There's no doubt that the general public is gaga over public
social networking sites like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
Many are moving beyond the debate over whether these platforms have utility for
business and are showing real use cases with quantifiable benefits.
Yet rather than push such social networking sites onto their engineering audience by integrating them with their core platforms, companies like Siemens PLM Software and others are talking up how to apply social networking concepts to existing design tools to foster new ways of collaboration intended to streamline the product development process.
In the latest example, Siemens PLM Software announced that Teamcenter now supports the latest Microsoft SharePoint 2010 release to deliver an array of social networking functionality to the PLM platform. Specifically, Teamcenter Community and Teamcenter 8.0, built on top of SharePoint 2010, deliver capabilities as wikis, blogs, directory capabilities and other collaborative functions to enhance different aspects of the design process. Such capabilities, for example, can help dispersed design teams orchestrate engineering change orders more efficiently by delivering all the necessary information-from task lists to 3-D CAD models-to a single shared workspace accessible by all team members with functionality like instant messaging and video chats available to facilitate the process. "There's lots of information in a change package in Teamcenter, but sometimes it's not enough for someone to be comfortable to sign off on a change," notes John Gearty, a technical consultant for Siemens PLM Software. "With this, you're not holding up the process."
By exploiting new capabilities in the SharePoint 2010 release, Teamcenter Community can provide additional social product development functionality. There is now an ability to sort people based on social distance, meaning how they are connected in a collaborative networks, along with new ways for searching through expert directories to seek out colleagues by skills or by projects. There are also additional features for co-authoring content with peers, useful for things like design reviews, and tagging capabilities much like what's offered in mainstream social network platforms.
"We are talking about the use of social networking concepts to enhance product development-we are not suggesting that anyone rely on Facebook or Twitter to design the next-generation smart phone or corporate jet," notes Bill Boswell, senior director, Teamcenter Marketing, at Siemens PLM Software.
This kind of approach makes sense given that many engineers and manufacturers have security concerns related to sharing critical product-related intellectual property (IP) out on an open network. An informal Design News survey conducted earlier this year showed that most respondents were cautious about using sites like Twitter or Facebook in their day-to-day engineering and product development roles.
Nevertheless, Boswell is confident that social networking concepts can enhance the product development process in a number of ways. Here are a couple of scenarios he suggests:
- Dynamic digital gathering spaces that mimic the real-world conversations that have traditionally happened in hallways or break rooms. Given that product team members are scattered across the globe, virtual collaborative spaces dedicated to various product development initiatives can enable team members to find everything related to a project in one place, from shared documents to contact information and project timelines. The addition of social networking concepts like profiles, wikis, blogs, status updates and online meetings merely enhance the virtual world of collaboration and make things happen quicker.
- Shared applications or multi-user work. This enables true application sharing where two or more users can simultaneously access the same application or document-or CAD model-on their computers similar to how people in different locations can play multi-user games over the Internet. This type of social collaboration lends itself to virtual design reviews, where shared visualization software, for example, would allow CAD models regardless of format to be displayed on-screen as a virtual assembly for viewing, exploding or annotating as team members sit in a teleconference.
Aerospace giant Northrop Grumman is a Siemens PLM Software customer availing itself of many of these social network concepts available with Teamcenter 8.0 and SharePoint 2010. The company has rolled the capabilities to multiple internal sites as well as to partners and customers, allowing them to share product-related information and materials in a more effective manner, according to James Ayers, CAD/CAM leader and community collaboration SIG leader. "We were fearful about adoption, getting users to use the tool, but what we should have feared was [mass] adoption from the viral wave of people requesting to get on the tool," he says. Moving forward, Northrop Grumman plans to extend the social capabilities of Teamcenter with instant messaging and presence management capabilities, among other functions.