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Data and Democratization

JamieI spent the last two weekends cleaning out my woodworking shop — or as my wife insists on calling it: the garage. I hadn’t been out there to make anything for months. My lack of productivity wasn’t because I didn’t have the necessary tools to do the job — they were all in there, somewhere. The problem was I had too much stuff. Tool accessories I’ll never use, jigs, board cutoffs I’m sure will be useful for an unknown future project, hardware left over from previous projects, schematics and not-quite-empty cans of paint were all mingled among my kids’ sports equipment and bicycles. It was a mess, and it was preventing me from getting anything done.

Armed with a shop vac, trash bags and the dream of a better workflow, I began cleaning, decluttering and organizing. Likes went with likes — sandpaper with sanders, drill bits with drills, circular saws with hand saws hanging on the wall beside the table saw. I found tools I hadn’t seen for years. I found duplicates of tools I had bought when I couldn’t find the one I already had. I filled garbage bags, donation boxes and added considerably to the woodpile for our backyard fire pit. My children avoided me, afraid that I would enlist them in the great garage cleanup of 2016.

When the sawdust settled, I looked around to see I had stations dedicated to different aspects of the job: designing, cutting, assembly, finishing. It was a beautiful thing. It was the way it should have always been, I just hadn’t realized it as I added more tools and supplies little by little over the years.

Software Vendors Get Organized

Having what you need where and when you need it is a simple concept that becomes more difficult to implement as you acquire more — more stuff, more data, more tools. Many engineering software developers have realized the same thing. As they added features and toolsets over the years, the danger for clutter and complexity to trump productivity grew. New features make it easier for you to create the optimal design, unless you aren’t able to find those features or don’t understand how they can help. Specialized features for other disciplines and industries just get in your way.

It’s an issue engineering software vendors are tackling primarily by three different means: creating platforms, supporting democratization and focusing on vertical markets.

The platform approach is intended to integrate all the tools design engineering teams need into a more efficient and collaborative workflow — from concept design to detailed CAD to simulation and analysis — via plugins and/or a standard user interface, for example. We’ll look at the challenges associated with a platform approach, including interoperability, in our September issue.

When it comes to engineering software, democratization refers to various ways developers are making software easier to access by a larger pool of people. One popular method is via purpose-built apps that allow non-specialists to perform complicated simulations of specific phenomena. For example, a field rep can change a few variables to show a client a thermal simulation visual. The math is done in the background and the variable choices are constrained to avoid unrealistic results.

Democratization is a means to simplify a complicated task for a broader audience, but sometimes engineers need tools specific to their industry. Imagine if my woodworking shop was also filled with lug wrenches, spark plugs, floor jacks and other auto repair tools. It would be that much more difficult to get organized to do woodworking. That’s the idea behind engineering software vendors’ industry-specific approach. The challenge is knowing what tools and features engineering teams from different industries want and need. It requires a great deal of industry-specific knowledge to get right, as well as built-in flexibility to allow end users to further customize the software to meet their exact needs. Read more about going vertical here.

Divide Data to Conquer It

Having the right software and workflow is only part of the solution. Like my wife asking me when I’m going to get that corner cabinet built for the dining room, there is a looming threat of repercussions to having unorganized and unnecessary stuff. When it comes to engineering, the boss might decide to finally let you kick simulation use into high gear, begin rolling out connected products or want better visibility into predicting when products are about to fail in the field. In any case, more stuff in the form of data is bound to be coming your way. Data will be given off by simulation runs and coming in from connected devices. Some of it will be data you need now, some will be data you might need someday. The challenge is to avoid hoarding data you’ll never need while keeping the data you do need organized and easily accessible.

About Jamie J. Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the editorial director of Digital Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@digitaleng.news.