Last month, Siemens PLM announced that it had entered into a partnership with Local Motors, a company that uses crowdsourcing for collaborative design and development of cars.

As a part of the agreement, Local Motors has adopted Solid Edge as the design tool for its recently launched Open Electric Vehicle project. Beyond this, Siemens didn’t really give too many details.

Today, they’ve announced the rest of the story. And it’s really interesting.

As a start, let’s talk about Local Motors. There are a whole bunch of “social product innovation” companies out there now. Local Motors is also a “social product engineering” company. Its 13,000 member community not only contributes to the conceptual design of Local Motors cars, they contribute to the detail design and engineering of those cars.

One of the challenges that Local Motors has faced is that not everyone who wants to participate has access to professional level CAD software. John “Jay” Rogers, the CEO of Local Motors, talked to all the biggest CAD vendors, asking them for a CAD product that he could offer to his community at a price they could afford. All but one of those companies blew him off (or, at least didn’t take him seriously.)

The company that did take him seriously was Siemens PLM.

Siemens has developed two new products, and is making them available through Local-Motors.

The first is a browser-based version of its JT viewer. JT is the most widely used lightweight 3D file format in the automotive industry. With this viewer, a community member can view, section, and measure 3D models from directly within the Local Motors website. For free.

The second is a special version of Solid Edge, called Design1. Solid Edge has traditionally been a feature-based parametric solid modeling CAD system. Several years ago, Siemens added direct modeling to Solid Edge, in the form of Synchronous Technology. The new Solid Edge Design1 product is a Synchronous Technology only version. It has no feature-based parametric modeling tools. Which is to say, no “history-based” modeling. (You can read a bit more about Design1 at the Siemens PLM blog.)

Given the likely context of use by Local Motors community members, a direct modeling CAD system is probably a better choice than a history-based CAD system. With a direct modeling system, users can edit CAD files no matter how they were created. Design1, incidentally, has the capability to read and write a wide range of formats, including Parasolid, JT, NX, ACIS, Pro/E, IGES, Inventor, SolidWorks, STEP, STL, and PLM XML.

Because Design1 is based on the same Synchronous Technology as the full version of Solid Edge, it has a capability that few (if any) other direct modeling CAD systems have: model reparameterization. In short, a user can add driving dimensions to a dumb CAD model, and when saved (in native Solid Edge format), those dimensions are persistent.

The only thing (other than history) that I can find that’s not in Design1 is support for class-A surfaces. That would be a useful thing for people who want to design car bodies, but given the end-user price that Local Motors negotiated for Design1, it’s not surprising that Siemens didn’t include it.

That price, incidentally, is $19.95 per month, with no long-term contract.

For the immediate future, Siemens is offering Design1 only through Local Motors. To get it, you’ll need to go to the Local Motors website, and join the community. For the next couple of months, the software is being offered only to a limited number of users. After the beginning of the year, it will be opened up to anyone who wants it.

The bigger picture.

While I think the Local Motors deal is interesting, what I find more interesting is the potential Design1 might have in Siemens’ (and its competitors’) major accounts, as a low-cost interstitial CAD tool for use by engineers and others who are not full-time CAD users, or who simply don’t need history-based CAD. I could imagine some companies (particularly large automotive companies) signing up for literally thousands of copies.  It could make things pretty interesting in the CAD business.

UPDATE:  Solid Edge Design1 native files are not compatible with commercial Edge licenses, and it includes no rendering, or adjustable component design.  Thanks to Josh Mings and Al Dean for pointing these out. (I don’t think these limitations are significant problems for most use cases of Design1.)

SECOND UPDATE:  I checked with Mark Burhop, from Siemens.  Here’s what he said: ”Design1 can use any Solid Edge files. However, Solid Edge cannot read Design1 [native] files without conversion. Having said that, Local Motors will convert all Design1 files to regular Solid Edge files when uploaded to their server. So, within the context of Local Motors it is fully open.”

Oct 112011

Remember the old folktale about stone soup? Here’s how Wikipedia relates it:

Some travellers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travellers. So the travellers go to the neck of the stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travellers answer that they are making “stone soup”, which tastes wonderful, although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor, which they are missing. The villager does not mind parting with just a little bit of carrot to help them out, so it gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travellers again mention their stone soup which has not reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all.

Does the story remind you of anything? How about social product development?

There are quite a number of companies doing their own version of stone soup these days. Off the top of my head, I can think of GrabCAD, Local Motors, Quirky, The LEGO CL!CK Community, Innocentive, Instructables, and Thingiverse. I’ve probably missed a dozen or two other truly high profile projects, and hundreds of smaller projects.

Each of these projects has lessons to teach. But none of them cover the entire range of the new product development process—from the fuzzy front end to commercialization. They each start with a lot of cabbage in the soup. (Sorry about the strained metaphor there.)

Something I’ve been mulling over recently is this: What is the best way to make stone soup? That is, if you wanted to build a best-in-class hyper-social product development business—incorporating the best ideas in co-creation and open innovation—what people, processes and resources would you want to have?