Simplicity Is King in Complex Product Development (Engineering.com Article)
In a world where distributed product development and manufacturing are constantly gaining ground, collaboration capabilities are one of the factors that are key to success. The better the tools you have that can make extended enterprise collaboration easier, the more effectively the marketing, development and production work can be executed. What follows from this is broader collaborative flexibility, shorter time to market and other valuable advantages.
Any of the big PLM systems have solutions for this, but just how effective are these collaboration tools in terms of a third-party non-engineering team involved in the product realization?
These days, it’s not uncommon to work with teams and other people outside the engineering departments. Do they have access to the needed tools, such as those from the big PLM players Dassault Systémes, PTC or Siemens? Generally, no.
Add to this the frequent occurrences of massive 3D models which are hard to deal with, can take hours to upload, and can be sluggish to work with because things tend to get slow in desktop environments. The bottom line is that a flexible, cloud-based, easy to access collaboration system can break down barriers. Perhaps surprisingly, there is a shortfall of this type of solution.
However, this shortfall has created an opening for a new market player, Vertex Software. Much of the executive leadership team at Vertex, including CEO and founder Dan Murray and Vice President of Market Strategy and Customer Operations Mike Sellberg, were part of the team that invented the JT file format back in the ’90s. In the PLM business, they are well known as some of the key innovators behind the visualization tools from Engineering Animation, Inc., a company that was bought by Unigraphics in 2000 and later acquired by Siemens PLM.
On his resumé, Sellberg notes that he held the position responsible for Teamcenter (today Siemens PLM backbone system) between 2000 and 2005. A decade later, Murray saw what lightweight solutions on a cloud infrastructure could do to substantially speed up and smooth out the product realization process. Based on these insights, he founded a new collaboration market player, Vertex Software, in 2017. Their ambition isn’t to displace existing PLM systems collaboration tools; rather, it’s to transform team collaboration, with the target set on discrete manufacturing companies.
Raising the Value of Collaboration Investments
“We want to transform how people and companies share and collaborate with 3D data across the extended enterprise, and contribute to raising the value of their investment even more,” says Sellberg. He adds that they’re doing this based on a cloud-first architecture, capable new rendering solutions and Amazon Web Services (AWS) infrastructure.
“This means, among other things, that you don’t need to make use of graphic processing units (GPU’s) which can make things more costly. The data involved is streamed in the cloud to the user’s device in a secure way since no actual CAD database data is exposed.”
Vertex is fast, Intellectual Property (IP)-secure in terms of CAD data protection, you only need a web browser, and there aren’t any requirements to download and install other software into your computer.
Sometimes simplicity can become king in normally complex processes.
“Heavy Models Available in a Matter of Seconds”
To prove this point, Sellberg and Vertex’s product director, Matt Heying, shared a massive wind turbine 3D model to me during a demo session. This heavy model was available to me in my browser in a matter of seconds.
Heying took some “snapshots” of interesting parts of the model—for example the gearbox—and in addition to performing the ordinary viewer capabilities like panning, zooming and rotating, the 3D viewer could display the Bill of Material (BOM) structure of the product model. Sellberg also opened the model on his phone, showcasing Vertex’s mobile capabilities.
Furthermore, annotations can be displayed, and you can drop comments pinned to different surfaces with opportunities to respond.
Easy to Scale Up to Really Massive Models
“Streaming images from our system of renders by using AWS expands the capabilities a lot, and users can easily scale up to really massive models. This level of effectivity is reached by using our cloud-first architecture. I think that people in the industry generally ‘hate’ the desktop version of their massive models, but this solution really makes things simple and easy to communicate,” asserted Heying.
He explains that, “People can upload their model from their local machine into our AWS cloud environment. Once uploaded, multiple users can view the model simultaneously via our cloud-based parallel rendering. This provides enhanced security because no 3D models are transferred, only the rendered images into the user’s browser. Other advantages are that users can select and highlight items in the BOM structure or the graphic display and parts or components in an assembly that can be turned on or off depending on what you want to focus on.”
He also pointed out that the solution supports numerous data formats, including JT and STEP. Plus, you can use the Vertex solution on devices such as mobile phones or tablets.
Vertex’s Market Potential
All that being said about the technology, how good are the chances for Vertex to become successful on the market? There are a couple of important angles to take into account. Technology and the need for it on the market is one aspect, human resources to develop software excellence is another, as are the financial muscles in and behind the company.
So far, the company seems to have been able to attract interest as they have approached different players in the discrete manufacturing arena. This is understandable: big company organizations with many stakeholders involved are always looking for opportunities to gain lead times and with a lot of people in the marketing, development and production processes, every hour, day and week counts.
The demand for simplicity goes hand in hand with this. PLM systems are already complex as it is, and with distributed processes and more people involved outside the core engineering arena, a web browser-based solution such as Vertex can make a difference.
The fact is, Sellberg asserts, that when they demonstrate the cloud rendering capabilities, some people initially think it’s fake. But once they move past that initial reaction and understand it, they are amazed.
During the last few years, we have seen other examples of how a new player can rattle the market. Aras PLM is a good example, where the complex solutions in collaborative Product Definition management (cPDM) offered by the big three—Dassault, Siemens and PTC—turned out to have weak spots. This in turn opened a market with additional, simpler and faster capabilities among, for example, OEM’s that already had a PLM system. Companies such as GM, Airbus and Schaeffler didn’t replace their systems from the big three, but instead added it with Aras’ Innovator solution.
Vertex is aiming in a similar direction: they are not replacing anything, but adding simplicity to share complex data over the extended enterprise.
“An Appealing Choice”
We can also note that the analyst CIMdata is on the same track in terms of conclusions, stating, “CIMdata believes that for any discrete manufacturing company who has the need to collaborate outside of engineering, the Vertex solution offers an appealing choice. It is especially true if the company deals with very large 3D models that can take an inordinate amount of time to display using standard PLM collaboration tools. The Vertex Software solution breaks through those barriers.”
What’s even more interesting, says Sellberg, is that while a lot of improvements happened in Dassault’s, PTC’s or Siemens’ visualization portfolios, founder Dan Murray realized back in 2015 that, “Not very much was invested in the basic rendering and visualization technologies.”
“Current PLM providers have struggled moving their solutions to true cloud-based architectures. Their server-based visualization still relies on client-side architecture, which means they require hosted GPU’s,” explains Sellberg.
“We don’t need the GPU’s that they need. We rely on CPU’s, which are not only more effective and scalable but also much cheaper. We can run thousands of users concurrently, without the expensive hardware and software others need to run their visualization solutions on servers. In addition, current PLM providers are investing heavily in simplifying their user experience to provide better access to groups outside of engineering, including marketing, service, manufacturing and suppliers. This progress has been slow because these providers have been hampered by their legacy PLM suite architecture.”
Aiming at Automotive, Aerospace and Heavy Machinery
Realizing this, Murray decided to combine his digital mock-up and JT experience from the ‘90s with his efforts to help develop Workiva’s cloud-based architecture, a company he helped cofound in 2008. This resulted in the development of the Vertex rendering platform.
The company is owned by Dan Murray and the employees, totaling 85 persons. They’ve had some private investments as well as investments interested in high tech job growth from the state of Iowa. No venture capital is involved so far.
“The platform was launched in April this year, and right now we’re sharing this with our proof-of-concept customers,” said Mike Sellberg. “We are very early in the marketplace but there’s a lot of interest, and we’ve had meetings with around a hundred potential customers.”
He added that they are aiming at three market segments: automotive, heavy machinery equipment and aerospace.
Where this story goes remains to be seen. Vertex is in an early market situation, but is clearly addressing a need for complementary solutions that can help speed up collaborative communication with third party partners to the big OEM’s and midmarket discrete manufacturing players. The Vertex solution can play a boosting role, specifically in the communication outside the engineering departments. However, it’s a good bet that if Vertex manages to establish their platform for marketing and service usage, even the engineering departments will use it.