Graphic of a person at a crossroads deciding which 3D tool to use.
Written by Thomas Spilker

How to Choose the Optimal 3D Collaboration Tool

3D data is the universal visual language essential to communicating product information throughout the product lifecycle. When it comes to selecting a 3D visualization tool, today’s 3D market can feel overrun with solutions that share similar features and benefits. However, a little digging into these solutions reveals meaningful differences in performance and scalability. Those distinctions—whether subtle or profound—will have a significant impact on your business in the long run.

It isn’t just your team or department that depend on access to 3D data. The cross-functional teams throughout your enterprise rely on 3D information to make decisions. Therefore to maximize organizational efficiency and serve the needs of the entire enterprise, PLM decision-makers must consider the 3D visualization and collaboration needs across the extended enterprise. Today, a company’s downstream users (including procurement, manufacturing, sales, marketing, service, and the supply chain) must often settle for 2D screenshots and illustrations. Choosing the optimal tool will improve efficiency and positively impact your entire enterprise’s ability to innovate and collaborate using 3D data. 

Your company’s specific use cases, business needs, and collaboration workflows collectively dictate which solution will work best for your organization. When considering which 3D collaboration solution is best for your enterprise, decision-makers need to focus on three primary questions.

1. HOW DO OUR TEAMS COLLABORATE?

Perhaps the most important question that PLM, IT, engineering, product, and innovation managers must consider is how different teams within their organization interact. Nearly all discrete manufacturers operate on a global scale. Most rely on multiple departments to create innovative products. With this in mind, start analyzing:

How do different teams across my company collaborate? Most organizations are spread throughout different floors, buildings, cities, states, and countries. Different departments perhaps may never see each other face-to-face which poses a significant challenge to 3D collaboration without a proper toolset in place. For example, consider how frequently engineering and procurement are currently collaborating—but more importantly, how often they should be collaborating.

How do your different teams access information? Consider the processes that teams such as procurement undergo to gather, share, and disperse 3D information. Many require special hardware or software to access 3D information and manual processing effort to prepare the data. As a result, 3D data often times is only accessible to those with the necessary hardware, software, and training – which then leaves them tethered to their desks to work. Ask different departments how this impacts their ability to understand and make product critical decisions. Take the opportunity to consider how they would prefer to access this invaluable 3D information instead.

How do we interact and communicate with our supply chain? Now, take this information you’ve learned about your internal collaboration process and extend it to your supply chain. Likely, the collaboration workflows and challenges your teams face internally are amplified when working with suppliers.

2. WHAT TOOLS CAN HANDLE OUR 3D MODELS?

Now that you’ve determined how your teams want to collaborate on 3D models—and more importantly, their biggest collaboration challenges—it’s time to understand exactly what they are collaborating on. Working closely with your engineering and design teams, analyze:

How big is your company’s average model? 3D model size significantly impacts your company’s collaboration needs. Small 3D models have vastly different requirements than 3D models with thousands of parts with tens of thousands of BOM lines.

How well can teams collaborate with (not just view) massive models? For those companies with massive models, many solutions require powerful hardware. As a result, these solutions can only deliver visualization capabilities to a small subset of users. Consider the many users throughout your enterprise without high-end hardware and their need to collaborate on 3D data. This much larger non-engineering community extends far beyond your engineers who have access to powerful hardware and 3D software.

What is your engineering team’s performance expectation on a BOM? Stepping outside of visualization and collaboration capabilities for a moment, engineers and designers need to frequently load, filter, and adjust BOMs. Analyzing your typical BOM interaction needs often reveals if a visualization tool is up to the challenge of effectively interacting with a massive model.

Make no mistake: a company’s collaboration needs as described in this blog take top priority when determining a 3D tool. A company can plan the most collaborative and insightful workflows for their extended enterprises. But without a solution available to the extended enterprise users, those processes will quickly fall by the wayside.

3. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE NEED TO SCALE?

All engineering companies must consider the longevity of their technology decisions. Over time, will the costly infrastructure investment meet the long-term business needs? Considering how fast technology changes, all on-premise infrastructure and software solutions will be suboptimal in months. Vision and allocation planning doesn’t solely stem from management, engineering, or the supply chain as it must be implementable and sustainable by your IT team. Sit down with your Director of IT, Global Technology Manager, or other IT leader and ask them:

How and when does your IT team increase computing resources? As a company grows and changes, new user requirements emerge. As a result, the IT team needs to regularly invest in additional hardware such as servers and GPUs, not to mention additional support staff. Often times, an IT team will discover they need to upgrade when end users experience a loss of performance. No matter how nimble your IT staff, infrastructure expansion takes time, effort, planning and capital investment. The performance loss (and resulting productivity) for your end-users is felt during the duration of time needed for infrastructure growth. Understanding and predicting your specific growth path is both an art and science, which oftentimes fails to keep pace with user needs.

How important to your team is having the “best-in-class” hardware? One of the biggest considerations when investing in new hardware and on-device software solutions is the how quickly today’s best-in-class solutions become outdated or even obsolete. Today, hardware typically reaches end of life within a couple of years, and software licenses may require constant updates and patches to provide optimal capabilities.

What is your process for adding new users? When a new engineer is slated to receive 3D tools, the IT team must consider both hardware and software. Onboarding a new team member requires detailed insights and justification to acquire those tools, plus the necessary training.

Many engineering and PLM managers may not fully understand the effort it takes to manage software and hardware resources as a company changes, not to mention the capital investment. If your organization uses on-premise solutions, these efforts increase exponentially. If you haven’t taken the time to educate yourself on some of the key differences between on-premise and cloud-based platforms, I encourage you to check out Robert Kluin’s blog here.

STACKING UP 3D VISUALIZATION TOOLS

Although many solutions claim minimal user expertise and “the cloud” for a high performance, companies must carefully vet the truth behind these claims. In reality, many solutions can only go so far when it comes to enabling streamlined collaboration across the extended enterprise, managing massive models, and minimizing customer responsibility for the hardware power behind the solutions.

If your organization is looking for a 3D collaboration tool that provides consistent performance for any size model with any number of concurrent users—and the ability to securely share 3D models with internal and external colleagues—contact Vertex today.

About Thomas Spilker

Thomas serves as a solution architect, product expert, and voice of the customer for Vertex Software. He has over 30 years of industry experience in 2D/3D visualization and leading teams in developing, deploying, and
training on PLM software solutions. Thomas served as a Siemens PLM Senior Solution Architect and Digital Manufacturing Product Manager for 14 years where he specialized in delivering 3D digital twin, authoring 3D “graphical” manufacturing process plans, and delivering 3D work instructions to the shop floor. His industry expertise includes aerospace and defense, heavy equipment, high-tech electronics, and automotive.