In my eyes, mechanical engineering is one of the most rewarding vocations – seeing your designs in use in the real world is very gratifying. My first engineering job was designing payphones, specifically coin-handling mechanisms and outer casings in either die-cast aluminium or ABS. Although I left that job a long time ago, I still stop to admire my payphone designs in streets and shops. Here’s how the conversation goes when I’m with my family:
Me: “Hey kids, I designed that!”
Kids (rolling their eyes): “Yeah, we know!”
That first job gave me the experience of designing products in different materials and taught me about the pros and cons of different manufacturing processes. For me, the best part was digging down into the fine details to consider the best ways to counteract the adverse conditions these everyday objects must endure – rain, vandalism and theft.
What I learned is that engineering is truly enjoyable, but there are a number of tasks that we simply cannot avoid that put a damper on an otherwise enjoyable career. The inherent inefficiencies of file-based CAD can make these tasks feel 10 times worse, inducing fear and dread in even the most hardened engineer as each task approaches. Your list of “most hated tasks” may be different than mine or it may be longer or shorter, but I’m sure my #5 will resonate with everyone. In no particular order...
Hated Task #1: The Design Review
Design reviews are, of course, absolutely necessary. They provide a closed-loop feedback mechanism between the design team, the rest of the business and the customer. As a project progresses, problems and opportunities arise and design reviews are the best way to address them.
To most, certainly to those outside of the design department, product design is like a black box: specifications go in and drawings come out. Without regular design reviews, design teams could misinterpret the requirements or add unnecessary costs to a project.
So why do we hate design reviews?
- Design is personal – You’ve spent many hours working on the fine details. At the design review, you’re now at the mercy of your peers who will quite happily destroy all your hard work and point out your mistakes. Well that’s how it feels, anyway. To be an engineer is to be thick-skinned.
- Feedback can be subjective – Nobody understands the design like you do. Sometimes, it’s hard to accept that a change is necessary, especially when it is one person’s preference over another.
- Takes too much time – When one person is running the meeting and everyone wants to have their say, scrutinizing a complex design via a projected image on a wall is very inefficient.
- Last-minute changes – More work for you with the same tight deadlines.
How can Onshape help? By...
- Involving all stakeholders at every stage of the design – Onshape enables design teams to include input from contractors, suppliers, manufacturing partners, project managers and customers every step of the way. Issues are detected earlier and can be rectified before a formal design review takes place. This not only gives you the confidence that your design is on the right track, but your peers will arrive more prepared and the design review becomes more of a rubber-stamp activity.
- Sharing design data securely – Sending CAD files over email or any other media is error prone, a potential security risk and takes time and patience. You also have to make sure that your peers have the right hardware and the right software installed to view them. With Onshape, everyone in your extended team can review the same design data at the same time from any device, adding comments as necessary. There’s no file sharing and no software to install. Just add their email address to your Onshape Document and assign their access permissions. You never need to worry about others editing, copying or distributing your IP.
- Making it easier to coordinate – It’s not always possible to get everyone in the same room at the same time. With file-based CAD, you also have to make sure you have all the files you need checked out of the PDM system before you carry your laptop (or for some poor souls, their desktop machine) to the meeting room. For remote workers, web meeting software is adequate, but it doesn’t allow the sort of interaction that is needed in a detailed design review. Onshape enables simultaneous review and editing of design data. Using Follow Mode, everyone can watch as a design is explained and add comments if need be, in real-time on their own device. This makes design reviews very interactive, especially for those who can’t attend in person.
Hated Task #2: Collaborating with others
Even if you’re a one-person consultancy firm, you still need to collaborate with your clients. Collaboration – the very word can strike fear into the heart of an engineer. It’s a cheesy, overused buzzword that nobody can avoid. And you shouldn’t avoid it either. As much as we would all like to think that it’s true, nobody is perfect and no design is perfect until you’ve considered somebody else’s point of view.
Why do we hate collaborating with others?
- It feels forced for the sake of it – You may have had a bad experience in the past or you may feel that the people you are being asked to collaborate with are not adding any value. Everybody talks about collaboration, but nobody really knows how to put it into practice successfully.
- It feels like others are working against you – If you’re working as part of a team and you make what you consider to be a perfectly good design decision, somebody else might disagree or they might make other changes that invalidate your work. They may well be correct, but it’s your design and you know what’s best.
- Others can slow you down – If you are working on the same designs every day, you are the recognized expert. You know how your products work, you know how they should be put together. It takes time to educate and work with others, especially if they are contractors with no industry experience.
- Waiting for files to be checked-in to PDM – With old file-based CAD systems, you need PDM to manage the thousands of files each person generates. This restricts collaboration as only one person can edit the files at a time. The rest of the team must sit there twiddling their thumbs waiting for that person to finish and check the files back in. If they’ve made changes you don’t like, that’s a lot of wasted time and effort.
- Software incompatibility – There is a lot of CAD software out there and lots of different versions of the same software. File-based CAD systems are generally on an annual release cycle, so it is unlikely that your supply chain has the same version of the same CAD software as you. With software incompatibility comes file incompatibility – trying to send files in the right format so everyone can open them is just asking for trouble.
How can Onshape help? By....
- Giving you full control over who can access your data – To collaborate successfully, you have to share your data. Not only is data sharing easy in Onshape, but you have full control over who can do what. It’s also just as easy to revoke access when a contractor’s term expires or a supplier’s quote is not accepted. With old file-based CAD, it’s easy to forget who you sent files to and impossible to get them back once they’ve been sent.
- Letting suppliers choose their own export formats – When working with suppliers who use different CAD software or standalone CAM software, getting the data to them in the right format can be difficult. CAD files can be huge, so email attachment limits are a problem. Once they receive the file, they may not be able to open it, so you have to jump through hoops several times before you get it right. With Onshape, you simply edit their access permissions to include export capabilities. The supplier can then choose the export format that works best for them and it’s just one less activity that you have to get involved in.
- Letting multiple team members work simultaneously – Onshape is the only CAD system that allows two or more people to edit the same design at the same time. You can edit the same part, same assembly, even the same sketch if you wish. There’s no more waiting for files to be checked in before you can work on your design. This is also very useful when asking somebody for help. Rather than explain the problem, invite them to edit the design with you.
- Giving you a single source of truth – Everybody works on the same CAD data and the same CAD system at the same time. There are no software or file version compatibility issues and everybody works on the latest version of the design at all times.
Hated Task #3: Managing files
3D CAD generates thousands of files – one for every part, assembly and drawing. Managing that data using Windows Explorer is virtually impossible, especially when you’re trying to find the latest revision of a drawing to manufacture. That’s why every CAD vendor has their own bolt-on data management software as an afterthought and every design team needs an IT expert to maintain dedicated servers, network infrastructure and disaster recovery procedures.
Why do we hate managing files? Because...
- It’s a necessary evil – Nobody enjoys managing files and nobody enjoys using or maintaining PDM software. If you use file-based CAD, you really have no choice. The alternative is complete loss of control.
- Searching for data takes too long – Without PDM you are at the mercy of Windows search. Even with PDM, finding the data you need can be difficult: the files need to be checked-in first, then indexed in order to give you access to the information you need.
- Files are easily lost or corrupted – A file can be accidentally deleted or become corrupt. If you don’t have PDM, you may have to recreate everything from scratch. If you do have PDM, you can always revert back to the files from the last check-in and write off any lost time. Sharing data externally often means sending files by email or by USB drive – a big security threat.
- It’s a non-value-adding activity – You should be designing products not managing files and PDM systems. If you don’t have dedicated IT staff, it often falls to your best CAD engineer to take on those responsibilities.
- It slows you down – File check-in and check-out disrupts your workflow. If you’re working on a design and somebody wants to take a look, you have to stop what you’re doing and check those files in. Taking just a few minutes out can affect your train of thought.
- Locked files drive you crazy – If somebody else beat you to it and checked out the files you want to work on, you’re out of luck. Files that are checked out are locked and cannot be edited. You need to either wait patiently until they have finished with them or ask them nicely to return them back to the vault.
How can Onshape help?
- There are no files – Onshape is entirely database driven, so there’s no need to individually manage parts, assemblies and drawings. Design references, in-context edits and assembly structures are extremely robust, so that’s one less thing to worry about.
- Data management is built-in – Onshape is first and foremost a comprehensive data management system with CAD capabilities built on top. This strategy ensures that Onshape can eliminate many of the file-related headaches that users have endured over the years with file-based CAD. With all the data management features included, there’s no expensive PDM software to buy and maintain, no expensive servers and IT infrastructure required and zero IT overhead.
- Versions and Comprehensive Edit History – Every design change is captured and recorded for the lifetime of a project with a description, a timestamp and a username, so you can see exactly what changes were made and by whom. Each change can be reviewed and mistakes and bad ideas can easily be reversed.
Hated Task #4: Implementing ECOs
Engineering Change Orders (ECOs) should not come as a big surprise to engineers – they’re inevitable. No design is perfect the first time and improvements are always required, whether they be design improvements or changes required for manufacturing. Issues found during the initial design are corrected as part of the natural design process, while ECOs are generally requested after a product has been released for manufacturing. At this time, all ECOs are carefully vetted in design reviews to ensure that it makes sense to implement them.
Why do we hate implementing ECOs? Because...
- It’s rework – You’ve already spent a ton of time on a particular design problem only to be told that it needs to be changed. Now you have to go through the entire process again of validating any changes you make.
- They have a knock-on effect – Changes to one area of a product often affect others too, so while an ECO may seem harmless enough, the work required to implement it may multiply tenfold as you chase interdependencies and tolerance stackups around the design.
- Multiple ECOs cause big delays – While one person affects an ECO, everyone else is locked out by the PDM software. So if multiple ECOs arrive at the same time, they can only be implemented one at a time as the CAD files are systematically checked in and checked out.
- ECOs impact deadlines – Product designs change often, but customer delivery schedules do not. Having too many ECOs can affect deadlines, deliveries and your reputation.
How can Onshape help? The following features make a huge difference:
- Branching – Built into the Versions and History feature of Onshape is the ability to create a sandbox environment to carry out design changes, called a branch. Branches can be used for ECOs, ideation, simplifying designs for simulation, pretty much anything. You can create a branch from the same revision of the design that the ECO was raised against, so you can be sure you’re editing the right data. Multiple branches can be created at the same time, so multiple ECOs can be implemented simultaneously without stepping on each other’s toes.
- Compare – You can easily review and compare changes between the released design and a completed ECO or compare multiple ECOs to check there are no conflicts.
- Merging – Once an ECO has been approved you can merge the changes together and up-issue the design to the next revision. Since there is no copying of data required, you can be sure that only the parts that have changed are updated.
Hated Task #5: CAD rework (and how to avoid it)
Every desktop-installed application is prone to crashing. The complexity of 3D CAD makes crashing more likely as there are so many ways a CAD system can be used, so many different computer configurations and so many complex calculations going on in the background. If a crash occurs, the entire executable must exit and any data you had in memory is lost forever.
Why do we hate CAD rework and how do we try to avoid it?
- It’s rework – Obviously. But unlike rework due to ECOs, this is work that we are forced to do over through no fault of our own. Data is lost and files become corrupt if a crash occurs during a save operation. CAD can crash many times a day and getting back to where you were before the crash is just wasted time.
- Backup and recovery files don’t always work – Your IT team may have a good backup strategy, but if those backups are not regularly tested, you have no guarantee that your data can be recovered.
- You have to remember the design intent – If you have to recreate something from scratch then you’ll have to remember the reasons why each design feature was added in the first place. Recreating a single part may not be too bad, but if that part is used in dozens of assemblies, you’ll have to spend time fixing those too.
- Save after every edit – CAD resellers often teach users to save after every edit, so that when a crash occurs, you haven’t lost too much data. This is such a bad idea on so many levels as saving after every edit may overwrite your best work. If you need to go back to a design how it was an hour ago, you had better make sure that you checked it into your PDM system, otherwise you have no way of getting it back.
How can Onshape prevent CAD rework?
- Onshape never crashes – That’s not entirely true, since any software component is liable to crash. However, Onshape’s cloud architecture ensures that dozens of software components are queued up waiting to take over if another one fails. The result is a seamless “never crashes” experience for the end user.
- No work is ever lost, corrupted or overwritten – Every change made in Onshape is saved automatically, so if a crash does occur, the worst thing that can happen is being asked to refresh your browser. You can then simply pick up where you left off.
- Unlimited undo/redo – Because every change is automatically saved, you always have a complete audit trail of who did what and when. You can go back and review previous design changes or restore them at any time, effectively giving you unlimited undo/redo.
- No backup or recovery plan needed – Onshape backs up your data every 3 hours and integrity tests each backup every 3 weeks. Your data is in the safest place.
Stop Hating Your Work!
Engineering should be enjoyable. Engineers should be able to spend more time doing the work they love to do and be able to focus on what they are being paid for. If any activities take away that enjoyment, distract you or waste your time, you should work towards reducing or eliminating them completely.
Since CAD is a big part of a design engineer’s daily life, shouldn’t CAD be fun?
Before Onshape was even an idea, the company’s founders each had decades of firsthand experience working with engineering companies of all sizes and from many different industries. In conversations with those companies about how CAD could be improved, features were rarely at the top of the list. Nobody really complained about not being able to model parts and assemblies and create production drawings. The things that really frustrated users revolved around CAD administration, CAD deployment, CAD files, sharing data and collaborating effectively with others.
Onshape was therefore built from the ground up on a database and full-cloud architecture. This is the only way to effectively address the hassles and limitations of old file-based CAD and PDM technologies.
If you are hating your everyday engineering tasks, why not take a serious look at Onshape?