Electrical globe

Collaborative tools for global engineering teams

Image credit: Dreamstime

Technology is breaking down borders as new and evolving collaboration tools demonstrate how engineers will communicate with each other and their designs, irrespective of where they may be in the world.

As the events of 9/11 unfolded it became obvious that the world was about to change in many ways. One entirely understandable reaction from many businesses was to safeguard their most valuable assets, their staff, by suspending air travel for business purposes. Even 16 years ago it was expected that the technology was there to allow businesses to operate unhindered, albeit in a less personal way.

A lot has changed since 2001. At that time we were still two years before Skype and nine years from FaceTime. Video conferencing had been around for some time – the first public videophone emerged in the 1930s – but, despite developments in the last two decades of the 20th century, it was still too expensive for mass adoption. It was only as we entered the internet age that such technology became accessible, even if not yet mainstream.

However, we now have a new set of technologies that are set to rapidly change the way in which engineers communicate with their organisations, customers and, most importantly, each other. What’s more, these technologies will lead to a much more dynamic and collaborative treatment of the design, product or business that is at the heart of the enterprise.

The first aspect is to recognise the value of teamwork. Having people together in groups boosts morale, idea generation, problem solving, skill sharing, communication, personal and professional support... it’s a long list. The question is, do these groups need to be physically together?

In certain circumstances they do, but there are also times when home or remote working can be more productive; it can be essential to scatter technical teams in order to be near customers – and perhaps even have people around the globe to provide 24-hour support or productivity.

“Skype and FaceTime are fine for point-to-point connection but aren’t sophisticated enough for anything more,” says Andrew Hug, vice president, systems engineers, EMEA, Polycom. “We are seeing more and more companies moving away from simple tools like these for one-to-one communications to more innovative technology that is both easy to use and secure.”

But collaboration doesn’t need to be overcomplicated. Karl Hewson is CAD manager for Cambridge Design Partnership (CDP), a company that largely operates out of its Cambridge HQ but also has engineers embedded in customer sites. Its objective is to communicate efficiently with clients. “For design reviews with customers we use applications like GoToMeetings or TeamViewer where we can do web conferences, we can pull up CAD models and spin them round so the client can see what we are talking about,” he says.

This is adequate for CDP’s needs and he sees no need for more sophisticated telepresence or to experiment with more exotic technologies such as virtual and augmented reality. Hewson says: “I haven’t seen any reason to go down that route for our small product designs.

“When you can start to feel simulated surface roughness, hardness, rigidity and weight within VR…I think that is when it would get more interesting but we are a little way from that at the moment.”

Communicating with more people and more complex technical data can result in a move to video conferencing or telepresence, systems that have seen incredible advances over the past decade or so in quality and functionality, while becoming affordable for a wider range of companies.

Polycom is one of the largest suppliers of such systems, second only to Cisco, and Andrew Hug agrees that the ability to share content with colleagues can be more vital than having high-quality video and audio. “Being able to share CAD documents, technical diagrams and spreadsheets with data is paramount,” he says. “Lots of companies have or are looking for solutions that offer both great video and on-screen content sharing facilities. Our Pano solution allows for up to four content streams, which enable engineers to make comparisons and review multiple documents.”

Engineering consultancy Buro Happold is one company that has recorded dramatic results from employing such solutions: travel costs reduced significantly (up to £250,000 per month); 3,000 hours a month gained in productivity; and over 90 per cent of staff now video-enabled. Virtually all Buro Happold employees can now also join a video meeting at any time.

One old enemy for this new technology is, of course, security. Hug sees it as one of the main trends that will shape communications in the enterprise. “IT security is still mission critical,” he says. “It will always be evolving to suit the demands of the ever-changing workspace and workplace. We are already seeing adoption of practices such as blockchain and data encryption, which goes some way to preventing the tampering of individuals’ and company data. However, with the rise of cloud-based solutions and the increase of security breaches, analytics and multilayered security is something that businesses should think about implementing.”

Hug points to technologies that are being developed to offer the user a better experience: “We have already implemented noise-blocking technology in our solutions. This innovative technology cancels out background noise, non-human noise and auto-mutes silent participants. We also have facial recognition and video enhancement.”

Another trend that will shape the near future is the development of tablets and mobiles for control rather than remotes, according to Hug, as well as the adoption of voice activation. And further down the line Hug suggests: “I think there will be more natural language processing across video calls, where dialogue can be translated before it reaches the respondent. This is something that will most likely be via the cloud.

“3D conferencing is also something we will most likely see in the future. It would allow a remote expert to advise from afar but have a much more immersive experience. This could be used potentially in the oil and gas industry; if there is a leak an expert would be able to help and inform the person on the ground more effectively, and become a virtual guide.”

Extending the environment beyond audio and video, Hug believes, is also a logical development for the collaboration industry. This is where communicating an idea is dependent on the interface, and is where virtual and augmented reality come in to play.

There are essentially three variations of this technology. Virtual reality involves donning a headset to enter a completely immersive experience. Augmented reality projects an image on to a transparent lens that essentially overlays the image onto the real world. Mixed reality is a hybrid of the two, overlaying an image on to real life but then allowing interaction between what is real and what is virtual.

This technology has developed rapidly over the past few years, but will have to continue to do so before it becomes a mainstream tool for professionals in the technology sector. Virtual reality led the way here with products like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. The quality of the graphics is getting better all the time but the total immersive environments they create are not yet of great value in engineering. The interface here is all-consuming and the prime intention, collaboration, is largely lost. The sweet spot for virtual reality is currently in the gaming and entertainment world, but perhaps when avatars of our work colleagues start appearing in engineering models on virtual reality headsets then it may become more useful.

Mixed reality is still in its very early days. At the time of writing Microsoft is just launching its mixed-reality developer kits and it is still not clear if it is going to target the gaming or the professional market. It seems logical that this would ultimately be the ideal technology on which useful engineering tools would be based. It is developing so fast that it might not be that long before this is the case, but we are not there yet.

Augmented reality, then, is the format that is blazing the trail in engineering and technical applications. One early adopter is Vantage Power, which makes electric motors that turn diesel buses into low-emission hybrids. CEO and founder Alex Schey first saw the Microsoft HoloLens at Autodesk University at the end of 2015, and says: “I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that that demonstration changed my entire perspective of engineering.”

He concedes there are currently a few limitations to get round for use in design, particularly for very large models which need to be optimised in order to be used on the HoloLens with its limited processing power. The big advantage about which the HoloLens might boast is, alas, also its biggest disadvantage: it is a standalone computer in its own right. Other AR and VR solutions need to be tethered to a computer, which limits the mobility but does give them the full processing power and graphics capabilities of a CAD workstation.

“Assuming AR gets streamlined, I think it will be massively advantageous in the design environment,” says Schey.  “It is often very difficult to get an appreciation of the scale of what you are designing.

“If you were looking at, for example, a complicated gearbox, you would be able with the HoloLens to stick your head inside it and have a look around. You can blow it up in the middle of the air and have a look underneath it and a walk around it, and then get an idea of whether a tool is going to fit in there to do some maintenance.

“It sounds basic but those are the type of things that you never really find out until you build something.”

Blowing up the image does, though, have one significant disadvantage. The viewing angle on the HoloLens is 33°, which limits what you can see of a model – models are cropped into a rectangular field of vision. One of the main competitors in augmented reality is Meta, whose Meta 2 AR headset has a 90° field of view. David Gene Oh, head of developer relations, Meta, says: “For designing around CAD models, customers wanted a view of the full model so they could have a frame of reference for any specific point they were looking at.”

Currently the biggest use case for such augmented reality solutions is in visualisation – either as a sales tool or for maintenance and repair applications where a remote operator with a headset can be fed instructions or view the full CAD model. But Oh says it doesn’t stop there: “There are a lot of companies who are starting to design with our headset. Our partners think they can shorten the design process and also help with the design functionalities with CAD models.”

Broader range of view and high-quality models come at a price, and consequently the Meta 2 needs to be tethered to a computer to provide its computing power. It is fairly safe to assume that the augmented reality pioneers will be looking to develop smaller, untethered headsets but with higher quality holograms and broader field of view.

Oh adds: “I think with all new technologies, even if you look at mobile phone technology today, there are still more advancements that need to happen. All augmented reality and virtual reality solutions need to be developed to be in a better form factor to have more resonance in the real world – because it will become ubiquitous in ten years.”

Demonstrations have been conducted with two engineers in different locations working in unison on the same model in augmented reality.  Oh says: “We believe collaborating with this technology will actually bring people closer. Sometimes technology has a bad stigma of pulling people apart; we believe augmented reality can give people stronger connections.”

But could that interface between engineer and design go further? Heather Macdonald Tait, marketing communications, Ultrahaptics, believes that touch is the final piece of the puzzle: “With gesture recognition, users are freed from being controlled in two dimensions. But, without a glass surface to interact directly with, as with the touch screen, there is no haptic feedback that you are even engaged with your device, let alone that it is responding to your commands. This is certainly a message the automotive market is learning – it need a superfast, responsive, intuitive mechanism and touch, being processed 1.7× faster than sight, meets all of those requirements.

“Significantly, with augmented and virtual reality technologies approaching mass-market maturity, we are on the cusp of another interface revolution – a future without screens. We see a paradigm shift in how we use visual elements in human machine interfaces. Currently, we work in 2D, but as soon as interfaces become truly 3D, the need to reach out and touch, to physically interact with objects and environments becomes really tangible.”

Tait claims that the feeling of different 3D shapes can be simulated, and so too can different textures. She adds: “Our ‘pixel’, if you will, is about the size of a fingertip (8.6mm) so we can be quite precise. With our technology research activities we are working on refining this accuracy and resolution further.

“With the ability to manipulate 3D objects in mid-air and work collaboratively on them, it will make the design process so much more natural. In fact, we believe haptics will enable a more immersive and engaging environment for virtual collaboration, for example, virtual meeting rooms, whiteboards, sketching etc, and help drive adoption of new collaboration solutions.”

Does Vantage’s Schey also see all of these technologies working together? “Well, not at the moment, but I am a great believer in technology and I am pretty convinced that within the not too distant future you will have a virtual experience that is indistinguishable from the real world. And businesses that have already thought about how they are going to work around this sort of technology, trying it out early, might be advantaged in the future by having considered the full implication.”

Future of Design

A video called ‘Dell, Nike, Meta and Ultrahaptics Vision for Future of Design’ on YouTube gives a stunning vision of how these collaboration and interface technologies could work together.

The 9/11 effect on air travel

In 2000 total passenger numbers were 1.8 billion according to figures from the IATA (International Air Transport Association). The following year they fell by 35 million and, assuming it was all down to the 9/11 effect, all of this would have been in the final quarter of the year, so at the time the impact would have appeared more severe. However, it only took until 2004 before the airline industry had recovered both in terms of passenger numbers and profitability.

In effect 9/11 didn’t change air travel as was expected at the time, it just set back growth by three years. The financial crisis in 2008 had greater effect, but ultimately has failed to slow down expansion of air traffic. In 2017 passenger numbers are predicted to reach four billion.

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