This article focuses on developing a pen-like device that is expected to soon take the place of the computer mouse. John Hirschtick of SolidWorks expects to see touchscreens and other means of communicating with computers—now familiar in ATM machines, iPhones, and Wii game systems—make their way into more computer interfaces, including those for CAD. Engineers might draw on the screen with a pen-based input or might use a haptic device to feel as though they are grabbing the model to manipulate it. The Internet has spawned companies like Quickparts.com and MFG.com, which have changed the way manufacturers can buy parts. Under the model envisioned by Jakiela, independent mechanical engineers would band together to work on a project through an Internet site. Jakiela is also looking at how to best build a prototype when all design-team members are part of an ad hoc team.
A decade from now, if we were to observe engineers at work (ignoring the privacy issues involved), we could expect to see designers interacting in very different ways with their computers. They may also be interacting in new ways with colleagues and companies, if they work for companies at all.
Evolving computer technology promises to change the way engineers communicate with computers and with each other.
For the past half-decade or so, Levent Burak Kara, an assistant mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has been developing a pen-like device that he hopes will someday soon take the place of the computer mouse. Kara has been working to make such a device practical for 3-D designers. After all , sketching is a much more intuitive way for engineers to design than is clicking a mouse around an image and clicking commands on a screen.
Jon Hirschtick of SolidWorks expects to see touchscreens and other means of communicating with computers - now familiar in ATM machines, iPhones, and Wii game systems-make their way into more computer interfaces, including those for CAD. Engineers might draw on the screen with a pen-based input or might use a haptic device to feel as though they're grabbing the model to manipulate it.
"When it comes to 3-D graphics and engineering programs, Levent Burak Kara, assistant mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh, expects a pen-like device to one day soon take the place of today's computer mouse."
Meanwhile, Mark Jakiela envisions a sea change in the way mechanical engineers will do their work. Jakiela, a professor of mechanical design at Washington University in St. Louis, is researching methods that will allow engineers to be their own bosses and to work from home, as freelance contractors connected by the Internet.
Just as e-mail, Google, and CAD have changed the way engineers work, the new technologies can have profound impact on the power of an engineer to design products. New means of collaborating over long distances means more job opportunities, and a greater chance to create.
And after all, aren't more power for the individual and more opportunity what technology is all about? Kara's idea for a pen would let an engineer use the computer screen like a piece of paper, but with more depth. To use the tool, engineers would literally draw on a screen to see their concepts visually realized and the math behind them automatically noted in the CAD system.
"The idea is to replace the traditional mouse and keyboard with more natural, human-centric tools where designers can use more traditional skills," Kara said.
He did doctoral work at Carnegie Mellon in pen sketch understanding; that is, determining how a pen could be used to transmit the mathematics behind the sketch to the software running the system. Now he's working to create a pen that can be used for sketching in three dimensions.
The pen could be useful in engineering applications that extend beyond design. Kara's team is currently at work on biomedical applications, for instance.
He envisions a doctor using the device to work out the best method for a particular surgery before performing the surgery itself. For instance, a heart surgeon might perform virtual surgery on a heart-using the pen in place of a scalpel and other surgical instruments. The simulation would depict the blood flowing through the heart. By moving the pen to mimic surgery, the doctor could determine how the flow would respond to a particular move. The same type of fluid dynamics application would also be valuable to mechanical engineers at work analyzing flows and other processes.
Kara's idea harks back to the early days of computer assisted design. CAD started with a pen-like device.
In 1963, while he was a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ivan Sutherland created his Sketch pad system, the first program to use a graphical user interface. The program comprised an x-y plotter display and the recently invented light pen, a computer-input device shaped like a wand.
"In the past, we have been writing letters to, rather than conferring with, our computers," Sutherland wrote in his thesis. "For many types of communication , such as describing the shape of a mechanical part or the connections of an electrical circuit, typed statements can prove cumbersome. The Sketchpad system, by eliminating typed statements in favor of line drawings, opens up a new area of man-machine communication."
Sutherland, considered by many the father of modern graphics programs, essentially came up with the idea of drawing on the screen and he chose a pen as the most logical way of doing so.
If the pen is most natural to a human, as Kara said and Sutherland implied, why the mouse?
"Nongraphical people took hold of computer development and took it beyond graphics and CAD programs," Kara said. "Unix was textual based, so the computer evolved around the keyboard. The way the interface was designed they needed more pointing and clicking than drawing, and the mouse was good for pointing and clicking.
"Now we're trying to get back to the more natural tools," he added.
Grab and Go
As a student at MIT, Jon Hirschtick worked with CAD in its early days. He went on to found SolidWorks, a CAD company in Concord, Mass., in 1993. So Hirschtick has a few ideas of his own about the way the application will evolve.
He, too, said new ways for engineers to interact with their CAD models are of great potential. Hirschtick sees new interface designs, already available in various electronic devices, that are applicable to CAD.
Apple's iPhone, for instance, combines a touch-screen with internal sensors. You can ask it to show a list of restaurants in your immediate area. If nothing appeals to you on the short list, you can give the phone a shake to generate another list. When the iPhone is held vertically, you can access a standard calculator. Rotate the screen 90 degrees, and you get a scientific calculator interface.
Nintendo's game system Wii has a wireless remote controller that uses accelerometers and infrared detection to determine its position in three dimensions. It communicates with a sensor bar so that, in addition to pressing buttons, players can gesture with the controller to communicate commands to the game system.
The touch-screen and direction or position sensing in 3-D have an intuitive appeal, because they can reduce the intrusion of the computer interface between the designer and the design. Some day soon, engineers may draw on a screen with a pen-based input or use a haptic device to feel as though they're grabbing the model to manipulate it, Hirschtick said.
"The most frequently used commands in the CAD program are moving models around," Hirschtick said. "So the idea of interacting with the model by grabbing it with your hand is powerful.
"These won't be add-ons that you buy with the software," he said. "They'll be a part of CAD engineers don't think about. They'll just be."
Hirschtick also sees engineers routinely printing in 3-D to study designs, just as publishers today print manuscripts to proof them on paper rather than on the screen.
He admits that by today's standards 3-D printing is considered an older technology. After all, some engineers have already been calling upon it for about five years. But the technology itself is becoming more affordable and now has a place in a small business.
For instance, 3D Systems Corp. and Desktop Factory Inc. are marketing 3-D printers priced under $10,000. The V-Flash from 3D Systems costs $9,900. Desktop Factory prices its 125ci 3-D printer at $4,995.
And 3-D printers, in general, are capable of producing higher-quality models than in years past. "The cost of the equipment, the fidelity of the model-its color and accuracy-all that is changing faster than anything else I know of in the CAD and computer landscape," Hirschtick said. "That type of printing will be part of the design experience in the same way 2-D printing is part of the desktop publishing experience. You can run off a draft in the middle to see what it looks like."
Together for a While
Mark Jakiela at Washington University is developing methods that will make it possible for mechanical engineers to work independently as freelance talent, just as writers and graphic artists work as freelance contractors today.
"In today's job climate, what with companies downsizing and outsourcing, the idea is that engineers are definitely not assured a lifetime job at a single company," Jakiela said.
Instead, continually shrinking collaboration costs have led to specialization, virtual organizations, and mass participation in product development, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams write in their book on the subject, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (Portfolio, 2006). So Jakiela began wondering how mechanical engineers can best get in on mass collaboration.
"Couldn't they use the Internet to participate in product development efforts across a range of companies and not have to be a long-term employee of just one company?" he said. "Mechanical engineers working as freelancers could have more and varied opportunities for employment, and the companies they work for would have fewer costs in terms of long-term benefits and office space."
The Internet has spawned companies like Quickparts.com and MFG.com, which have changed the way manufacturers can buy parts. Jakiela's idea goes a step beyond that.
Under the model envisioned by Jakiela, independent mechanical engineers would band together to work on a project through an Internet site. They would disband when the project is handed off to a manufacturer and move independently to other work, either at that site or at another. It's sometimes called crowdsourcing.
Of course, some questions spring to mind. How do freelance engineers, who sit in individual home offices dotted around the nation, find each other? How can they brainstorm product development online? And how should they best work together toward a common end?
Crowdsourcing for Engineers
In 2004, with funding from the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., which provides grants to advance entrepreneurship, Jakiela began studying the method by which engineers at large original equipment manufacturers work together on product development. He sought to translate that method to the Internet to give individual engineers a way to work together online from home.
For inspiration, he also turned to the workings of several online businesses dedicated to idea generation and development that have sprung up over the last few years. For instance, Cambrian House of Calgary, Alberta, re lies on the concept of crowdsourcing to generate product ideas. The term "crowdsourcing" is relatively new in technology parlance, but according to the Web site cambrianhouse.com, "Crowdsourcing is when people gather via the Internet to create something and share in the profit-often without ever meeting each other in person. The products of these collaborations are referred to as crowdsourced."
"Mark Jakiela envisions a sea change in the way mechanical engineers will do their work. The mechanical engineering professor is working to find an easy online method to allow engineers to work as independent contractors from home."
Ideas under discussion at the Web site include a fashion portal, a virtual game show, and a scheme to use Internet sites to publicize new Cambrian House businesses. There's also a proposal for a Web site that will put advertisers in touch with drivers willing to have their cars wrapped in ads.
So far, crowdsourced products have been relatively simple to produce. The innovation has come in the way the ideas are brainstormed. Jakiela knew he needed a way to take a complex product all the way to production, nearly entirely online.
"My interests are in a way to do the entire development process online beyond just idea generation," Jakiela said.
Now Jakiela and doctoral student Jing Zheng have developed a Web forum tool that they believe best helps distantly located engineers work together when generating product ideas. Generating ideas is the first stage of what Jakiela believes is a three-stage process for online design: collaborating to perfect the product and prototyping it are the others.
The tool the pair developed is based on the forum software commonly found on the Web in which a poster begins-or heads-a conversation to which other posters respond. The responses are threaded; that is, they follow each other, one after the other, down the page with the header always remaining at the top. The method tracks conversations and keeps them on topic and linear, Jakiela said.
"The real value is in the process," he said. "The software itself is not radically new."
In August, Jakiela and Zheng presented a paper based on encouraging initial user tests of this system at the 2008 ASME Design Engineering Technical Conferences held in Brooklyn.
Next up for the researchers: extending the model beyond idea generation and into concept selection. In other words, how do you get the large group to collaborate on moving the conceptual idea forward to the point it can actually be manufactured and sold?
Jakiela is also looking at how to best build a prototype when all design-team members are part of an adhoc team. How do team members mutually decide which feature of the prototype needs to be changed? And how do they go about changing it? The forum software will be used to do that.
Most of us today can recall life before Google or Mapquest or, heck, even e-mail.
Maybe engineers of the near future will ask themselves: Was there a time not so long ago when mechanical engineers actually had a hard time working together on freelance projects? When they couldn't literally reach in and grab their drawings to manipulate them? How did they ever get their work done?