The idea that any engineering team today can work with one single CAD system and one single CAD system only? It’s basically a pipe dream. Maybe internally, your team can get by using the same CAD software across the company—but as soon as you start involving people outside your organization, the need for effective multi-CAD collaboration is clear.

Even without adding in your external collaborators and all the different programs they’re using, there’s a good chance your team is already using more than one CAD system internally anyway. The shift toward best-of-breed technology and away from single-vendor software suites is happening in every industry. In 2019, more than one-third of marketers (34%) opted for a best-of-breed tech stack versus 27% relying on a single-vendor suite.

Using the best tool for the job makes sense. Rather than trying to consolidate or control a limited number of CAD/PLM systems or vendors, engineering and manufacturing teams need to be looking for ways to improve interoperability. Organizations that find ways to collaborate productively and preserve design data in a multi-CAD environment will have a significant competitive advantage going forward.

This post covers three pieces of advice to make multi-CAD collaboration a productivity booster, instead of a productivity killer.


1. Share Engineering Data in a CAD-Agnostic Hub

When you are sharing engineering work between different CAD systems, converting your design to a STEP file or another neutral format means losing precious data in the process. As Joseph Lewin puts it in this article on Industry 4.0, “Much design intent is lost when translating from a native CAD format to a neutral CAD format… Neutral CAD formats like STEP were created for long-term archival and are still best suited for that purpose because they don’t preserve vital design intent information.”

Instead of working with neutral CAD files, a CAD-agnostic tool allows collaborators to upload design work as native CAD files from different programs—becoming a central hub for multi-CAD collaboration while preserving design intent and engineering data. This prevents all kinds of headaches, unnecessary data recreation, and manual work. Neutral CAD formats may provide greater interoperability in the short term, but they simply don’t have the same functionality as native CAD formats.

Bringing multi-CAD collaboration together into a CAD-agnostic hub also cuts down on time lost searching for files, version control issues, manual admin tasks, and other unproductive uses of engineers’ time. Everything lives in one spot. But everyone still works from the same CAD tools they know and prefer, without needing to buy software seats for other programs they’ll rarely use.

Source: Tech-Clarity's eBook, "CAD Data Management for Small Companies and Design Teams" (2019)


2. Use Cloud-Based Collaboration to Communicate

Sharing CAD to be reviewed by internal and external stakeholders (who don’t all work from the same CAD systems) has often meant exporting STEP files or taking screenshots, painstakingly marking them up, creating a PowerPoint deck that gets continuously updated, and sending it back and forth by email or chat. But when that collaboration process becomes centralized in a single cloud-based tool, review cycles can shrink dramatically. Changes can be made by an engineer working in Ohio and be instantly visible to supply chain collaborators in Seoul, for example.

Wherever, and whenever, any stakeholder in the design process needs to communicate with all other stakeholders, having a multi-CAD environment that’s based in the cloud allows for real-time updates that are instantly accessible to everyone. The potential for version control problems goes way down. Working from the cloud means the most up-to-date design is easy to find, so that nobody is pulling the wrong files from their inbox and spending hours revising an outdated version of a design.

While engineering and manufacturing organizations have traditionally been laggards when it comes to moving to the cloud, this inevitable shift has finally been gaining traction. “The CAD industry is one of the final markets to embrace cloud-based solutions over on-promise solutions,” writes Michael Gigante in this article on CAD trends for 2020. “At G2, we expect the next couple of years to be big for the cloud-based CAD trend.” Whatever lingering hesitation may have existed within the industry, the last 15 months of the Covid-19 pandemic have shown teams the power of embracing the cloud while accelerating the pre-pandemic momentum for cloud-based engineering solutions.


3. Engineer Your Engineering Processes

If your team isn’t using a CAD-agnostic hub or cloud-based collaboration tools (or if they’re not being used effectively), it’s a good idea to pause before running out and committing to a particular solution. There’s no shortage of software options out there promising to solve every problem under the sun. But rather than working backwards from a specific tool, figuring out the process for using it on your team, and putting a plan in place to get your people to adopt it—what if you flipped things around?

Start with your people, with the human factors. What problems does your team face when trying to collaborate in a multi-CAD environment? Where is the friction happening? How could collaboration be strengthened, both internally and externally, among all the different stakeholders involved?

Approaching your engineering processes the way you would approach any engineering problem will give you the insights you need to be able to make a smart, informed decision about the technology and software solutions that will actually boost your productivity. The rise of purpose-built applications and best-of-breed technologies is changing the digital landscape. Interoperability challenges still exist, but new integration abilities are continuously advancing.

Multi-CAD collaboration can be a strength and a productivity booster. It can enable better (and faster) innovation by allowing people to work together in a way that’s more seamless than ever before. The only way it becomes a productivity killer… is if your processes don’t keep up with technology’s progress.


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