I had the opportunity recently to attend a keynote by Chris Anderson, the former chief editor of Wired magazine and now CEO of 3D Robotics and author of books such as The Long Tail and Makers. His inspiring presentation was about the advent of 3D printing which he says will revolutionize manufacturing and ultimately change our lives the same way computers did. Just as desktop publishing and desktop printers revolutionized printing and as computers changed music recording, video production, photography, publishing, and other creative activities, manufacturing of physical objects will go through a similar disruption as a result of “desktop manufacturing”.
What I find interesting about the desktop manufacturing revolution is its likely side effect - the need to manage CAD files. Today, CAD files created by applications such as Autodesk's AutoCAD or Bentley Software's MicroStation are the domain of a relatively small world of highly skilled specialists. Sure, there may be hundreds of engineers and designers using CAD software at companies such as BMW or GE but most of us never touch a CAD file. Now, 3D printing may be changing that.
There is a new generation of CAD tools emerging that enable much easier creation and sharing of CAD drawings. New software such as Autodesk's 123D Catch enable regular users like you and me to create our own computer models of physical objects by simply 'scanning' them with an iPad. There are also new sites that facilitate the sharing and selling of such computer models. If we have a 3D printer on every desk ten years from now, all of us will be managing our CAD files the way we manage our music or video files in iTunes today.
This is exciting news for the enterprise content management (ECM) industry which included engineering content management solutions for many years. This type of software is really a niche subcategory of ECM today. However, that may be changing soon! CAD files tend to be very complex with many layers of data stacked upon the core structural model of a given object.
Just think of a car with its electrical system, fuel system, cooling system, heating and air conditioning, etc. Each of these systems represents multiple layers that all comprise a CAD drawing. All these layers need to be managed separately because they are worked on by different engineers and they need to be shared with suppliers and subcontractors. However, the entire project also has to be managed as a single entity to make sure all of the systems are delivered on time for the actual product release. All of this leads to a lot of complexity that can only be solved by an enterprise content management system.
Soon, all of us will need some type of a content management solution with the ability to manage CAD drawings natively. In the consumer space, that may be still relatively simple - just like iTunes does an acceptable job at managing my music connection (well, it does a rather poor job, really, but that's a different topic). In the enterprise, however, we will need an entirely different type of a solution with enterprise-grade requirements for versioning, security, collaboration, process management, compliance, etc. That is good news for the ECM vendors.
Besides the need to natively manage CAD files, I also expect the emergence of another type of software - security and intellectual property management. Digital CAD drawings and computer models are easy to share - and easy to steal. This will lead to a massive black market for original CAD plans of expensive physical products. Indeed, as the 3D printers become capable of reproducing complex, high quality objects, the day will come when it will be much easier to get the plans for a new Rolex and print it yourself rather than buying one.
To avoid going down the same path as the music industry, the CAD industry will need a lot of enterprise content management.