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COFES in Arizona: aspects of sunshine and software

23 May 2011

One of the more important annual events in our engineering calendar, the Congress on the Future of Engineering Software (COFES), took place recently in Arizona and Cambashi's Tony Christian was involved, delivering his company's traditional International Business Update session. He reflects on the event for DPA:

I recently returned from my first Congress on the Future of Engineering Software, COFES, held in Scottsdale, Arizona from 14-17 April. It’s been going quite a few years now but this was my first opportunity to attend. Describing the event is difficult; the overriding impression is one of contrasts. It’s a conference but not as you know them; it’s intense but in a relaxed sort of way; the organisation is extremely slick yet seems almost casual. What seem to set the event apart are the scope and the format. The scope is sufficiently broad that it is of interest to a wide range of people but sufficiently focused that there is a lot of common ground.

The varied format – technical briefings, round table discussions, plenary session presentations and structured networking opportunities – makes the event pass very quickly. Here were the smart people responsible for advancing engineering software and hardware technologies conversing informally and openly with users and potential users of those technologies – and with their competitors - in an environment in which everyone seemed determined to be as co-operative as possible. The attendee list, although inevitably US-focused, included a substantial number of delegates from Europe and Asia.

The take-aways are equally hard to define. The overall atmosphere throughout the conference was one of outright enthusiasm for the technological possibilities and I had the opportunity to hear a number of interesting talks and participate in a series of lively and stimulating briefings, round table discussions and topic-specific workshops.

To be frank (and maybe we should expect this as a firm of industry analysts), there were few industry developments that we did not already know of but I did enjoy learning about the amazing stuff that Joe Juhnke at Tanagram is doing in augmented reality and about Siemens’ progress in ‘mobilising’ PLM (it brought to mind mobile sales force apps, but with an order of magnitude more complexity). I also acquired a fantastic 3D mouse, courtesy of 3D Connexions, something that I had not used before (actually, it seemed that I was in the minority here - there are apparently a million of them out there already).

A common theme through many of the sessions was that, although we have an awe-inspiring array of technologies available to support engineering, manufacturing, architecture and construction, there remains a significant gap between the capabilities of the engineering software and the ability of organisations (or, more commonly, networks of organisations) to exploit them. Of course, this has been an issue with large-scale IT projects for a long time and has been ‘solved’ in the business applications (ERP) space by deploying legions of consultants to re-fashion the business or wider supply network so that it can take advantage of the software (cynics would say ‘to make it fit the software’).

With the emphasis in recent years on integration (be it in the areas of PLM, BIM, digital prototyping or shop floor operations) the people and process issues are becoming ever more constraining on the exploitation of the technical applications too. However, I’m not sure that the industry is too keen (nor should it be) to go down the legions of consultants route. It leaves the question, therefore, about whether, as the level of integration and breadth of capability of technical applications continues to increase, the developers can address the ‘ability to exploit’ issue through the technology itself by directing efforts at overcoming process/workflow/organisation issues.

An important aspect of COFES to my mind is that the organisers strive to ensure that the discussions about the ‘Future of Engineering Software’ are not limited to technological advances but also encompass the broader economic and environmental context in which the industry operates. In the current times, it would therefore have been surprising if the exciting presentations and discussions about technological possibilities had not taken place against a backdrop of global environmental and economic foreboding. Indeed the COFES conference itself is preceded by a meeting (known as the Design and Sustainability (DAS) Symposium) that considers the environmental questions and provides updates on the various initiatives being undertaken to address them.

No less worrying today is the economic outlook and in Cambashi’s contribution to the presentation program we set out to combine our traditional worldwide update on the technical applications business with a view of the dangers lurking (and largely unacknowledged by the banking and political elite) in the world economy (although by comparison with the environmental analyses, it felt positively cheerful).

To be sure, the business picture for the engineering software industry has been one of pretty impressive recovery from 2009 with positive results and growth prospects reported by the majority of vendors; our forecasts suggest that this resilient performance will continue – it is certainly important that it does, since the performance of the sector is driven by that of the range of industries that now matter most for the economic future of the US and Europe.

Achieving sustainable growth in high technology, manufacturing and construction is not without challenges though. It is clear that, on a number of fronts, the balance of the world economy is changing. Progress in information and communications technology has supported unprecedented globalisation of supply chains, allowing cost-based decisions to drive almost unconstrained relocations of activities with the associated shift in the balance of Western economies.

However, if a country is to prosper in the long term, it must run an aggregate long term trade surplus (otherwise all growth is built on unsustainable debt and is short-term and illusory). Ultimately, a balanced world economy is important for all countries to facilitate trade. There is an urgent need right to address the question of how a healthy balance can be restored for the US and Europe. If, as more and more people are recognising, the key to a prosperous economy and therefore society is designing AND MAKING things, then it follows that there are major implications for engineering software.

Unfortunately the connections between the exploitation of the capabilities of engineering software technology and macro-economic impact are vague, complicated and hard to identify (often, it’s hard enough even for a single organisation). However, a model that enables user organisations to understand how engineering software technology can provide options for the balance of activities in their business (as changes not only in technology but also the inevitable adjustments in economic conditions begin to emerge)  would represent a significant step forward in providing a contemporary strategic view of the potential contribution of the technology. We are exploring the development of such models and would hope to report on progress next time!

So, a wide-ranging, thought provoking, informative, constructive and wholly enjoyable few days in Arizona. I hope that I will be able to go back next year; I’m sure that there will be further advances in technology to see and interesting collaborations, acquisitions and industry initiatives to track. But I also hope that by then there will have been some recognition by the economic and political establishment of the need to be proactive in driving industrial recovery.......given that allocating the necessary resources would be in conflict with the continuing need to prop up the financial system, it might be hoping too much.

A sense of growth?
Could the sensors sector be a microcosm of the whole national economy? Tony Ingham of Sensor Technology certainly thinks so. Here he looks at what it will take to run a small technology company in the second decade of the millennium and suggests parallels with the wider world.

You might think it perverse to say something positive about the recent recession, but it had a characteristic that I have rarely seen before – in bad times or good. It helped a lot of people realise what really makes economies tick. In previous recessions, most peoples’ reaction was to work harder on winning sales; that is, keep doing what they had been doing and hope for an upturn. This time though, people saw the weaknesses of the whole financial sector and began to analyse how and why economies work.

There has been a realisation that there is a massive difference between fast paper profits and fundamental wealth creation. The engine room of the economy is not the City of London, it is the primary industries, such as manufacturing and agriculture. These create thousands of jobs up and down the country, rather than concentrating so much wealth into the hands of a few lucky individuals that they become divorced from economic reality.

In fact, manufacturing, engineering, science and technology have all fared relatively well over the last couple of years – most of the pain was felt in other sectors. So it is not that surprising that manufacturing is currently our strongest sector.

But the important point is that it must remain so. Manufacturing can be wonderfully profitable if managed correctly over the whole term of its products’ lifecycles. It creates masses of jobs at all levels. It creates yet more jobs in the supporting sectors such as research, development, engineering and design. Its products are easily exportable, so will suck overseas revenues into our coffers. It is also very stable; the need for capital production equipment, highly skilled staff and a sophisticated supporting infrastructure makes it relatively difficult to relocate once it is established. 

At the moment, the government is full of praise for manufacturing, but this simply is not enough. This and future governments must support manufacturing and the other technical industries. It needs to develop policies that encourage and promote manufacturing, help exporters, support enterprise and finance R&D; that generate enough trained scientists, engineers, technicians and designers, that improve the social status of those that serve their country via the technology industries. It’s a big ask, but the Chinese and Indians are doing it; the Japanese and Germans did it 50 years ago and the Americans did it 50 years before them. 

So where does the sensor sector fit into all this? Well sensors are now widely used across so many areas that they are a bell-weather for the whole economy.

Overall, the sensor sector weathered the downturn well. Early in the recession many car makers and other major industries shut down production for 3 months to reduce stock. But they also took the opportunity to invest in new manufacturing systems, including sensors. Furthermore, sensors are wonderfully exportable, so manufacturers often remained busy servicing clients abroad.  And while the recession was bad, the sectors that suffered the most - finance, banking etc - were not major direct purchasers of sensors

The UK sensors sector is currently underdeveloped, so offers many opportunities for building strong manufacturing companies that could easily become world leaders and major exporters.
The sector got going on a worldwide basis in the late-1970s or early 1980s, when traditional craft-based instrument making was giving way to sophisticated manufacture of high tech sensors. Unfortunately, at this time manufacturing was definitely not in favour in the UK. Instead, the government of the day was happily clearing away what it saw as union-infested, decrepit,  smokestack industries, so that new sunrise industries could take root (in a free market, without government support). So while the UK got call centres and pension advisors, sensor manufacturing flourished in countries where capital enterprise was supported, where labour forces did not have a black name, where a growing manufacturing sector provided a domestic market.

I must at this point say that there were exceptions, notably our own company Sensor Technology which researches, designs, develops, and manufactures sensors in the centre of England. It is a self-evident truth that what we have achieved could be replicated by other sensor manufacturers, especially if general UK manufacturing grows.

There is a virtuous circle to be developed. The more sensors that are used, the greater the manufacturing volumes; this lowers unit prices and also allows investment in automated production and improved quality systems, which encourages yet more usage.
The driving forces for the development of sensor technology include miniaturisation, robust solid state controllers replacing delicate mechanisms, wireless solutions, increasing intelligence, improved connectivity and ‘open’ communications. New drivers will also emerge, and new markets will open up.

Since Sensor Technology first set out its stall, cars have gone from having a handful of sensors to literally thousands, factories have become automated, soaking up sensors, entirely new markets have opened up such as home electronics, mobile devices, medical equipment, CCTV and surveillance, and so on. Future growth will be even greater, and it is there for the taking – hopefully by a strong UK sensor manufacturing industry.

With grateful thanks to this week's contributors!

Les Hunt


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