Alex Ruiz is a self-proclaimed geek. As the engineering manager for a Southern California medical device firm, Ruiz spends his days fielding support questions and helping engineers leverage CAD tools more effectively. During off-hours, Ruiz is now playing that role for a much wider audience, making the rounds of vendor message boards and discussion groups to connect with fellow CAD jockeys. Enter the new world of Web 2.0 and social media, which ushers in a whole new way for people to share information and collaborate. For Ruiz, the technology tinkerer, it was no great stretch to continue his interaction with peers using blogs, microblogging forums like
and even some social networking sites, including
. Ruiz started informally, trading a few tips here and there, but soon, he was knee-deep in the technology. Today, he's the brains behind
blog, where SolidWorks' users regularly check in to mine his CAD knowledge, and he actively participates on Facebook and in Twitter discussions, in some cases, even weighing in on design discussions with online engineering pals. "I went from being a CAD manager for 105 users in a company in Southern California to being a CAD manager for thousands of users in 93 countries," says Ruiz. "A lot of these small companies don't have CAD managers, they don't have access to gurus - they don't have time to dig around and find information for themselves. With this new technology, they can send a tweet (a Twitter message) to someone or put a message up on Facebook and get the assistance they otherwise wouldn't have." Ruizis not alone in his desire to explore the new social media terrain. A small, but growing, set of engineers is starting to turn to blogs, wikis, microblogging tools and social networking forums as yet another way to tap into a collective knowledge base and connect with like-minded professionals. For now, their interaction is mostly related to networking, job searches and trading tips and tricks information on their favorite CAD and design tools. While the social media platforms foster a more open and interactive discourse compared to traditional user groups and online user communities, they are lacking in the security controls, workflow integration and visualization capabilities that would make them viable replacements for full-blown engineering collaboration platforms - at least at this time. "These tools are a good vehicle for expanding your contacts and sources of knowledge," says Ken Amann, director of research for
CIMdata Inc., an Ann Arbor, MI, market research and consulting firm specializing in engineering. "Normal systems are really focused on interacting with people within your work sphere or with defined partners while these new tools tend to have more of an open audience." The Pulse of the Customer The promise of social networking hasn't been lost on design tool vendors. CAD vendors like
PLM Software, SolidWorks Corp., Autodesk, McNeel
and others have setup shop in these social media environments, using forums such as blogs, Second Life virtual worlds and wikis both to deliver helpful information to their engineering users and as a way to capture the pulse of what customers want and what they're saying about their respective products. SolidWorks, for example, has found Twitter and Facebook useful for tracking issues and problems related to its software and training programs, according to Matt West, the company's newly minted social media manager. In Twitter, for example, West came across chatter about bugs in the SolidWorks' 2009 beta release, which the company was able to then quickly address. It also became aware of an education outreach opportunity when monitoring a student-driven Facebook network and there have been similar examples going forward. For SolidWorks' customers, who West admits are just starting to get their feet wet with these new technologies, there's an opportunity to expand their knowledge networks, much more so than with traditional ways of networking. "Instead of being limited to a local user group where 50 people meet once a month and talk or go back-and-forth on an e-mail list, these tools open up that talk to people all around the world," he adds. SolidWorks is also adding more social media-type features to its existing community tools - for example,
3D ContentCentral, where engineers and parts suppliers can share 3-D models - to make those forums more interactive and a natural part of the design workflow. For Siemens PLM Software and Autodesk®, blogs have become a useful tool for providing customers with content they might not otherwise have had access to. Autodesk® execs and the Autodesk® user base use blogs to share best practices and shortcuts related to the CAD tool, according to Shaan Hurley, platform technology evangelist for AutoCAD and platform products. In a Siemens' PLM Software-sponsored blog, for example, visitors can get all of the history behind the new "steering wheel" interface that is part of Siemens' synchronous technology. There are also company blogs chronicling the highlights of user events and announcements for those who don't attend and Siemens is tapping Second Life to showcase product launches, get early stage feedback on products and highlight its integration story behind the design process and the manufacturing floor. While the strengths of their communications' capabilities are clear, it's yet to be seen how these social media forums will evolve as real design collaboration platforms, due to concerns about intellectual property and security, according to Chris Kelley, Siemens PLM Software's vice president of online and infrastructure marketing. "Companies are going to have to come up with acceptable use policies - we really do have to figure this out sooner rather than later," Kelley says. Newcomer
believes it has resolved much of the enterprise control concerns. Similar to Twitter, this microblogging platform lets a closed group send quick, short updates, follow each other and pose questions, and the content is maintained in a central repository, which can be organized with tags for easy access. The software has applicability for engineering groups for updating co-workers on projects, for asking questions and starting discussions and for circulating something of interest amongst a widespread team of colleagues. "One of the main things an enterprise microblogging tool offers is an archive," says Keith McCarty, marketing manager at Yammer. For Jason Newell, a software engineer at
Machine Works Inc., a Perry, OK, manufacturer of underground construction equipment, it is wikis, not blogs or microblogging tools making the difference in his ability to share knowledge and collaborate with other engineering users. Newell, who supports the
CAD tool within his company and was an active participant in the SolidEdge user forums, recently created a
to provide a one-stop location for users looking for information about the tool. "There's a lot of information out there about SolidEdge, but a lot of it isn't easily referenceable," Newell says. "How successful the wiki will be is yet to be determined - it all depends on how much the community puts into it."
The Beam Store from Suitable Technologies is managed by remote workers from places as diverse as New York and Sydney, Australia. Employees attend to store visitors through Beam Smart Presence Systems (SPSs) from the company. The systems combine mobility and video conferencing and allow people to communicate directly from a remote location via a screen as well as move around as if they are actually in the room.
An MIT research team has invented what they see as a solution to the need for biodegradable 3D-printable materials made from something besides petroleum-based sources: a water-based robotic additive extrusion method that makes objects from biodegradable hydrogel composites.
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