Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 3 (March 2001)

A Little Help from Your Friends

When Frederick Brooks delivered his Turing Award lecture, “The Design of Design,” at Siggraph last year, he highlighted a concern that has become central to the debate in the mechanical design world about when Web collaboration is appropriate and when it is not. Here’s an edited excerpt:

There's an old joke that a committee is a refuge from the dreariness of labor and the loneliness of thought. Well, collaboration involves a lot of meetings, and it's easy for the meetings to turn into that refuge. But there's no substitute when the smoke clears for someone going off into a corner and detailing a proposal and wrestling with the different design desiderata and constraints. Collaboration can help in determining the real needs of users because more minds ask more diverse questions. Indeed, in the brainstorming and conceptual exploration phase, more minds will come up with more radical alternatives. But not in conceptual design or detailed design. How many great novels or plays have been written by two authors? How many paintings have two painters? How many symphonies have two composers?

There's no doubt that all great works require a tremendous amount of solitary thought. And Brooks makes a compelling case that the same is true for great works of design. But situations often arise during the conceptual or detailed design process, when it is vitally important to get a little help from your friends and colleagues.

The need for outside input could arise at many points-when you are stuck on a problem, need approval, or are working on part of an assembly that connects with a part that someone else is designing. In fact, such situations are occurring more frequently as design work is distributed ever more widely across supply chains.

There are countless examples. "Consider two automotive body engineers working on different but adjacent panels, say a door panel and a front fender panel," notes Bruce Jenkins, vice president of CAD/CAM/CAE market research firm Daratech. "The designers need to negotiate how to define the parting line because they may have different needs and because there may be conflicting constraints."

Much of this kind of collaboration can be done using tools such as e-mail, voice-mail, and fax messages. But it's often imperative to have real-time interaction-where all parties can visually interrogate the same model, test new ideas, and brainstorm-rather than try to resolve problems by endlessly trading messages back and forth.

The demand for tools that enable real-time interactive viewing, interrogation, markup, and sharing of engineering models over the Internet has created one of fastest growing segments of the CAD/CAM/CAE industry, according to Daratech. In fact, the company's latest forecast shows end-user spending for collaboration tools-from EAI, Centric Software, CoCreate Software, NexPrise, Informative Graphics Corp., RealityWave, Webscope, and others-grew 63 percent last year to reach $185 million.

Right now, this segment represents only a small portion of the $6 billion CAD/CAM/CAE industry. But the market is poised for rapid growth. And as these tools become more widely implemented, the labor of engineering design may become a lot less dreary and the thought that it entails a lot less lonely.

Phil LoPiccolo: Editor-in-Chief