The tablets are coming!

09 May 2011

Within just a year of tablets hitting the market, we are suddenly able to view and edit DWG wherever we are in the world. Martyn Day looks at how systems are fusing and what that means for engineering workflows

I’m currently travelling in the United States, attending a number of Autodesk product launches and industry conferences. It’s usually now, when I’m 5,000 miles away from home that I realise that I’ve forgotten an important file, or need to search for some piece of information that has been carefully filed in what looks, to the uninitiated, like a pile of composting paper. 

Nowadays we are used to being able to pretty much access our email everywhere but what about finding engineering information, models or drawings? With many document management systems this is hard enough when you are inside the company’s walls.

While at the Autodesk Media Event in Boston I learnt that its document management system, Vault, was finally going to link to the company’s cloud document distribution system, Buzzsaw. This would enable Vault to automatically update the drawings and models available on Buzzsaw for remote access. To top this off, Autodesk will shortly announce a Buzzsaw client app for Apple iPad and then one for Google Android.

The tablet software will also support Autodesk’s DWF web format to limit the bandwidth required. It’s a very basic system but automatic and, in principal, this will really extend the reach of an engineering department without additional infrastructure or overhead.

The other interesting cog in this system is AutoCAD WS, the iPad DWG viewing and editing tool (also soon to be available on Google Android). Drawings need not just be for reference but marked up for edits or updates.

A number of technologies are currently fusing together to remove the geography limitation.

Internet/3G

With the broad adoption of smart phones, offering email, internet and multimedia,3G coverage is now pretty good in all major cities. Admittedly this is not so good if you want to live in a remote seaside croft but I think the most important places of business are covered, plus there’s also the option of connecting via wireless.

While 3G coverage is certainly getting there, the issue of data roaming continues to peeve me, as telecoms companies continue to extort huge amounts of cash should you dare to leave the country.

Tablets

OK so I am an Apple fanboy but I’m more than willing to admit that I am looking at the Android-based tablets that are coming out (Motorolla Zoom, Asus Eee Pad, Samsung Galaxy Tab). It seems that since last year, tablets have gone from zero to 16 million users, without the competition getting in gear.

These machines are extremely capable, portable and have long battery lives. Autodesk, Siemens and Dassault are all developing for them, covering file viewing and 3D model publishing to Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) project browsing. A case in point is that Siemens recently launched an excellent TeamCentre client for iPad.

At the Autodesk Boston event, one construction customer told me that he had equipped all his on-site workers with iPads - an interesting concept given that the iPad is not a ruggedized piece of equipment!

One construction customer told me that he had equipped all his on-site workers with iPads

Our conversation went on to the concept of augmented reality, where the orientation of the device overlays the display to wherever it’s pointing. If you were to laser scan a building through its creation phases, when maintenance was required, the Vault-connected iPad would display the colour scans beneath where it was pointing, allowing the easy location of wiring and piping. Now that’s neat.

The combination of 3G and GPS can also provide contextual information based on location. Should equipment need servicing in the field there’s nothing stopping the right information being delivered to the remote worker merely by reporting back the location.

Security

Many raise issue with engineering data being available on the cloud due to fear of piracy. The reality is that we all do banking online and many firms outsource their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems to companies like SalesForce.com. We are already taking that risk daily and life goes on. While you may feel secure with your company’s firewall and nobody else’s, you have to consider that IBM or Amazon would have more secure systems than any we could afford to implement (and no we are not talking about fishing emails from Nigeria).

File formats

This is probably the one area where the technology has been going in the opposite direction. Since the demise of Adobe’s interest in the 3D market with PDF, each vendor’s proprietary format has seen less competition from a true ‘independent’.

In Autodesk, for instance, the DWF format suits its cloud based products for non-destructive edits. Siemens has JT and DS 3DXML. So these systems will unfortunately be quite vendor specific but that’s not something in our industry that would hardly surprise us. However, the technology already exists and is probably accelerating development of these connected systems.

The tablets are coming

It could be said that all this is currently available for PCs and laptops but in the field these are cumbersome and as they are PCs, they have not forced the developers to think about thinning out the client applications or how touch screens can benefit user interaction.

Tablets have already started to replace laptops and that’s with just the first iterations of the products - many have still yet to be released to the market. The CAD vendors have spotted this and are incorporating them into their customer workflows.

In the next two years, tablets, linked to the cloud, which, in turn, are linked to an internal document management system will be extending the value of the work done in every engineering department. 

Comments on this article:

Thanks for sharing your insights. Just a comment regarding DWF vs. JT and 3DXML: in my understanding, DWF is supposed to be an editing format, while JT and 3DXML are visualization formats, i.e. read-only. I would also consider JT as an open format, not as a proprietary Siemens PLM format. It is in the ISO standardization process and backed by a large community (JT Open). Best regards, Jens

Posted by Jens Krueger on Wednesday 11 2011 at 06:26 AM

Hi Jens, DWF is not an editing format but a web version intended for viewing only, the same as JT and 3DXML. If you had a copy of Spaceclaim, you could directly edit the actual model contained in a JT file!!! There are a number of convertor programs out there that will also convert these 'view only' formats into editable tessellated or with JT highly accurate NURBS models... http://www.spaceclaim.com/en/Products/Interoperability.aspx As to JT being open, it really depends on your definition of open. JT is owned and controlled by Siemens. Just as PDF is allegedly open too as its published and is already ISO certified, but here the PDF format and what goes in it is defined by Adobe. In my view there is nothing truly open in terms of file formats. ISO is actually rubber-stamping proprietary technology that has 'some' of the content exposed or documented. Martyn

Posted by martyn Day on Wednesday 11 2011 at 09:37 AM

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