Keeping Pace with Technology
Product researcher and designer Bill Evans says that he is old enough to have learned all the traditional skills of his profession just before they became obsolete. As the founder of San Franciscobased Bridge Design, Evans has put away the pencil and drafting board and fullheartedly embraced the digital era. He considers the current digital technologies to be baby steps, however.
On his Web site http://www.stevensonsrocket.com he compares the state of digital technology to Stevenson's Rocket, an early steam locomotive. In 1829 the Rocket astounded its bystanders by reaching 29 mph. In fact, one observer was so excited that he fell in front of the Rocket and became an early victim of steam power. Just as the Rocket's viewers were impressed by its remarkable speed, we are similarly impressed by digital technology, even though it is in its infancy, Evans says.
Although the technology may be immature, designers and engineers at companies that have invested in the newest digital tools are seeing dramatic changes in how they collaborate and interact with other team members and clients. Until recently, only those fluent in CAD had the capability to view and maneuver electronic design files. Now, however, new technology offers the potential for anyone with Internet access to view a design concept. Currently, nontechnical users may face difficulties in using virtual reality markup language (VRML), one mode of viewing designs on-line. Eventually this capability will run smoothly in all Internet browsers. Digital technology "will ultimately make designing quicker and more intuitive to a broader range of people," Evans says.
With programs such as Shockwave, designers can transmit via e-mail or on secure Web site pages interactive models of complex medical device interfaces that are sophisticated enough to generate user feedback early in the design stage. With the ease and speed of sending and viewing designs on-line, developers have the opportunity to increase the amount of design iteration, ideally resulting in better products created during shortened development cycles. Whereas previously design changes took place through the medium of back-and-forth overnight mail exchanges and file compatibility was problematic, now with the right tools, modifications can be made and shared with work groups all in the space of one afternoon.
Electronic communication and technology continue to reduce the barriers to design and engineering collaboration. Project-based secure Web sites and digital technology promote collaboration among design team members in remote locations, between designers and clients, between parts designers and manufacturers, between designers and marketers, and ultimately involves feedback from more decision makers earlier in a product's development.
Some companies are postponing investing in new digital technologies, waiting until the technologies have attained a proven level of utility and applications have become easier to use. In doing so, they may find themselves in the same position as that unfortunate victim of Stevenson's Rocket. With technology's potential for shortening development cycles and exploring more design iterations, companies well versed in the newest programs will have the competitive advantage.