Babel, European style

It looks like I wasn't the only one thinking about the impact of non-mutually-intelligble CAD systems and their effect on EADS's A380. Both this post and, in particular, this Bloomberg story, have the gritty details. Suffice it to say that despite being "one company," German and French CAD systems kept their own identities inside Airbus despite the overwhelmingly obvious need to integrate them.

In short, it created an engineering tower of Babel, which has cost billions. Clearly, this will become the subject of many business school case studies.

The real question is, what now? While we don't know specifically what Airbus is doing, it's probably a good guess that they are not integrating CAD systems in the middle of this megaproject. Instead, the delays are probably being used to give engineering time to integrate 3D design data manually. (Clearly, after this project, some serious soul-searching is going to happen. And I expect it'll be pretty painful for a bunch of people.)

What you could do in this situation is maximize the ability of these separate islands to collaborate. To achieve this, you'd need something that bridges the data incompability in ways that could allow work to continue non-disruptively. This would be smart both technologically and, importantly in this case, politically.

Seemage's XML-based, data-oriented capabilities fit the bill well. Without having to convert CAD systems, both the French and German sides could continue in their existing systems (actually, different releases of the same product…how's that for a billion-dollar upgrade?) while making sure that the 300 miles of wire inside the A380 actually could be manufactured.

In short, we've learned once again that it's not about the technology that companies use, it's about the collaboration. Here, incompatibilities between CAD systems are simply the avatars for the lack of collaboration between and among different departments. Of course, this was a mishap on a gargantuan scale. But the most important manufacturing software today isn't the software that creates 3D digital design data, it's the technology that allows people to share that 3D design data in ways that prevent massive, late-project rework.

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