Tech Soft 3D Blog

It’s a Hardware Renaissance

Posted by Dave Opsahl on Apr 3, 2017 4:38:43 PM

In this episode of Beyond 3D we talk to one of the pioneers of 3D CAD, Jon Stevenson, who helped turn GrabCAD into the largest online collaboration community in the 3D CAD world, and is now VP of Global Software at Stratasys. 

We talk about how file sharing has evolved, the new challenges that pop up as technologies get more advanced, and how hardware is cool again! And if you’re a company that has always done software, how do you manage getting into the hardware game quickly and successfully? Traditional manufacturers aren’t the only ones facing new challenges navigating trends such as IoT, 3D printing, AR, VR, etc.  Snapchat is making video streaming glasses! What?!?! It’s a whole new world and it’s anyone’s game. 

And the pressure to iterate faster, reduce cycle times will only continue to increase – to the point where we are creating as we are producing, almost simultaneously.  Insane? Maybe. But that’s where we’re headed. 

Listen to our latest edition of Beyond 3D and let us know what you think!

To read the full podcast transcript, see below.

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Angela:

Welcome, everybody, to another episode of Beyond 3D. In today's episode we will be speaking with Jon Stevenson, who is senior vice president of Global Software for Stratasys. Hello, Jon, welcome to the show.

Jon:

Hi, thanks, thanks for having me.

Angela:

Yeah, sure. And of course we have Dave Opsahl, Vice President of Corporate Development for Tech Soft 3D. Hi, Dave. Welcome back.

Dave:

Hi. Thanks. Good to be back.

Angela:

Today we're going to be talking a little bit about collaboration and online communities. We haven't talked too much about that in the past shows, so really excited to dig deep into this. Why don't we just go ahead and get started. Jon, tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you landed initially at GrabCAD and talk about how GrabCAD is now a part of Stratasys.

Jon:

Okay, well, a little bit about myself. I'm a mechanical engineer by training and I've been in the mechanical CAD world for more than 30 years. I started as a programmer at what was Unigraphics back in the early 80s, now part of Siemens PLM. I was the managing director of Shape Data over in Cambridge, England, in the mid-90s where we developed the parasolid solid modeling kernel, the first commercial modeling kernel, the kernel that's using in SolidWorks, OnShape, Siemens NX, and lots of other CAD systems. Then I was the executive VP for the CAD business at PTC, managing the entire CAD business at PTC. Now I'm at Stratasys, the world's largest 3D printing company.

 

You asked how I ended up at GrabCAD. You might not be aware of this, but GrabCAD was actually founded in Estonia. It started as a site for mechanical engineers to share custom CAD files. Engineers often have the need for bespoke CAD files. They want to learn how to use CAD, or learn how to design a particular difficult piece of geometry where they want to present their model in the context of an entire product or assembly. That's how GrabCAD started. Eventually, in early 2012, GrabCAD decided to move to the United States, Boston specifically. At that time I invested in GrabCAD, so I was actually a financial backer. Then, when we decided to pivot and become a product company, I became intrigued and decided to join full time to help develop products for mechanical engineers.

Angela:

That's amazing. So your experience, you've not only seen a lot of things change in the CAD world, but participated in making a change. That's very cool, I feel like I'm on the line with a bit of a celebrity here.

Jon:

When I started, CAD was 16-bit, and it wasn't even color yet.

Angela:

Wow.

Jon:

People would consider what we had back then to be pretty prehistoric.

Angela:

I hear Dave laughing in the background. I remember seeing some really early versions of AutoCAD when I was there. Yeah, it's pretty funny to look at it now, considering how far we've come.

 

Jon:

Yeah, exactly.

Angela:

So this sharing of files, that sounds simple. But it wasn't very easy because the CAD files are really large in size, right? So talk a little bit how kind of those initial challenges that people face, and then how it's grown, and then we'll get into some other questions about ... collaboration's something we've been talking about for a long long time, and even though we solve one collaboration challenge others appear. Talk about initially how file sharing kind of evolved, and how GrabCAD kind of solved that problem for the community.

Jon:

Right. So people have always had the need to share designed data, either within their enterprise or across enterprises. In this case, GrabCAD started as a site for people to share CAD files as a way of sharing knowledge. But it is a difficult technical problem. CAD files are very big. You need to be able to display them and rotate them in 3D online, which means you need to work with every possible CAD file format. You have to do it securely, and you have to do it with pretty good performance in order to make the experience satisfying for user. So there were a lot of technical challenges to overcome in producing a CAD sharing site. Then you have to find users, and take advantage of a lot of contemporary technologies like Amazon to get good performance in hosting. Then Google search to attract users. We didn't have a sales team or a marketing team. 100% of the GrabCAD community is organically generated. They come to us by searching for CAD files.

Angela:

Wow. That's amazing. Let's talk a little about how collaboration has evolved, and it's really a lot more than file sharing these days. How are you seeing people collaborate in the world of digital manufacturing now? Again, going beyond just the file sharing, what do you see people doing on the GrabCAD platform now?

Jon:

After we moved to the United States and built up the GrabCAD community, which by the way is now over 3 million registered users, it's about three and a quarter million registered members-

Angela:

Wow. That's amazing.

Jon:

Yeah, and it's grown at 4,000 members per day, and the growth is actually increasing, not decreasing.

Jon:

All through organic search. After having built the community, we decided to build professional tools for engineers for collaboration and file sharing and simply to ease the process of working with manufacturing partners to produce real products. That's where Workbench came in. It's an online tool for collaboration in CAD-centric file management. We like to say that engineering is a team sport. Nobody does it alone. Every company has partners. They always have, even going back to the earliest days of the industrial revolution. This isn't new. But people are always looking for better approaches to working with their partners, approaches that are easier or allow you to accelerate the manufacturing process, or more secure. That's where Workbench comes in.

 

We have all of the same barriers to collaboration that people have always had: moving and converting data, communicating requirements, working across time zones. We're simply trying to solve those problems in the online world rather than in the desktop world.

Angela:

And do you find any people that are resistant to doing collaboration this way still in this day? We're becoming more and more accustomed to doing things online, even if there's security needed. But are there still people that are resistant to sharing their CAD files online in a community like this?

Jon:

There are some but it's fewer and fewer. There are some that can't do it because of company policy or even government regulation.

Angela:

I see.

Jon:

They just can't do it, they need to use traditional approaches. But now cloud software or online software is assumed to be the default deployment, and data centers are going away. If you roll back 10 years, every company was managing their own internal data center, their own server farm, their own storage network. They had large IT departments. They're all going away and being replaced by online solutions. 10 years ago, people weren't allowed to bring their own devices and attach them to corporate computers or phones. That has changed dramatically in the last 10 years.

Angela:

We even have an acronym for that.

Jon:

Yeah. BYOD.

Angela:

BYOD. Yeah.

Jon:

Exactly. Everything has changed, and online is now the default deployment. There are always going to be some people who can't do it for one reason or another, but most of the world is moving towards solutions that are allowed to be online. You see it in every other discipline. CRM online with Salesforce, your travel with Concur, HR with Success Factor. Every other solution is already online

Angela:

Right, right. So collaboration is something that we talk about it with Tech Soft a lot, especially with Dave and the 3D PF solutions, and how that helps us collaboration. I'm wondering can you share more than CAD files on the GrabCAD platform? Has it sort of opened up to different file formats and other types of information, or is it still strictly design files and CAD files and things like that?

Jon:

You can share any type of file via the Workbench platform or the GrabCAD community site. There are things we can do with CAD files that are special, view and rotate them in 3D, annotate them online, convert them to other formats, neutral formats rather than proprietary CAD formats. But you can share any file online. We can view some 2D file formats like PDF or TWG, but our specialty is really 3D CAD.

Angela:

Got it. Dave, let's get your thoughts on how collaboration has evolved over the years, especially going online and using new technologies. You've been around just as long as I think John has if I'm not mistaken. What have you observed over the last 30 years as collaboration has evolved?

Dave:

Well, my experience is pretty similar to John's in terms of watching how it's evolved over time. I was thinking back as he was talking about a startup that we put together back in 1999 called iEngineer that was trying to accomplish a lot of the same things, but there wasn't really a notion of community then, which I think is a critical part of this. The technologies that have enabled communities to come together really weren't available. They didn't exist back then, you didn't have mobile apps, you didn't have the kind of bandwidth that we have available today. It's amazing to see how it's accelerated the pace of collaboration. Sometimes we forget about the fact that a lot of those activities and the traditional ways took a long time to accomplish for one reason or another. Today, now, it's the speed ,the velocity of collaboration is really what's impressive, you know, to me.

Angela:

Right. That's actually a good point and a good transition into our next topic. We talk about the velocity of how things evolve and being able to do things faster; Talking about some of the new challenges people face as collaboration technologies have become a lot more sophisticated and continue to get more sophisticated. Now there's a whole new set of challenges. John, I don't know if you want to take this one first, but in your view, what are some of those new challenges. The pressure to do things faster is probably one of them? But I'll let you kind of outline what your thoughts are.

Jon:

Those pressures have always existed, the pressures to do things faster, to work across time zones, to work with manufacturing partners that might be in China or Vietnam or Mexico. There are new solutions to those problems. A new challenge that I've seen, though, is that we're undergoing a hardware renaissance in the United States and elsewhere, and there are a lot of people designing and trying to produce products that have never done manufacturing before. Even big names, companies like Google and Snapchat who you wouldn't think of being hardware companies, are producing hardware. There are a lot of people that are simply new to the manufacturing world that have to learn how to do this from scratch, and vendors like us and others have to support them and make them successful.

Angela:

Which is interesting. I guess maybe because the iteration process of trying to develop a piece of hardware can go faster, you can fail faster, and figure out where you need to go in order to make it better, or maybe you just abandon it, like, "Well, that was a cool idea, but that's really not going to work," right? Because with Snapchat, the whole video-sharing sunglasses thing, that just blew my mind when I found out about it. Again, you said, we would never in a million years have thought Snapchat would want to get into the hardware game. Do you think that it's going to become something that everybody gets into? Because the pressure for ... there's IOT, there's cloud, there's mobile, 3D printing, and manufacturers are looking at all these things, going, "Which one do I do? Which one should I do? How do I evaluate for my business? Do I need to come up with a device, a piece of hardware?" So how have you found that maybe companies are navigating this new challenge?

Jon:

Well, hardware's cool again, and it had been a long time before hardware had become cool. So just like in software where lots of tools came out in the mid-90s with the Windows platform, and then in 2010 with AWS, developing software products became much cheaper than it used to be. The same thing's going to happen with hardware. There'll be component technologies and standard approaches that allow people to get to market quickly with hardware, because there's a demand for that. There's a demand for hardware and a demand for speeding up time to market. The same thing's going to happen on the hardware side.

Angela:

Dave, any thoughts on this one? The hardware angle?

Dave:

No, I completely agree. The barriers to getting a product to market have become so low in many cases now that what Jon's describing is something you see quite a bit of. The companies that we talk to when we license component technology, many of them are companies like the ones that enable those sorts of services. A place where you could take something from, you collaborated with somebody on GrabCAD and send it to a company like Fitkiv or someone that would actually give you a bid back to produce that part in a matter of 24 hours. So you've got this velocity element to it. You've got the reduction in the barrier to entry because the person designing doesn't have to worry about tooling up. The capital budget side of his equation is completely different than what it was say 20 years ago. I think Jon's right, it's going to be a hardware renaissance. We're going to see products that ... you talked about the Snapchat device. We're going to keep seeing products that people didn't even imagine could be produced five years ago.

Angela:

So do either of you have advice for manufacturers who are seeing this happen and are starting to think, "Okay, should I be coming up with my own device? Should I be ... " How would you council perhaps one of the smaller manufacturers. The larger guys are going to have whole teams of people looking at this. But for the smaller guys who are trying to stay competitive, maybe say, "I just got into cloud, now I have to create my own piece of hardware, what do I do?" How would you council some of those guys?

Dave:

Jon, do you want to take that one first, or do you want me to?

Jon:

Yeah I can take ... I'd like to hear your answer first, Dave.

Dave:

My observation is that it's the smaller companies that have taken to a lot of these new platforms and new capabilities in a new aggressive way. It's helped them become a lot more competitive. The folks that I think might need some advice are the larger companies, where either they have policies that prevent them from exploring how they could use some of these new technologies, or in some cases they're in a business like Jon was mentioning. If you're producing car parts or something like that that are government controlled, you don't have a lot of options in terms of how you do that.

 

A lot of other companies don't have that concern. They need to stop worrying as much as they have about intellectual property risks, not because it's not important, but because the technology is there to keep it secure. They need to start exploring those new platforms and figuring out exactly what business benefit can I get from those. But I think the smaller folks, being more agile and more nimble, are not the ones that are going to have difficulty taking this stuff on.

Angela:

Interesting. Okay.

Jon:

Yeah, I would agree with that. I would say though that it is still a challenge for any new comer to manufacturing, because you need to be successful at every scale. You have to be able to produce the prototype cheaply, the beta devices cheaply, then your first production units and then eventually manufacturing at scale. You have to succeed at every step of the journey. I would suggest that if you're new to manufacturing that you find partners that are dedicated to making people like yourselves successful for the entire path.

Angela:

That's a good point. Because for example prototyping 3D printing is much more popular now. A lot more people are doing. But it's still tough to do. If you're not an expert in it, to get it right. What material do you use, how big should you ... you know, that kind of thing. Can we talk a little about that as well? I know in a previous conversation you had brought up that 3D printing is also one of the challenges now with collaboration, so let's dive into that a little bit.

Jon:

Yeah, that's right. 3D printing is becoming tremendously popular. It's moving from rapid prototyping to manufacturing the end use parts today. There are 3D printed parts flying on Airbus and Boeing aircraft already. But it is a challenge. We're writing software today, a product called GrabCAD Print, that is designed to make 3D printing easy and efficient for a mechanical engineer so that they can increase their success rate and learn how to 3D print successfully.

 

There are a lot of technology challenges. How do you pick the right materials, which 3D printing technology should you use, which printer should I buy, should I buy a printer or should I use a service bureau. Until you've gone down that path, you have to figure out solutions or answers to all of those questions.

Angela:

Absolutely. I've even had some personal experience with trying to figure out the 3D printing game, the size of things, and materials and things. I know that the 3MF is now this new 3D printing standard. Has that helped things? Do you think things like that will continue to present themselves that will streamline the 3D printing process for people because there are so many different options?

Jon:

Well, I'm of two minds on this topic. I think 3MF will help. It's an evolving standard, it's the community and committees defining 3MF are populated by serious individuals from big companies like Siemens and Autodesk, PTC, and others, so it is a very serious effort to define a standard for 3D printing, and I think it will help because it will connect applications and 3D printers without those companies having to work with each other directly, though you'll be able to print the same way that you'll be able to print in the 2D world, and it will happen automatically. But I think for real manufacturing, added to manufacturing is going to look a lot like traditional subtractive manufacturing where more information is encapsulated in the CAD file in the form of PMI or in standards like STPEP, JT or 3DP. Those will be the transport mechanisms for a real manufacturer.

Angela:

Makes sense. Dave, any additional comments on that?

Dave:

No, I agree. There's also I think going to be two-part processes where you've got a part that is being developed partly with additive manufacturing, partly with subtractive manufacturing that ... PMI information becomes extremely critical when you're trying to build a part in that way. 3MF is not addressing that, that's not what its role is. So you're going to have to see some of these standards cooperate with each other down the road to effect a complete communication of the design intent.

Angela:

Yeah, for sure. It's going to be something that's evolving, and we'll just have to do another podcast to follow it along to see how it evolves. Let's touch on that last thing, the last challenge that we've already mentioned once already in this podcast, but we'll do just another few seconds of deep dive, and that's the pressure to do things a little faster. Sometimes, at least for me, it's like, at some point it's starts to feel like you're trying to squeeze blood from a rock. How much faster can things get? How much shorter can cycle times get? I know, Jon, you had some thoughts on that that I thought were pretty interesting. Let's talk about that as one of the new challenges for collaboration.

Jon:

Actually, I think things can get a lot faster. Like fuel, at any point in time, we're squeezing blood from a rock but things will become faster and more efficient. On the software side, through continuous integration and concepts like DevOps, people are now releasing software multiple times per day, not on a six-month release cycle or an eight-month release cycle, but literally multiple times per day. We update the GrabCAD community sometimes 12 times in a day.

Angela:

Wow.

John:

There'll be process improvements on the hardware side that enable similar things. It will take a day because you're manufacturing physical products, but things are going to get a lot faster on the hardware side through analogous concepts.

Angela:

Dave? Your thoughts? I'm still a little in shock right now.

Jon:

Real example. People use our printers today to print molds for injection molding. We have materials that are suitable for injection molding. By doing that, they can take a CAD model, and they can design the mold and print them in 24 hours and do their first run of 100 or 200 injection molded parts. Whereas creating a tool made out of metal, having to cut an actual tool, takes four to six weeks and can cost $40,000, or even $150,000. So that's a dramatic time savings, going from six weeks to 24 hours is a pretty big deal for your first run.

Angela:

Yeah.

Dave:

I think the pressure to go faster has been there for-

Angela:

Ever?

Dave:

As long as people have been making things.

Angela:

Right.

Dave:

I don't think that's ever going to change. I think what happens is other than truly disruptive innovations, like additive manufacturing I think has been one of those, what tends to happen is the things that are not really part of the real innovation cycle get automated and the benefit of that is giving people more time to enable innovation, do the kind of things that for instance engineers really like doing, and getting rid of some of the things that ... I wouldn't necessarily call them drudgery, but there are things that are repetitive that don't really add any value from an innovation standpoint. So I'm excited to see that pressure continue, because I think it makes for better products, I think it makes for healthier markets. So I'm hoping it speeds up. I don't feel like it's blood from a rock, but sometimes I feel like I'm running to catch up.

Jon:

I think Dave's exactly right. It's all about allowing engineers to spend time where they're actually adding value.

Angela:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dave:

Yeah, the more of that we can do, the better the industry will be.

Angela:

It makes a lot of sense. For me, it's more that just the blood from a rock, you know, sometimes feeling that pressure, it just feels impossible sometimes. But then, you do see improvement, and it encourages you to keep innovating, keep going forward. Well, we have reached our time. With every guest, we like to wrap up our podcast with a challenge to our listeners. You can leave them pieces of advice, or maybe give them a challenge, after listening go out and do this, so Jon, what would be your challenge or your advice to our listeners today?

Jon:

I think what I'd like to challenge the listeners to do is to become more involved in the engineering communities in which they work, whether it's online at a site like GrabCAD, or in person at local meetups, or usergroups. They can share their skills and knowledge, host meetups, and allow rising engineers to learn more about design and manufacturing, and bring the next generation of engineers into the process.

Angela:

That's an excellent challenge, because you don't even have to be an engineer to do that, right?

Jon:

No, you don't.

Angela:

Just be interested in the topic and interested in innovation. I like that, very nice.

 

Well, thank you very much, Jon, for joining us. I think it was a great conversation and I hope our listeners found it useful and informative. I know I did. Thank you, Dave, as always for being here.

Dave:

My pleasure.

Angela:

Thanks to everybody out there for listening. If you haven't hit the subscribe button yet, please do, and write us a review on iTunes. That will help people find the Beyond 3D podcast much easier. Of course, share it with your colleagues and friends and family, anybody interested in learning about where 3D data is going and those kinds of innovations. Thanks again, John and Dave. Thanks again everybody out there. Until next time, have a great day.

Topics: Hardware

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