Cloud-based Communities Are Opening Up the Engineering Process

How can we create new or improved physical products – manufactured goods – that are more ingenious, functionally practical and compelling in the market? How can we do it with greater speed and precision, getting straight to the optimal solution?  These questions top the agenda as networked digital tools open the floodgates of a revolution in the way products are designed, prototyped and built.

Just as the first wave of digital revolution radically reordered anything we can create or transact digitally, the digital revolution’s next wave is about reorder the way we design and make everything else – stuff that’s physical not digital.

We at GrabCAD call this change “open engineering” - a new approach to design that embraces online tools and digital technologies.  One example of this the growth of online communities where engineers can connect with other engineers to share ideas, get help with a CAD problem, or even find someone to help on a project.  At GrabCAD we offer cloud-based CAD management tools, but we also host one of the largest online communities, with more than 1.2 million members.  I thought I’d share some of my observations about why online communities are growing so quickly.

What’s driving the growth of online communities?  At GrabCAD, we’ve seen four primary trends:

1. A New Marketplace for Engineering Talent

When evaluating a candidate for a technical job, sure, it’s good to know which engineering school his parents paid for or who has hired her before. But to my mind it’s much more useful to see what an engineer can actually do and how much respect peers have for that work.

In the GrabCAD community, talent stands out. Look up any member and you will find his or her biography, listing work and educational history, interests, skills, equipment, and location on the planet. What you will also see is a portfolio of design projects and renderings, any of which you can download and examine in minute detail.

Plus, you see a table of statistics (engineers love quantifying things) showing how many times people have viewed their profile, how many times people have downloaded or commented on their CAD files, and what their GrabCAD score is.

This makes it easy to find great talent.  In my recent book “The Art of Product Design: Changing How Things Get Made” I recount the stories of several GrabCAD community members who found jobs through the community -

2. A Powerful Social Magnet

Designing and building physical products is an inherently social activity: It usually takes a team with diverse skills to get the job done. However, it’s a social activity undertaken by people who typically are not all that social. We tend to be doers not talkers. On the weekend we’re happiest tinkering away by ourselves in the garage.

What has happened with putting our work in CAD and sharing it over the Internet is that the experience is no longer abstract or passive. In a very real sense we’ve gained the ability to share the work itself in a way that allows us to take it apart, to see how it’s made, and to discuss it on a very hands-on informed level.

This is a very powerful magnet that is making people who were never all that social suddenly highly social. We have something to talk about that is highly compelling, and now we have the means to talk about it.

3. A New Model of Engineering Education

From the outset, GrabCAD was intended to help engineers find work—that was what I was looking for myself. What I never anticipated was how the community would evolve, of its own accord, into a de facto educational institution that some members say is “better than any engineering school.”

Maybe it’s because 3D CAD is still relatively new, but learning how to use it is not yet at the core of many mechanical engineering curricula. In fact, a lot of veteran professors don’t even know how to use it. In many cases, training programs offered by the software makers themselves are not much better. That leaves many engineering undergraduates struggling to learn on their own. In the process, more than a few happen upon the GrabCAD site.

An example from GrabCAD is Chris Shakal (http://grabcad.com/chris.shakal), an aspiring aircraft engine designer in Florida, credits expert members’ critiquing of his early efforts with his quick mastery of CAD. “Even during freshman year, I had fourth-year engineering students asking me for help with their CATIA homework,” he says.  What’s emerging is a new and different type of engineering school: a lifelong, peer-to-peer learning culture, an environment in which students quickly become teachers.

4. A New Workplace in the Cloud

Whether they work at home or an office somewhere, many of our members now have a window into the community always open in their toolbar. Just like someone in a bricks-and-mortar office peaking above the cubicle divider and calling out, “Hey, anyone know where I can find a widget?” members are continually tossing questions back and forth. And designers are constantly diving into the archive to download components useful in their efforts. In a very real sense, this is now where we work.

In fact, it was requests from community members that led us to develop Workbench, our cloud-based PDM tool.  It’s a virtual platform located in a secure space, a workshop in the cloud.   But we’re not the only company looking to move engineering tools to the cloud - organizations ranging from Autodesk (Fusion 360 CAD system) to SimScale (cloud-based simulation) to Lagoa (cloud-based rendering) are moving high-powered engineering tools to the cloud.

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What's Open Engineering Ideas?

Hardi’s background in engineering, process automation and IT have given him unique insights

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Hardi Meybaum

Hardi Meybaum is founder and CEO of GrabCAD, home of the world's largest community of mechanical engineers and provider of Workbench, the cloud-based PDM solution.  Hardi is also the author...
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