Technology executives discuss what the world is going to look like post-COVID, and how the engineering software space can innovate.

Recently, Ron Fritz, CEO of Tech Soft 3D, hosted a roundtable discussion with six other technology executives to discuss what the world is going to look like post-COVID, and how the engineering software space can innovate to meet the moment.

From building & construction, to manufacturing, where is innovation needed most? What aspects of the world will be the same, and which will be different? Do we need to completely rethink physical spaces like offices? Are there any innovations that have actually been helped along by the circumstances of the past year?

Offering their thoughts on these and other matters are:

Rick Rundell, Technology & Innovation Strategist at Autodesk, a 3D design, engineering, and entertainment software company
István Csanády, CEO of Shapr3D,  a developer of 3D mobile design apps
Mark Sawyer, Director, Construction Industry Strategy at Trimble, a provider of positioning, modeling, connectivity and data analytics software and services
Blake Courter, CTO of nTopology, a design and engineering software company
Yavuz Murtezaoglu, Managing Director of ModuleWorks, a software component provider for the CAD/CAM industry
Matt Sederberg, CEO of CoreForm, a finite element analysis and simulation company

A lightly edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.

Q: COVID has changed the world in a lot of obvious and maybe not so obvious ways. What type of innovation is needed from engineering software companies for this new world we find ourselves in?

Rick Rundell: The nature of the physical environment and the use of the physical environment is going to change as a result of this pandemic. There are big questions around things like “what is the future of office space?” or “what is the purpose of cities if not to bring people physically together in the same space?” As a result, I’m looking for innovation around the built environment and the tools for designing and delivering that environment.

15 or 20 years ago, we were looking for tools to better understand energy use in the built environment. Architects didn’t deliberately design buildings that were inefficient from an energy point of view – they just didn’t have tools for understanding how those buildings would perform. Now, I think we need similar tools for illuminating designs for the built environment in terms of health and safety and sanitation, given what we now know about pandemics.

Mark Sawyer: Everybody’s talking about remote meeting and remote collaboration taking on increased importance in a post-COVID world, and I think there’s room for innovation specifically around remote presence. In the construction world, for example, builders and contractors are often stuck waiting for a city inspector to come out to the construction site and perform an inspection before they can move on to the next phase.

Imagine if there was remote inspection, where a worker – who is normally on site anyway – is walking around with a camera, and the inspector’s back in his or her office in city hall and never had to commute out to the site to inspect the work. That kind of remote presence is going to get even more robust, given the developments that are being made around cameras, 3D imaging, and even holographic communication. I see a lot of room for technology to innovate in those areas and make elaborate 3D remote presence more accessible and affordable.

Q: The subject of space being used differently is interesting because pretty much all of us use office space to some degree or another. Any thoughts here?

István Csanády: Perhaps I’m a contrarian, but I think that much less is going to change around working and office space than most people anticipate right now. I think that all the conclusions that are being drawn about the future of remote working and working in general are based on observations that were made in a very specific time when you literally couldn’t do anything other than eating, sleeping, and working. I don’t know if we can make predictions about “the future of work” or “the future of offices” based on the strange circumstances of the past year.

Yavuz Murtezaoglu: We are currently building a new office for 100 additional employees, so we are still investing heavily in actual physical spaces, but that doesn’t mean we are going back to “the old normal”. COVID has caused us to reevaluate our policies, and we will not require everybody to come to the office.

What we will do is split the people into two categories: travelers and settlers. The settlers are the ones who commit to come to the office at least four days per week. They will have their own office or cubicle with their own desk, and they can put the picture of their family on their desk and all that – nobody will touch their desk. The travelers, meanwhile, will only need to come into the office once or twice per week, but they don’t get a dedicated desk. The rest of the time, they can be at home doing their job if they want to – that’s up to them.

Matt Sederberg: That’s a really cool idea – travelers and settlers. We’re wrestling with that same thing about whether to just completely get rid of our office.

I think for startups and younger companies like my own, our ability to hire has really improved because we no longer have to attract people to a single physical location in Utah. We just get the best people wherever they are located. It might be a different story for fully mature, well established companies, but I think a lot of startups might delay having a physical office for a while, just because there’s so much to be gained by having a broad hiring pool to draw from that isn’t constrained by location.

Blake Courter: We’re also working through these types of issues right now, trying to figure out what our policies are. We’re talking about doing things like that travelers and settlers idea.

One other point about office space and what the future holds, from a personal perspective: For me, working from home this past year has been very productive, and being able to spend time with my wife and baby girl has been fantastic. So, despite it being a very stressful and scary year, I feel like I’ve had maybe the best work-life balance that I’ve ever had. And I think there are probably other people in the same boat who have had a similar experience, which will inform how they approach needing to be in an office moving forward.

Q:  One thing that governments can reliably earmark for a spending bill is “investing in infrastructure.” But as alluded to earlier, spaces might get used differently in the future, so traditional infrastructure like bridges, roads, or even energy might be different moving forward. So what should governments be investing in?

Yavuz Murtezaoglu: Education. It typically takes 25 years to get a technology fully mature and properly established. If you look at the COVID situation, we didn’t have the luxury of 25 years to find a vaccine, so we said, “Okay, let’s really marshal our resources and turbocharge innovation so that we can get a vaccine produced as soon as possible” – and we did. The next big topic after COVID will be climate change, and there are other big challenges besides that. So, we need to invest in education – not just in the Western world, but in the entire world – so that we have 7 billion people working together to solve the challenges the world faces that require massive innovation in order to be solved.

István Csanády: I suppose that’s one of the good things about a shift towards remote working is that it better enables some of that global collaboration and innovation, if for no other reason than that companies have more of a global talent pool to access, now that so many people work remotely.

Q: Has the pandemic helped accelerate any innovative trends that might gain traction in a post-COVID world? Or are there any positive developments to have come out of this past year?

Mark Sawyer: I think the move toward modular and/or off site prefab construction methods had momentum before COVID-19, and the pandemic hasn’t done anything to dampen that enthusiasm. As construction gets back to work, I think the trend will continue. Builders will look to do as much as they can offsite, whether that’s prefabrication, offsite assembly, or the full-blown modular philosophy of manufacturing buildings. The economic and efficiency drivers of that approach are inarguable.

Rick Rundell: I think that over the past year, everybody was kind of blindsided by how fragile supply chains actually are. Think about the metaphor of a chain: If one link breaks, then you don’t really have a chain anymore. So, I think moving to less fragile supply networks – or supply meshes, or whatever metaphor you want to use – as opposed to a chain is something that people are becoming more aware of. We were perhaps lured by the economics of distributed supply chains into a false sense of security. Until something like COVID came along, nobody had really pressure tested that approach – so maybe it’s a good thing that we were made aware of those potential weaknesses.

Blake Courter: Early on in the pandemic, there was high demand for nasal swabs for COVID testing. Supply chains were crumbling, and all these people were sitting around with their 3D printers trying to figure out how they could help.

One of the really good ideas to emerge from that was the swab project, which worked to produce 3D printed nasal swabs. We got involved with some designs, and the beautiful thing about the swabs is, if you print them vertically, you can really pack a lot of them in. It’s really one of most economical 3D printing use cases these days. So, it’s encouraging to see innovative and effective uses for 3D printing continuing to emerge.

Matt Sederberg: Over the past year, despite the challenges a lot of companies have been facing, we haven’t seen simulation budgets getting cut – because generally, the value proposition of simulation is around helping decrease time to market and avoid errors and reduce costs. Additionally, I think there’s an emphasis now on simulation technology that can accept a lot of different inputs, and that can work seamlessly with CAD.

30 or 40 years ago when CAD and CAE originated, they kind of came from different mathematical backgrounds, and were “different worlds” – they’ve never been unified. Now, I think there’s an opportunity to have new simulation technologies that work hand in hand with CAD. That’s the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come around every generation, which makes it all the more exciting.

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