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Do Engineers Have Appetite for Mobile Apps?

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Beth Stackpole
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It's only a matter of time
Beth Stackpole   12/2/2011 6:40:09 AM
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It's funny. Since even writing this story, a whole new batch of mobile design tool apps has been released and it seems like the momentum is just starting to build. I think if engineers don't have an appetite for mobile apps now, they will develop one over time, especially as the tools evolve to provide higher utility.

Jennifer Campbell
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Jennifer Campbell   12/2/2011 11:54:06 AM
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Beth, it's interesting that in just a short period of time you see that the tides are turning in this area. I'm surprised these "techies" didn't embrace mobile apps quite as quickly as consumers. Seems a bit backwards to me.

Beth Stackpole
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Beth Stackpole   12/2/2011 12:07:09 PM
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It is curious that tech-literate engineers would be slower to adopt mobile apps than general  consumers, but I think it's likely because they don't necessarily see the real business value in apps yet. Engineers, by natural, are a skeptical lot and don't necessarily want to play around with "toy" apps that don't really do anything substantial. I think once the apps choice evolve to the point where they are delivering real business value and solving real problems, engineers will be first on the bandwagon. It just takes time.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Rob Spiegel   12/2/2011 3:14:17 PM
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Nice story, Beth. It answers a number of questions I've had about why all these mobile apps. Are people really using them?

I believe there is a generational aspect to this. Young engineers will be much more comfy with mobile apps than their older counterparts. We saw this in automation, where a lot of the boomers were resistant to software developments, while the kids coming out of engineering school couldn't believe the plants were not more automated. 

Charles Murray
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Charles Murray   12/2/2011 4:07:47 PM
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Great story. I agree, Rob, that there's a generational issue here. And while I applaud vendors for trying to capture this space, I suspect it will be uphill battle for quite a few years. As Beth points out, many engineers (even younger ones) are tied to the screen size and graphics-rendering capabilities of bigger systems.

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Alexander Wolfe   12/4/2011 6:06:12 PM
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I found this story both interesting and, quite frankly, jarring, because it doesn't comport with what we think we know about uptake of mobile apps in CAD. For example, our recent Slideshow: 11 Top iPad Engineering Apps included a number of CAD apps, and I guess many folks -- myself included -- just assume usage, or more correctly the desire by engineers to use these apps, is rampant. This article gives one pause and cause to reassess this. Moreover, it's not simply a traditional early adopter/late adopter dynamic, cause you give the example of a younger person who's not too keen on the mobile apps.

Dave Kaylor
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Dave Kaylor   12/5/2011 9:22:35 AM
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Perhaps it is a matter of focus, engineering tools still require workstation horsepower for productive work.  Apps need to be geared more to post-build design review and troubleshooting aids to break into the market. 

The devices still are new enough that the market hasn't shaken out yet and the concern of how the devices will survive on the floor is still an issue.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Ann R. Thryft   12/6/2011 12:10:17 PM
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Interesting, this parallels what's going on in machine vision on the factory floor. There's something of a push for mobile apps there, at least on the part of vendors, but things aren't moving very quickly. Although this is partly due to the still-needed technology that's required, perhaps this has also been slowed because of resistance among older operators. 


BradLevy
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Re: It's only a matter of time
BradLevy   12/6/2011 4:59:36 PM
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Beth, I think you are right that "Engineers, by natural, are a skeptical lot and don't necessarily want to play around with "toy" apps that don't really do anything substantial." Engineers are not immune to attraction to shiny objects and new tech, but more likely than the average consumer to examine functionality of technology, not just the glamour or sexiness of it. And in the design venue, where engineers frequently find the functionality of a standard pc to be underpowered and with insufficient display size, a mobile platform with even less power and smaller screen is not a substitute for the workstation.


That doesn't mean there is not a place for the mobile apps. But their place is more as an adjunct to the primary workplace hardware and software. They can excel in the field, providing portable access to documents, capturing photos, notes, and data in the field. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes the fastest way to take notes is to snap a few photos of relevant data and measurements.

Likewise, mobile apps have much to offer for interacting with field instrumentation. Here, the field instrumentation interface has in the past been limited by cost and environmental limitations. The hardware cost of adding mobile device connectivity to field instrumentation can be minimal, comparable to just a couple of conventional controls. With appropriate software, the mobile app is capable of providing a much richer and more flexible interface to the instrumentation, going beyond what can easily be implemented via switches and knobs. And being mobile, the interface can be disconnected and travel with the operator, so doesn't have to be capable of extended operation/storage under temperature extremes, which pose cost, functionality and power consumption issues for fixed interfaces.

 

Beth Stackpole
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Beth Stackpole   12/7/2011 7:05:14 AM
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 Brad, I don't think I could have said it any better myself. Great perspective. Thank you for wading in.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Rob Spiegel   12/7/2011 3:47:25 PM
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Good points Brad. I'm hearing much the same thing you're saying. As I understand it, the mobile apps are being used for on-the-run checking and verification of plant equipment. The kind of thing operators have been using laptops for. To gather data, run some quick diagnostics. What I'm hearing is that the smartphone and the tablet are simply easier to handle on the run than a laptop balanced on the knee.


TJ McDermott
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Re: It's only a matter of time
TJ McDermott   12/7/2011 4:20:17 PM
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We're talking about consuming and producing information here.  Tablets and phones by nature are terrific for consuming.  No matter how fast your thumbs though, you're not going to create a 40 page specification in a timely manner on your phone.

Engineers use these tools when they make sense, to consume information (drawing viewers).  Producing is much more difficult on them.

Size is another issue.  One can easily use a regular clipboard and pad of paper propped on one arm and fist to make decent drawings or diagrams.  For an android or ipad tablet to be USABLE as a producer of information, it's going to have to be about the same size.

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Alexander Wolfe   12/8/2011 11:01:02 AM
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I think the real stumbling block is that no one has licked the data-input challenge with mobile devices. The soft keyboards stink, and portable, bluetooth-based keyboards just don't cut it. Perhaps Siri on the new iPhone is the first inkling of a possible solution--a speech recognition tool with a decent user interface. The only other challenge I see though is that CAD typically requires numerical entry. So you wouldn't be able to create drawings on mobile devices, but sharing and manipulation would be made a lot easier.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Ann R. Thryft   12/14/2011 4:00:43 PM
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I completely agree with Alex about the user interface problem on mobile devices (as well as other devices). They all suck, as far as I'm concerned. Apple's Mac keyboards on their laptops, at least the older models, are actually pretty darn good, and their touchpads are superb, especially compared to those on Windows machines. But a keyboard's not always what's needed. You don't have to have lousy vision, fat fingers, or be older than 15 to hate texting or soft keyboards. I'm not fond of talking to machines--except for yelling at them when their software malfunctions--but Siri sounds promising.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Rob Spiegel   12/8/2011 12:35:59 PM
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Good point, TJ. That's a concise way of viewing it. As far as I can see, operators are using the mobile apps to consume information and transfer it to a larger system. Grabbing data remotely and sending it to the main box seems a perfect use for mobile devices.

Charles Murray
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Charles Murray   12/8/2011 9:02:22 PM
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I agree, Brad. Engineers are an exceptionally pragmatic bunch. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part if they can't see a work advantage, they're not going to mess with the technology.

Tool_maker
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Tool_maker   12/15/2011 7:31:39 AM
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Good points Brad, but there is one other thing: Am I the only one out here who wants the ability to turn out the office light and go home at the end of the day without having the pressures of work having the ability to follow where ever I am?

You see mobile apps, I see a never ending work day. It is already bad enough that I find myself finishing designs in my head at 3 am, I really do not need the ability to feel obligated to actually, get up and go to work in my kitchen.

Darel Coterel
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Darel Coterel   12/5/2011 10:37:09 AM
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Oh, we'd embrace the mobile apps but seriously the iPADs fall well short of the requirements to run true engineering software.  Turboviewer is just a viewer, right? CAD software on 512MB RAM to do hard core design or analysis when we are used to 4GB of RAM or higher with 64bit architectures?  Also, it has to be capable of multi-tasking and running more than one app at a time in this way.  Until it can do that, my/our mobile hardware will remain a laptop.....engineering grade laptop.  As for the screen size, yes, size matters but that could be addressed through technology.

Beth Stackpole
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Re: It's only a matter of time
Beth Stackpole   12/5/2011 10:46:53 AM
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Darel and Dave both raise good issues. I think the idea of an engineer trying to do full blown CAD modeling on one of these devices is crazy given the size and performance characteristics you both note. On the other hand, there are definite uses cases where the right app could really improve an engineer's workflow. It's zeroing in on what exactly those use cases are that is the real challenge for developers building these apps. Once they do, the younger generation, even the gentleman I interviewed, and the more seasoned engineers will no doubtedly take note.

sensor pro
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Re: It's only a matter of time
sensor pro   12/5/2011 9:18:10 AM
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Super story. You re so correct. I love my station and the size does matter. HOWEVER sometimes it is very convenient while talking to some collegues in airports or shows to grab your android is show some small photos or drawings just to keep the conversation going. With the zoom options you can really show nice drawings. I never did any changes on the phone size screen , just review.

ScotCan
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I-Pads don't fit that well in Aerospace use
ScotCan   12/5/2011 7:25:35 PM
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In Aerospace Liaison Engineering there is a need to visit the shopfloor on a regular basis to resolve problems. Most times there is a requirement to look at both the next higher assembly or the previous lower assembly. All over the shopfloor are (usually) a number of computer terminals in which Liaison has access to the whole aircraft if needs be and by accessing that data a speedy resolution of problems is possible. Authorizing a fix on the spot is possible by accessing the information, copying it into the Liaison personal account for formalizing later on AND at the same time running hard copy to sketch up the preferred fix in conjunction with the shop limitations (access and blind spots for example) which provides a comprehensive record of correcting nonconformance. It is oftimes necessary to work with several drawing sheets spread out on the shopfloor tables in order to figure out anything, so, the I-pad in these circumstances would be regarded as a toy. It depends on the job and the scale of whatever you are working with whether an I-Pad would be adequate...it is nothing to do with young engineers versus old engineers. The 64 bit laptop I use for concept work is taken to the clients place where I can plug in to a big screen via HDMI or to a monitor make the presentation and where change is necessary make notations in the CAD which is resident in the laptop. It would be interesting to see a counter point-of-view which shows that the I-pad can adequately do the same thing particularly when dealing with more than one person.

Beth Stackpole
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Re: I-Pads don't fit that well in Aerospace use
Beth Stackpole   12/6/2011 6:29:14 AM
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Scotcan: Thanks for the very rich description of a real-world engineering scenario, which points up both the limitations and potential for tablets, including the iPad. I agree that the current technology might have limitations in the scenario you describe, particularly for the large design review applications where there are multiple people present. I do think, however, that the iPad could be connected via HDMI to a large-screen monitor for presentations--if it can't today, it will tomorrow.

Again, not sure the tablet will ever be a direct replacement for modifying geometries in CAD, but my guess is these auxilliary CAD apps and new mobile design tools will zero in on particular stages of that very same design review task and find ways in which they can add value. I'm curious to see what others think.

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