Let’s work together collaborative design and engineering in an AI world

This audio was created using Microsoft Azure Speech Services

There’s a common notion that most writers, philosophers or artists create their great works in isolation. We imagine the act of creativity as a solitary act by some person in some dusty study, an off-grid mountainside cabin or isolated research lab.

For the rest of us, especially in technology and engineering fields, our work, our progress and success depend on collaborating with many – possibly hundreds — of people working together. We all have a practical, and even emotional, need to engage with colleagues to reach collective goals, generate ideas and share resources. Together, we learn from both success and failure. In short, collaboration is both a human need and business imperative.

It is that human value of “sharing,” intersecting with an onslaught new highly networked data and AI-driven collaboration and design tools, that promises to change the role of — and business models for — electrical system designers, specifiers and engineers in future.

A global 24-hour connected “knowledge factory”

Even middle-market “regional” companies operate in a global economy, connecting employees, partners and suppliers across broad distances and multiple time zones.  Employees, fulltime or freelancers who make up the new “gig” economy, need new ways to connect and collaborate.  Instead of data in the cloud, we hear the term, the “human cloud” for these disparate but connected workers that by some estimates number 30 million people worldwide.

And while yesterday business “collaboration” used to mean face-to-face meeting or teleconference with eye-straining PowerPoints, spreadsheets and critical path diagrams – today’s workers connect via social media-inspired apps or large-scale enterprise project management systems.

These business collaboration (or “groupware”) apps, and even powerful engineering CAD, 3D modeling and automated design management system are widely used.  There are literally hundreds of small business to corporate enterprise groupware programs, and large-scale design and project management systems for software development to AEC (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) applications.

Yet most are still just digital, networked versions of linear processes that connect people and ideas, store and share data, set critical work paths, and monitor progress.  On the horizon are new and transformative AI-based, hyper-connected and highly automated tools that will change how we collaborate and create.

From concurrent engineering to computer supported collaborative design (CSCD)

The concept of concurrent design and engineering has been around for some time.  The premise is to replace siloed and linear sequential steps, with a more inclusive and circular process of input, design and modification among all players. Design, engineering, manufacturing and other functions are integrated under unified project management systems to reduce the time required to bring new products or concepts to market.

The most notable example of this was the development of the Boeing 777 aircraft in 1995. The first computer-designed aircraft, Boeing applied early collaboration, highly networked design and production systems to do all sub-assemblies. They accelerated this engineering model with new integrated collaboration and visualization and modeling tools for it 787 Dreamliner.

Today we’re seeing the emergence of BIM (Building Information Modelling/Management) tools that are changing project workflow models between designers, engineers and construction managers – and among mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) teams.

Advance concurrent engineering tools that provide full and simultaneous visibility on projects, realized in tools such as BIM, are today laying the groundwork for the next generation of Computer Supported Collaborative Design (CSCD) tools. It’s based on the concept of synchronous sharing of information and interaction with ideas, in an AI-driven, data-intensive environment where problem solving, data and service “agents” support, or replace, labor intensive work and possibly the human traits of intuition and decision making.

Shared, distributed, crowd sourced collaboration

Today’s collaborative design tools are evolving from intra-company work and design-flow applications to new “distributed” tools that connect third parties such as consulting specifying engineers, engineering management firms and even customers.

But take a page from consumer companies that encourage direct consumer participation, via crowdsourcing systems, to shape their products. Threadless, a multi-million-dollar T-shirt company solicits ideas from designers on the web and then uses customer crowdsourcing to select final products – all before a single stitch is sown.

If that example seems too consumer focused for industrial applications, think about DARPA who uses internal crowdsourcing tools to aggregate lists of potential terrorist threat targets.  Or Drupal, a CMS web API used for 7.2 million websites where a “community” of volunteers support and update the shared resource.

Role of human capital

These emerging collaboration tools – fueled by machine learning, AI and massively connected data sets – raise the question of just where human interaction and intervention will fit into a design and create process.  Gartner considered that question in its “How We Will Work in 2018” study, concluding three things: robots and AI are suited for precision and “brute force” work; human and AI synthesized collaboration can multiply human work value; but, human-to-human interaction and innovation – collaboration – and ingenuity still require “human” contributions.

All of which raises interesting ideas, considerations and look-ahead questions for professionals, and their businesses, projecting out 15 or 20 years.

  • More Than Shared Documents – If today’s groupware and design tools are just high-powered resource sharing, storage, communication and tracking tools – will new “collaborative” technologies really change how we engage, and innovate with, our colleagues?
  • Too Many Cooks – In a hyper-networked, always-engaged global collaborative environment, who sorts the ideas and sets the priorities? And is that a business opportunity for traditional system designers and suppliers?
  • Engaging New Customers / New Partners – In a highly collaborative, shared design and engineering world, what is the role and changing relationship with your end user customer? And does that change the traditional value-chain relationship for electrical system designers and consulting specifying engineers?
  • Is Collaboration a Service? – Wil our value in the design and development cycle become more “leader and coach” rather than “designer and implementor?”

The impact of collaboration and design technology over the next 5, 10 or even 20 years on the building and power distribution industry can be discussed with experts during one of the upcoming Schneider Electric Innovation Summits.

Together we can explore the challenges – and new opportunities – that will define our industry and new market leaders.

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