Top 5 Trends Shaping the Future of Engineering Collaboration

Adam Keating

March 10, 2021


min read

A team of experienced people who embrace collaboration and technology will beat a team of silo-bound superstars every time.

Effective collaboration is a vital component of the success of any program, yet the market for tools that facilitate that collaboration has just begun to recognize the massive opportunity in front of it. While the PLM market is worth around $45 billion today, that market will eclipse $60 billion within five years with most of that growth coming via cloud-based solutions and new collaboration solutions. 

Collaboration tools should not be limited to software development. While solutions like Jira and GitHub made their names in software, collaborative tools can serve more than people who make software. And engineers don’t just deserve better options, they need them. Without collaboration tools, engineering teams suffer from miscommunications, missed deadlines, and duplicated efforts. 

As the future of collaboration software unfolds, the engineers and companies turning to new tools will become the market leaders of an emerging and essential space. Speaking from hands-on experience in industry and working with hundreds of engineering teams through CoLab, I have observed five trends shaping the future of collaborative software in engineering.

1. Engineering Teams Turning Agile

Like software teams, engineering teams will soon embrace the Agile methodology that took the development world by storm in the 2000s. Engineering leads may not all be working under the same formal sprints and standups that software teams follow, but the core philosophy of Agile has undeniably infiltrated the traditional engineering workflow. The future of Agile is on the way, and once engineering teams mold it to fit their needs, the gains in productivity will fundamentally shift how teams plan programs and execute them.

Engineers want Agile influences as badly as companies want to embrace them. Rather than spend their time doing admin work, engineers want to focus on what they do best: work quickly with accurate info on a synchronized team. Increased collaborative capabilities have sped up both communications and demands on productivity, pressuring engineers to meet tougher goals without the proper workflows to empower them. A move toward Agile alleviates some of that tension and prepares engineering teams for the collaborative tools that follow.

Agile methodologies are steadily growing but still lag behind their software counterparts

2. Collaboration Shifting to the Cloud

Due to COVID-19, almost every  company is embracing cloud services and digital transformation in ways they previously would not consider. Even the defense industry, where security is everything, has begun to embrace the cloud. Just earlier this year Google’s cloud division reinvigorated a contract with the Department of Defense to provide real-time network monitoring. 

From small businesses to international organizations that used to depend exclusively on in-person meetings and on-site services have found themselves forced to choose between stopping production and pushing forward digitally. Everyone is choosing the latter, and many found they liked it more than they anticipated and that there are actually massive infrastructure and security gains that can be achieved when setting up cloud solutions properly.

When everyone can access and work from the same information at the same time, it allows them to feel like they're back in a room together, drawing on the same sheet of paper and putting ideas on a whiteboard. The cloud replaces the room, and the collaboration tools provide a newer, better version of pen and paper.

"Investing in remote collaboration tools and other cloud-based productivity tools is no longer a “nice-to-have,” but a “must-have” technology."

The State of Product Development & Hardware Design 2020, Onshape

3. PLM Can't Do It Alone

PLM is a massive market in engineering, about seven times larger than the market for CAD. Initially, PLM was introduced to control how products were built to ensure quality, safety and efficiency of the solutions. PLM tools serve as the hub to store files and official records for quality, compliance and production purposes and are typically a company’s “System of Record”. As demands increased and needs evolved, companies relied more on PLM tools to meet needs their tools were not built to accommodate. Rather than leveraging purpose-built solutions in a connected way with PLM like the software world, the industry has tried to force everything into PLM, which has created complex software that teams often work outside of for day-to-day work.

The PLM market has plenty of room to grow, but these tools are not purpose-built for the problem of collaboration - they were never designed to be a “System of Engagement”. Collaboration, design review and communications must be fluid, real-time and be a dead simple for users or they will return to what they are comfortable working with. 

Engineers routinely create their own personal solutions, siloing information in spreadsheets or emails that differ from one person to another. When PLM options do not fully meet the need, companies can either embrace collaborative software and enhance their PLM or watch their engineers continue to create siloed workarounds that slow things down, hinder the ability to scale and result in mistakes. 

Engineers can spend up to 25% of their time administrating due to siloed data and collaborative workarounds.

4. Integrations, Interoperability, and the Move From SSOT to ASOT

Integrations in engineering and the CAD/PLM space can be extremely complicated. Large companies employ full teams of software developers just to maintain the versions of their PLM tools. This bloat occurs when companies insist on treating the PLM as the single source of truth, or SSOT, resulting in custom builds that are almost impossible to maintain.

There's a better way. Teams have already begun to shift away from forcing everything into one single SSOT toward streamlined, purpose built solutions that easily connect with one another and give every piece of data an authoritative source of truth, or ASOT. Rather than depend on the SSOT created by a tool that isn't designed for the task, collaborative software leverages the concept of ASOT to bring the power of your other data sources into a collaborative hub thats easy to work from and maintains the data’s integrity (keeping it out of spreadsheets, slideshows and emails).

Using this approach, collaborative tools free individuals to work more quickly and easily using verifiable and trusted information, confirming the accuracy of requirements and colleagues' feedback in real time. For engineering teams working toward long-term digitization goals, this is a necessary evolution that is becoming widely accepted amongst the most forward looking teams in industry. 

The future is connected and collaborative

5. Globalization and More Flexible Teams

Technology makes the world smaller with every new iteration. After COVID-19 sent everyone home for a few months, companies turned to new solutions to keep their teams as close as possible. Innovation in this space advanced rapidly, and with the world looking at a more globalized future, the pace of that innovation will not slow down.

Engineering teams today are more digital, flexible, and agile than ever before. They need tools that can help them navigate the new expectations they face in an increasingly familiar distributed environment. Instead of blocking progress with travel arrangements, more companies will turn to collaborative tools to accelerate the pace of production. As supply chains become more global and teams continue to work remotely, the bridges between humans, design, and manufacturing knowledge will become more important than ever. We’ve seen teams take things as simple as in-person meetings and convert them to virtual discussions or as complicated as hosting a 50 person cost-reduction event virtually around a CAD model in place of a trip to a manufacturing plant.

Knowingly or otherwise, engineers have crossed into a new era of collaboration. The collaborative tools of the present and future do not seek to uproot CAD and PLM, but to bridge the widening gaps in communication and productivity that engineers need to cross. New solutions will empower teams to leave behind the headache of filling in administrative gaps and return to the engineering and innovation they do so well.

October 28, 2020

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