The cloud is everywhere; it's always connected and it has your data. Dropbox, Google Docs, and other tools have changed our file-sharing workflow forever. Productivity and communication have improved tenfold. So the question is, will our design applications make the jump to the cloud as well?
When it comes to 3D modeling and design software, it's not a question of if, but when. Companies like Autodesk, Adobe, SpaceClaim, and startups like GrabCAD, Onshape (Belmont Technologies), Lagoa, Ciespace, and more are redefining the product development workflow by re-envisioning design applications to take full advantage of cloud technology. The cloud is much more than just “more power.” The true value comes when new applications are designed to harness the new workflow opportunities offered by this exciting new infrastructure.
Those worried about the switch have been quick to point out security concerns. However, these fears are simply incorrect -- security is actually a feature of the cloud. Fellow designers, let me ask you: Do you know where your files are? I don’t think any design team can answer this question in the affirmative with absolute certainty. Have you ever emailed a file to another designer, sent renderings over Skype, FTP’d a large assembly, or dropped off drawings at a supplier? We trust who we send these files to, but in the end, we don’t know where they end up.
With a cloud solution, data and access is secure and controlled. To share content, people are invited to a project versus the files being sent to them. Invites may be temporary, with access being as simple as following a link that opens a browser window. There’s no downloading, and no possibility of someone leaving their external hard drive in the airport with all the project's data sitting on it. What's more, project managers can use these systems to track who opens the project and where. You can't do that with an emailed file. In the end, security with a cloud solution is actually better than that of a traditional file system.
Looking beyond security, how can cloud-based solutions improve our workflow? With improved remote collaboration and web-based tools, designers located in Boston, Montreal, and Japan can all work on the same assembly at the same time, with the software to automatically track versions and ensure that each designer has the most up-to-date model. What's more, changes made by one person could be seen live by everyone else in the project, without transferring files.
If I change the suspension to allow for more clearance with the frame, there’s no delay between that change and the frame designer seeing the updates on his screen. If he needs it changed back, the software can make sure that the previous version is reintegrated with minimal hassle. At the end of the day, the project manager can review/approve the entire model from his smartphone in any location, or output renderings for the client.
Cloud computing also means that we can get compute-intensive work where it belongs -- distributed amongst thousands of computers. Companies like Lagoa are bringing rendering to your web browser, and Ciespace is doing the same with CFD. This means that you don't have to tie up your own machine to do these complicated calculations anymore. Kick it to the cloud, and watch as thousands of machines crunch the numbers for you. No more stopping your workflow midway through to wait for the computer.
Finally, cloud-based solutions open up a new realm of possibilities for content publishing. By keeping the data in the cloud, it can be accessed by any member of an organization, from design to marketing. With simple, unified interfaces, marketing people, CEOs, and other traditionally non-technical folks, can produce great looking content; and with web-based rendering, a richer experience lies on the other side for users. With configurators, users can customize their product and see how it will actually look before ever hitting the purchase button.
Design tools are moving to the cloud, and it's only a matter of time before much of our design process is conducted using cloud-based applications. It would behoove designers and engineers to watch this space closely over the coming years.
— Jordan Pelovitz works as a technical consultant and community manager for the startup firm, Lagoa. He previously worked as an industrial designer, graphic designer, and game designer, and has been involved with 3D modeling from an early age. He holds a BFA in Industrial Design from Rochester Institute of Technology.