Small Business Design Data Management

September 2nd, 2014

In the last issue (AUGIWorld, June 2014) I highlighted Flatter Files, a pretty cool company that is helping Small to Medium Businesses (SMB) with deliverables publishing. This month I am looking at how the cloud is enabling the lightweight collaborative design data management needs of some SMBs.

Why Collaborative Design Data Management?

Product Lifecycle Management – PLM

Product Design Management – PDM

Enterprise Resource Planning – ERP

Customer Relations Management – CRM

Document Management System – DMS

…and on and on.

The list is endless and quite likely you need some form of most of these in your day-to-day work. The problem is that the really useful tools are part of very large expensive systems developed by only a handful of vendors, who by virtue of their vast market share have defined the way we are expected to behave around design data.

New collaborative needs and incredible cost have forced many small businesses to rely on less capable systems, terrible data workflows, and limited features.

Which Features Are Important?

This question is the crux of the entire issue and being asked by the wrong people, namely you. In this market it should be the other way around.

Data management software is typically either too vague about how it organizes data, or too specific to one particular industry or another, and all of them require some tuning and programming to get the software to match the way you work.

…and no one wants to do all the customization.

If you are still playing ‘Hansel and Gretel’ data discovery with MS Office and Windows Explorer you are not alone. So why don’t we all just jump out and get some data management?

One important factor is the short period between the emergence and focus on SMB PLM needs, and the sudden upswing in collaborative possibilities. “I need some PLM and PDM, but how do I include collaboration?”

Let’s take a moment and completely jumble everything up. Growing trends in collaboration and market globalization, fueled by accessibility of the Internet, are pouring in data from all angles and unthought-of workflows. We don’t quite know how to deal with it all yet, and neither do the data management vendors.

I need to catalog:

  • Information, instructions, correspondence, and specifications for clients, subcontractors, and manufacturers
  • Proposals, agreements, and correspondence
  • Design and non-design data, including iterations, versions, and revisions
  • Industry / company standards and compliance
  • Visualization data
  • The almighty BOM(s)
  • Subcontractor orders, inspections, and correspondence
  • Deliverables
  • Municipal and organizational review comments
  • Supplies
  • Analysis data and reports

This scenario represents the least common denominator of many companies’ needs, regardless of size. All of this information must be tied together in a project type relevance, but also permitted to associate with other data inherently. This information needs to be discoverable in myriad ways, and it needs to be accessible and easy to use.

The trick is that we also need this data to be compiled between multiple collaborators that are all part of the common design process, on a globally accessible, but relatively lightweight framework.

I Love a Cloudy Day

Did you know that the very same cloud that was demonized by so many design firms resistant to any change, is the same platform that is making possible the cost effective, flexible management systems that the same SMB firms desperately need? Irony.

  • Software as a Service (Saas)
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS)
  • Integration as a Service (IaaS)

The cloud solves many issues including infrastructure and platform at a substantially reduced price. All you really need to do is access the software and make it work for you.

What Software?

There are a few companies that are working hard to fill the void. These include Autodesk PLM 360, Microsoft Office 365 and Sharepoint, Arena PLM, Aras PLM, Ally PLM, Kenesto, Siemens Solid Edge SP, CADAC Organice, Autodesk 360, GrabCAD, and more.

Almost all of these have one factor in common. They were built for companies in the SMB space to fit a wide array of workflows and needs. All have very interesting strong points, but none fit the small but broad range of needs.

The Fusion Platform

I’d like to mention Autodesk’s Fusion/Sim/CAM 360. The entire data framework was built on PLM 360 platform, enabling a single, true source with which all software can interact. Managed data would no longer require aggregation from multiple design sources. They truly have a really good overall plan to integrate all these collaborative data management needs in a lightweight framework. The raw data is not accessible enough, nor are there instrumental workflow features yet, but I love the concept and wanted to give them an honorable mention here.

Jitterbit

Jitterbit has a wonderful service that connects your á la carte datasets in a fluid manner, but at a substantial premium. Each paid connection increases the price and brings us right back to data management costing way too much for small companies.

Autodesk PLM 360

Autodesk went after the overall need to manage data, developing a reasonably customizable framework and really did provide a good value and easy-to-adapt data management tool. The problem was that while they included some great design workflows and controls, there are some basic refinements that need to be fulfilled, and Autodesk completely left out the design data part. There is just no realistic method to store and catalog CAD data on their cloud.

This is understandable as Autodesk already offers CAD PDM, Autodesk Vault, to customers. Remember SMB data management is now á la carte. Jitterbit will gladly connect these two, but at an annual cost and without any collaborative features. Viewing this from the perspective of a company that has purchased Vault Professional, it does seem weird that Autodesk expects customers accustomed to transferring complex data between their CAD applications for free to pay a significant annual fee to transfer metadata between their PDM and PLM products.

Autodesk 360’s Overhaul

This product many of you know has been developed as a collaborative storage space. CAD data is easily accessed by Autodesk CAD software, and people can be invited into the space to collaborate and discuss the design. There are numerous problems from a productive design platform perspective, including the fact that the files are not easily discoverable, nor is there any method to catalog data and no real management. It’s simply storage and collaboration, and it’s not really comfortable to work in.

I sat in on a meeting with Sheila Wakida, Autodesk’s senior product manager for the cloud, who discussed the changes that are taking place in the Autodesk 360 platform. She discussed the timeline for the year and what the company was doing with Autodesk 360.

We can look forward to better model viewing capabilities, CAD agnostic assembly and dependency detection, and integration with software and services to include things such as Dropbox and Autodesk PLM 360.

That’s right. Shortly after Autodesk 360 becomes a premium service this summer, they will integrate PLM 360 in order to merge their capabilities (at this stage the service will only be available in the U.S., U.K., and Germany). That changes the scope of things substantially. Where companies would shun each product because it lacked the other’s capabilities, tying them together opens up a new realm of possibilities for some.

Add in very deep search algorithms, new dashboards for situation awareness, and many more features, and Autodesk suddenly becomes much better suited to provide a useful data management solution that is accessible to small design firms.

GrabCAD

GrabCAD, developed by Hardi Meybaum and Indrek Narusk, started off as a great place to showcase your designs. It began to change into a collaborative workspace and enabler, ultimately becoming the recently launched  GrabCAD Workbench.

The funny thing is that while many have discounted the new service as a novelty, the company is very aggressively developing far more robust capabilities to fill the needs of exactly who we are talking about—the SMB design companies.

GrabCAD has already licensed the Parasolid model in order to better develop the viewing and inspection capabilities. Now they are adding useful Bill of Materials (BOM) features, engineering workflows, and much more. Have you checked it out recently? Their CAD viewer is off the hook. It’s worth a look to see just how useful the storage and collaborative space is at this point before all the changes begin to form.

Cadac Organice

Cadac Group specializes in providing IT solutions to create, manage and share digital design information. That sounds pretty close to what we are talking about.

This team has been aggregating CAD storage and data for some time on SharePoint, and are leveraging that on their hosted SharePoint Cloud. They have vast knowledge and experience in dealing with CAD model data management and have already been involved in Inventor upload add-ins. I am very much hoping for a design- and manufacturing-specific SharePoint app release for Office 365 Small and Medium business in the near future.

SharePoint and Office 365

SharePoint, as part of Office 365, is emerging as a real contender for the small design market. How is that? SharePoint sucks, right?

Well, yes and no.

The SharePoint interface itself is clunky, not really design component or process related, and it is still a collection of poorly joined resources, but let’s look at it as a platform instead.

Every purchase of Office 365 Small and Medium Business gets you a SharePoint cloud site and a large amount of storage. The current version is 2013 and has been substantially cleaned up, which makes it reasonably functional.

  • Easy to use and pre-configured collaborative and project management spaces
  • Document versioning and control
  • Smooth Outlook and Office integration are valuable tools as well
  • Pre-configured, streamlined Exchange servers on Microsoft’s Azure server
  • Tons of storage with triple redundancy backups

…at no additional cost to your Office licenses. That means that almost every licensed user will have access to a SharePoint cloud site, all their collaboration and records, and their versioned data files in a controlled and secured environment.

Get this: As one Microsoft engineer told me, you can license only the in-house seats you need, but invite the entire world to collaborate with no additional cost. This is hugely significant, considering that other services require each invited collaborator to occupy one of your paid seats. Microsoft is pushing collaboration on SharePoint hard.

Also, Microsoft is heavily investing in the SharePoint App approach, where companies can develop custom apps that run inside the SharePoint team-site envelope. This means that third-party vendors can develop well-customized data, forms UI, and workflows that can leverage the existing data structures, managed storage, and collaborative spaces, and provide design firms with a powerful, well-rounded solution.

All the SMB design industry needs is a solid third-party SharePoint application and it’ll be on like Donkey-Kong.

Why is 2015 Significant?

I believe that 2015 will be the baseline for the SMB data management service. Companies are racing to develop useful tools that are reasonably CAD agnostic, and meet the collaborative, aggregate, storage, discoverability, and accessibility needs that have become so evident in the last few years.

What is more important is that the company that delivers a complete, easy-to-use, extremely configurable deep-search tool that stores, catalogs, aggregates, and secures design models and data, with customizable form UI and accessible storage and delivery pipeline by the end of 2015 will set the stage for how small companies will collaborate, and will shape the way we work in the near future.

Will GrabCAD, with its beautiful collaborative and viewing interface, bring enough management tools to the party? Will Autodesk 360’s integration with Autodesk PLM really tie together all the parts we need in a useful, non-frustrating way? Will one of the fledgling data management vendors put together a comprehensive SharePoint Cloud app that better aggregates data and offers CAD model viewing?

If any of these things occur, I will likely be the first one to purchase seats.

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About the Authors

John Evans

John Evans is the Managing Director and Technical Specialist at Design & Motion, an international R&D firm, helping customers with product design, manufacturability, and validation. He is a USAF veteran and has over 20 years of design, manufacturing, and fabrication experience in aerospace and industrial machinery, and holds various industry certifications including Autodesk Inventor Professional.  John is a devout fan of simulation technologies and material sciences, and continues to pursue his engineering education. John’s roles at Design & Motion include technical research and journalism related to engineering software from around the world, and publishes articles in various engineering journals as well as the company website. John speaks Japanese and English, loves to fly, loves his wife and 2 boys, and would rather be on a 1000 yard rifle range right now. You can reach him at john@designandmotion.net

 

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