Power to Everyone: the Cloud and the Democratization of Engineering

When I was an engineer, 3D printing a prototype would cost about $5000 for each part and would take weeks. For that same cost today, you can purchase a nice mid-range 3D printer and print dozens of parts, with each being done in a few hours.

3D printers have allowed even schoolchildren to create c00l products

In the same way, over the last 10 years, product development has become a lot easier for engineers. 3D printing, Raspberry Pi, and open source are just a few examples where engineers can leverage new technologies to make better products faster. But it’s not just engineers who can do things better, it’s also “non-engineers” who can embrace this “democratization” trend. People who would have never been able to create their own products or apps a few years ago now can. The idea that a 9-year old can print 3D parts would have never been feasible when I was an engineer.

Engineers’ View of the Cloud

I’ve been involved in a number of cloud software companies for a decade. And while the cloud has been embraced by software developers (Jira), sales people (Salesforce), legal (RocketMatter), finance (NetSuite) and customer service (ZenDesk), interestingly enough, hardware engineers have been much less enthusiastic about the cloud.

Onshape and Propel offer modern product design capabilities in the cloud

For example…a few weeks ago, my company Propel was at the Pacific Design & Manufacturing show along with Onshape, who was a main sponsor of the conference. As two of the newest cloud companies for CAD (Computer Aided Design) and PLM (Product Lifecycle Management), both of our companies offer robust and modern product development capabilities that anyone can use with just a browser or phone.

When many conference attendees walked by the Onshape booth to hear what Onshape was, a common response was “I already use SolidWorks” or “I don’t want my files in the cloud.” But when we explained how the cloud changes how people can use CAD, the response was completely different. Onshape calls these newer use cases “agile design,” where engineers around the world can collaborate with each other or with partners, suppliers, and anyone else involved in product design. People loved the idea of being able to simultaneously collaborate real-time on designs a la Google Docs versus being forced to have individual engineers hand designs off to one another with complex check-inout procedures. And the cost of Onshape (starting at free to $100/month) versus a new $7000 license of SolidWorks is great too.

The Cloud Helps Everyone Participate in Products

Even more interesting to me was how non-engineers embraced the idea of Onshape, and how they could use the cloud in a whole new way. The cloud now allows sales people, marketing, customers and anyone else to participate more actively in product designs and launches. For example, one of the salespersons at the Georg Fischer Machining booth next to us was very interested in being able to collaborate during sales cycles with his customers on potential GF machine designs. He currently has to go back and forth with his customers and engineering on design tweaks, which extends his sales cycles, increases the odds that a competitor responds more quickly, and hurts everyone’s productivity. With Onshape, he could now be much more collaborative with his customers.

At Propel, we’re seeing the same thing with our customers. While engineers at our customers have embraced Propel, it’s the ability to extend PLM to people outside of engineering that’s really exciting. You can read a case study about how AMS Technologies is using our cloud PLM software to get their sales people engaged with customers, so the company can be much more responsive and transparent with their customers — a significant competitive advantage.

Of course, not everyone is ready for this new approach to design. And that’s OK. But if you want to use the cloud to be more collaborative with product development — so you can design products faster, improve engineering productivity, increase customer transparency, and gain more market traction — I encourage you to check out a demo of Propel and Onshape.

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