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As computer-aided design software has become more and more capable in the modern era, that has unfortunately meant that the software has become more demanding to run effectively.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time working with CAD software modeling assemblies of several hundred parts and up or working with point clouds verging into the millions likely understands the importance of powerful hardware. Engineers and designers have some of the most powerful tools imaginable at their fingertips through modern CAD and CAE tools. We can run a CFD analysis on massively complex designs with the click of a button. The software is capable, it is the hardware that has now become the breaking point for CAD.
How can engineers take advantage of these tools if it takes 5000 workstations in the office? Not every engineering firm can afford that cost and commitment upfront. That's where the cloud for engineering comes into play.
At the end of the day, all the cloud is, is someone else's computer. In most cases, a very powerful one. With modern high-speed internet and the built-in cloud integration of many of today's best CAD programs, like Autodesk's Fusion 360 or ANSYS' simulation software, running intensive calculations can be done with ease.
All of this high-tech software at our fingertips for engineers ultimately means that the way we do things is changing – for the better.
How the cloud is helping us make things better
When cloud-systems first started making its appearance in the engineering space, most of us probably felt that it would never work. Interfacing with the cloud in the design process would be too laggy and slow us down. However, as the cloud has evolved, these pain points have been worked out in two ways; the improvement of cloud-based CAD software and the improvement (refinement) of just what the cloud can do.
Fusion 360's cloud-based infrastructure allows users to seamlessly work together on virtually any device. It integrates CAD & CAM together, offers generative design tools, offers collaborative file sharing capabilities through Fusion teams, the cloud and its capabilities are what makes Fusion what it is.
There's still plenty of room to dislike Fusion and its interface for those in the field. It can struggle with larger assemblies as opposed to local CAD programs like SOLIDWORKS or Autodesk Inventor. It's CAM interface isn't everyone's preference, with machinists preferring MasterCAM and other competitors, sure.
There is, though, no question that modern cloud capabilities are what makes Fusion 360 the scalable engineering powerhouse that it is.
Back to cloud specifically, it's rapidly changing the way that we design and make things. Storing the power of CAD software offsite allows for what is run onsite to be run more efficiently. Offsite and onsite here referring to local and cloud computing respectively.
Engineers don't have to rely on expensive hardware in their office when they can access scalable expensive hardware through the cloud.
The other biggest advantage to the cloud is the centralization of data. No longer do we have to deal with the annoying task of sharing bulky CAD files with other engineers, either manually through devices or manually through file-sharing services. Storing the data in the cloud means that you and anyone you need to have access to files can have it whenever and wherever you want to.
The main benefits of the cloud should be evident at this point. Data availability and access to powerful computing with ease. This is a good thing for engineers because it allows us to design more, better, and with higher efficiency.
How cloud equalizes the engineering playing field
I mentioned earlier in this article that one of the main benefits of the cloud is that engineers don't have to shell out massive amounts of money for onsite rendering farms or powerful computers. This is a massive benefit for the small to mid-sized engineering firms that aren't fiscally overwhelmed. To say, it brings smaller firms up to the levels of massive engineering firms that can shell out thousands for each engineer to have the best desktop possible.
Larger engineering firms used to be set apart in the industry by the computing power they had access to. This historically has meant that only large engineering firms have been able to run your complex stress analyses needed for aerospace design, among a plethora of other data-heavy CAD operations.
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Small companies are now on the same playing field as larger companies as everyone now has access to game-changing computing power through the cloud. Any engineer with a laptop or tablet capable of connecting to the internet can access supercomputers to run their design processes and simulations.
The advancement of cloud computing in engineering is a fantastic thing for engineers, and its continued progression and development is something to get excited about.
What advantages the cloud provides for engineers
I've spent a lot of time in this article so far speaking at a higher level with a little bit more fluff than is applicable to the daily engineer. I've said a lot for advocating the adoption of the cloud in engineering without providing specific benefits. Let's change that.
Looking at flexibility first, the cloud offers up engineers a high degree of flexibility by allowing them to not be tied to a specific device or even operating system. Connection to the internet is all that is required. The alternative is local-computing, which isn't really flexible at all. It's limited by geography and it's limited by the power you have right there on hand.
In terms of maintenance, the cloud seems to win out too. With cloud-based programs, you don't have to worry about updating your seats or upgrading your software, it's all done automatically and managed easily by your CAD administrator. With local-based CAD, engineers have to waste hours downloading and installing updates. Point 2 for the cloud.
Looking at the price, cloud-based CAD software is generally subscription-based or offered with scalable "cloud credits" that give you access to the cloud at a price. While this can be annoying, from an accounting perspective it allows engineering firms to shift their CAD costs from capital expenses to operating expenses. This lets engineering firms be more flexible in their spending and operation, helping them weather harsher times easier. Most local CAD tools have moved to subscription too, likely to the dismay of many engineers, but there's plenty of proven benefits of this model (which is a topic for another post). Users of local programs have to continually invest in new workstations and other technology infrastructure in addition to the CAD costs. Even if you get CAD on a license, you're still theoretically paying the equivalent of a subscription by having to constantly invest in hardware.
Finally, cloud-based CAD allows for such a way of collaboration that isn't available on local CAD. Users can work on the same model or assembly at the same time without having to worry about being in the wrong version. All the data is stored centrally, as opposed to it being spread out around different computers in a local environment. Say what you want about cloud-based CAD, but there's no denying that cloud's file management capabilities are far superior to the old way of doing things.
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Of course, there are some disadvantages too, like the need to always be connected to the internet in order to work as well as concerns about IP management in the cloud. The internet problem is likely more seen as an inconvenience, but IP storage can be a serious problem for many engineering firms, especially those that have to comply it ITAR, or International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Like anything though, there are a plethora of companies, CAD & tech alike, that are working on solving security issues presented with the cloud. In many cases already though, storing data on the cloud is safer than storing the data locally. This isn't universally the case, though, nor is it universally allowed.
The evolution of CAD in the cloud
The idea of CAD in the cloud really began back in 2012 when Autodesk rolled out Fusion 360. This was the first mainstream full CAD program that would function heavily from the cloud. Fusion adoption was slow at first though, especially if we think back to how primitive the cloud was back in the early 2010s.
Today though, Fusion adoption rates are rapidly growing as more intense security issues presented with the cloud have been solved and functional issues around Fusion's operations have largely been solved too.
Fusion led the way too, with most CAD providers now offering some cloud-based platform. Dassault Systèmes has 3DEXPERIENCE and Siemens' tools offer cloud capabilities.
As the cloud has become more prominent and capable, engineers and software companies alike are realizing the benefits of having functional cloud infrastructure in place for the design process.
Autodesk, having the first-mover advantage in the CAD cloud space, has been able to rapidly grow its cloud capabilities in recent years and now offers up a ton of different cloud tools and capabilities through a variety of their products, not just Fusion 360. On a side note, Fusion 360 is 50% off right now until July 17th. You can snag a subscription here.
At the end of the day, competition in the CAD cloud space is a good thing for us engineers. It means we keep getting better and better CAD software with more and more capabilities, all with less upfront cost thanks to subscription and cloud models. CAD in the cloud is a good thing.