Cloud and Multitouch CAD/PLM = Engineer’s Nightmare?


What I learned this week … was sparked by a conversation with a friend from the industry over a drink last night. We were discussing the cloud, PLM, multitouch, and IT in general. To be fair, there were other topics of conversation, but he is one of the people that I really respect for his insight into technology. We were discussing my thoughts on PLM in the Cloud, when it finally struck me. Are we going to ruin the design process for experienced engineers by hampering their real-time interaction with the system? Are we heading in the right direction for tomorrow’s engineers?

What Am I Talking About?

Work with me for a minute, this conversation was after only one beer so I think it makes a lot of sense. We were talking about what kids today will expect in the user interface of the future. We were talking about how our kids talk on their headsets and use their game controllers so naturally, doing things we don’t even understand. They are pushing combinations and series of buttons in rapid succession to make things happen in their game – in their virtual world. Then it struck me – why am I so excited about multi-touch and user interfaces that help replicate the real world? Isn’t the whole point of using a computer to go beyond what you can do manually? To super-enable your abilities?

OK, back to CAD and PLM.  Multitouch, 3D manipulation, and motion interfaces are cool. We all saw Iron Man, and we have seen demonstrations of multi-touch CAD. Now I am asking “so what?” OK, I love multitouch (and I want an iPad). But I have a tablet PC with a touch-sensitive screen, and how often do I pull my hands off of the keyboard to touch the screen (hint, no fingerprints on it)? I don’t even like to take my fingers off of the keyboard to grab the mouse, so I have learned a lot of shortcut keys and typeahead tricks. Why? I don’t want to replicate getting a blank piece of paper out of my desk, writing a report on it, making copies, manually distribute it to colleagues for review, and then file it in a file cabinet. The real world is much less efficient than my virtual computer world, so why replicate it in my user interface? OK, we all know the answer. It reduces the learning curve, and it makes interaction more intuitive. But for the experienced user I am going to call that assumption into question (translate as you will).

For the experience user – particularly for the people that grew up using Xbox controllers to manipulate their virtual world in ways they can’t dream of interacting in the real world – we need to do better. Don’t make them touch the screen, take advantage of the fact that they have ten fingers that can all act independently. Give them a motion-sensitive Wii/Xbox-type of controller that they can do ten things at a time with. Track their eye motion. Read their brain waves. The point is to most effectively translate and extend the ideas in the designer’s mind to the system. For the first-time user, multi-touch makes sense. For marketing presentations, the same. For a  day-to-day, interactive interface between an engineer’s fast-moving brain and their high-powered computing equipment it has to be fast and efficient for the experienced user – and that doesn’t necessarily mean natural or intuitive. Particularly when the definition of “intuitive” changes as more of the Xbox generation is sitting in front of the CAD system.

What Does This Have to do with The Cloud?

OK, if you are still with me I appreciate it. I know this has gotten long, and I haven’t even touched on the cloud yet. I will make this brief. I pointed out two types of concerns in my post on PLM and the cloud. One set of concerns was corporate, the other was performance for the user. Let’s relate the concepts above to the real-time performance of an engineer. A lot of the buzz around CAD in the cloud has discussed the challenge of rendering graphics rapidly and getting them back to the engineer. That is a big concern, and I have seen in posts like Josh Ming’s post on SolidSmack about SolidWorks on the cloud that progress is being made.

But what about input performance?  If the goal is to make the human-machine interface as efficient as possible and not distract the engineer from innovating, there can’t be a lag between action and reaction. Part of that lag time is computing/rendering responses. The other is capturing what they are doing. This is where I get concerned about lag times in the cloud. Maybe I need to look back at my son’s Xbox experience and just get over it? But I still have a lingering concern about maintaining real-time user-machine interfaces through the Cloud. I know a lot can be done client-side on the PC or workstation, but I still have to wonder if we are heading the right direction for the real design jocks. Maybe it is too much to ask engineers to learn that level of interaction with their systems, but won’t the Xbox-controller-wielding generation expect that, and won’t it be intuitive to them? If X-A-B-Y-LR-LR-X means pass the football in their game, why couldn’t they learn that means create a thumbnail of my 3D model and check it into the PLM system? Then, I am confident that powerful computing infrastructure (in the cloud or elsewhere) can execute on that.

Implications for Manufacturers

I realize that I may not have given you much that is actionable today, so I will leave you with a thought or two to ponder. All of the new UI ideas are cool, and there are huge benefits for companies to move applications to the cloud. But try before you buy. In your environment. With your infrastructure. And your people. And keep the capabilities of bright, highly talented, gaming savvy, trained, dedicated engineers in mind as you evaluate future user interfaces. Multitouch will have great uses in engineering software, and cloud computing has great promise. But let’s be careful what we ask for so we don’t hamper our future innovators. And for goodness sake, let’s make sure we don’t make them put their hands on the screen unless it is really helping them do something more natural (like sketching) that they can’t do better with an Xbox controller.

So those are my (somewhat random) thoughts, I hope you found them interesting. Do you agree? I didn’t, if you did let us know about it.