the design — computer analysis, configuration simulation, nondestructive testing and rapid 3D prototyping, to name a few — that in coming years there will be little need for outsourced services until the product is built. Computer-based analysis and prototyping tools are making evolutionary (but not revolutionary) strides in capability while prices are dropping substantially, and 3D CAD vendors are moving to offer more computing and analysis tools embedded in their CAD engines.

Could software-based analysis and 3D prototyping facilitate a new generation of da Vincis who embrace the entire design process on their computers? Maybe so. It's a trend that we need to encourage in our engineering and technical schools, at least.

Where's the CAD?
COFES is by nature a discussion of future trends, but even so I was surprised to hear so little about plain old CAD technology. Far more discussion occurred about how to publish 3D design data in a PDF or DWF file than about how to model the part in the first place. And there was absolutely no discussion about those CAD users who do most of their work in a 2D CAD system — the majority of CAD users worldwide.

Call me a Luddite if you will, but the move to 3D technology is nowhere near complete in the real world, and it strikes me as strange that nobody is really talking about ways to bring the 2D folks into the 3D world using new training technology. I will credit Buzz Kross, vice president of Autodesk's manufacturing division, for being forceful about Autodesk Inventor's intelligent design philosophy and the need to design software that supports thought processes rather than trying to redefine them. It makes sense that Autodesk, which counts more 2D users among its clients than any other company, would be spearheading the charge. My only question is, Why isn't everyone else?

3D Printing and Prototyping
The lack of discussion around conventional CAD was made up for by a fascinating amount of material on 3D printing and prototyping. Let me define some terms here:

3D Printing. The ability to generate a physical prototype of anything you can model in CAD that's roughly the size of a loaf of bread or smaller.

3D Prototyping. This uses software to simulate on screen how an object will behave kinematically, thermally and/or mechanically.

The clear trend for these technologies is that they're becoming very tightly integrated with popular 3D CAD systems, such as Autodesk Inventor, SolidWorks, Solid Edge from UGS, PTC's Pro/ENGINEER and so forth, so users don't need to learn new interfaces to work with prototyping tools.

We've realized also that a major part of prototyping is actually being able to manipulate physical models of your designs. There's just no substitute for being able to touch, feel and manipulate the things you're designing to get that tactile sense of how well the design works and how easy the product would be to assemble. And I'm not just talking about consumer products here, either, as the 3D printing tools demonstrated at COFES generated everything from gear boxes to building renderings to city blocks.

In the age of outsourcing, I find it interesting that many of the expensive tool, die and molding operations that have become so costly in North America can now be performed in the office in a couple of hours. You'll save not only time but money by doing 3D prototyping concurrently with the design process. The prices on these tools are dropping radically, too, so be ready to see these sorts of tools showing up in your workplace.

Wrapping Up
In the next issue of CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll wrap up my trip report on COFES 2005 by examining perceived trends in high-end design systems such as PLM (product lifecycle management) and BIM (building information modeling), how your organization will have to change to accommodate these trends and what it all means for the CAD manager. Until next time.