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20 Apr 2012

Arizona Dream: A detailed informal report on COFES-2012

Alexey Ershov

Alexey Ershov

The isicad readers are already well aware of the most important event in the world of engineering software – Congress on the Future of Engineering Software, or simply COFES, organized every year in Arizona by Cyon Research and the company leader - Brad Holtz. isicad and LEDAS, as the pioneers of Russian participation in this event, continue attending COFES and we are happy that the number of its Russian participants has increased. Our representative at COFES combined business interests of LEDAS and journalistic interests of isicad community. Every year we send a different person to the Congress; this time our traditional COFES-report is written by Alexey Ershov, LEDAS CEO and a string correspondent of See about Alexey Ershov at LEDAS web site and in "What is the Strength of LEDAS. Part IV: Today the Company leaders are 30-year old aces".

April, 12, the first day

To Scottsdale, Arizona, I arrived earlier than many other participants: with all rich and diverse options of domestic flights in America, direct Miami-Phoenix flight is only once a day, and the last thing I wanted was to be late not only for the morning Design and Sustainability Symposium, but also to the first evening COFES reception, when all well-informed people conduct serious business negotiations. Therefore on April, 11th, I left Miami, where I pursued LEDAS business interests combining them with the pleasures of vacationing, and fixed myself in Scottsdale Plaza Resort, the regular COFES retreat, in good time. It happened that from the airport to the hotel I was travelling with one of the most popular Russian bloggers Oleg “cadovod” Zykov from ASCON. We have a nice discussion of various topics, including those that generate unhealthy interest in the comments on I can tell you straight away that daily communication with Oleg and other members of the ASCON team who came to COFES – the company CEO Maxim Bogdanov and R&D Team Leader Vladimir Panchenko – proved water-tight that a widely discussed conflict between two Russian 3D-kernels exists only in the heads of some unwholesome outside observants.

The first day of COFES-2012 started with unusual cold for an April desert, cactuses of all possible kinds and sizes, rabbits running across numerous grass lawns, and individual photo-sessions of Congress participants against a cinematographically green background (I haven’t yet got the results of this photo opportunity from the organizers).

The first event - Design and Sustainability Symposium. Declare all systems ready! Tons of presentations - must not miss anything.

Brad Holtz himself opens the Symposium. He speaks about planning horizons, and explains that different generations understand time differently. Is it not that why we stopped watching films and now watch teasers on Youtube?

The government has always been a leader in long-term planning; however, the situation is changing and companies are forced to concern themselves with internal strategic planning. For most companies such horizon does not exceed five years, which is not too short as economy changes especially fast now.

The rhetoric of the subsequent presentations generally was quite usual for sustainable development: let’s reduce consumption, introduce green technologies, save non-renewable resources, make better products that need less resources, learn quicker, work and gain results. Overall the level of discussions was very general, which was a bit disappointing for some participants, especially from Russia.

Apart from sustainable development, the Symposium discussed the concept of risk in every possible way. Apparently there are more than dozen definitions of this concept. The bottom-line: if you must make decisions, risk control is the key point you should think of, and relevant control methods are already developed or are under development, in particular, in simulation. The most important thing is to have complete information, see the big picture and at the same time be Sheldon Cooper (a fictional character on a sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”, deemed genius among geniuses).

In the break attendees could visit an interesting exhibition of micrometers and buy a sample that they like, at the same time taking part in the Congress charity program.

Next was a “technology suite” of TechSoft 3D, which attracted most of participants who were more interested in specific rather than general engineering topics. A very lively presentation (“there were four of us who started the company, like the Beatles, and we quickly summoned many fans”), covered the main company products - HOOPS Exchange, HOOPS Visualize, HOOPS Publish, and what was especially nice, the attendees were given beer right at the presentation! A follow-up discussion revealed a fact that is significant not only for TechSoft 3D: iOS is much more popular among new users that desktop platforms and we simply cannot ignore this.

Then everybody got together against for plenary analytical presentations, of which I would allow myself to give just a few points and pictures:

  • China has been growing faster than anybody for a long time; we should pay more attention to organization of their engineering and production;
  • In 2011 around $350 billion were lost because of natural calamities (tsunami in Japan, flooding in Thailand, and even the Arab revolutions), which affected the industry in general;
  • Globalization is unstoppable, but it can be turned over to supplying special products to local markets, which will be designed specifically for these markets;
  • Africa is a very interesting market for development; will it become a new China?

The last presentation on the first day was dedicated to experience of creating high fidelity sound reproducing system, to which Tetsuo Kubo, the founder of Kubotek, devoted many years of his life.

The most important things – negotiations, new business contracts, informal discussions of ideas vocalized at COFES –take place in the evenings, with a glass of wine and a nice live music, near a swimming pool.

April, 13, the second day

After a breakfast on a deck, the second day of COFES started with a plenary presentation of Alan Kay, where he asked how we should change software design to avoid today’s many pressing problems.

These problems include ever-increasing complexity of programs and confused interconnections between their various parts. A chaotic nature of such connections seems to be especially strange in comparison with the harmony of interconnections between various parts in construction. Complexity of the Empire State Building that was constructed before computers were invented is not yet reached by any software in spite of enormous number of tools and methods that presumably should have achieved clarity of software system design.

Perhaps this is due to narrow-mindedness – programmers talk a lot about architecture but seem to be unable to develop a truly harmonious model, when a code is divided into properly separated (and whenever possible standardized) parts with simple interconnections between them. In a real development process, observations like “let’s write everything in Ñ++, we already have libraries written in this language” can be crucial, which violate an important engineering principle, common for both construction and software design: "Architecture is more essential than material".

Generally speaking, this was not always the case: in the infancy of the computer industry they managed to find very effective complex hardware/software solutions, operating pretty well with minimum resources. For instance, the operational system for Alto architecture was represented by less than 10,000 lines of the source code. Things turned to be much worse when instead of programmers who were mathematicians, new generation coders started writing software. They do not think much how the system, that they wrote, will work afterwards. So what does it mean? It means that “math wins”!

Alan Kay praised not only mathematics but innovations in general: 8.5 inventions created by 25 researchers within five years with $10 million investments per year yielded mankind over $30 trillion revenue. Certainly, the quoted examples were carefully selected: personal computer, laser printer, local network and similar mega-bombs.

Then Alan became totally relaxed and acted as a visionary: as he sees it, program modules can be combined and rearranged similarly to symbol transformations of tree-like mathematical formulas, with the same exponential growth of expressiveness. Sounds beautiful, but not all details of implementation were revealed.

After the presentation I was able to share opinions with another super-expert, Evan Yares, who is known to the Russian readership also for being detained in Vladivostok in the time of isicad-2004 for allegedly violating visa procedures. I was moderately skeptical as the idea about construction blocks in software was no novelty, but Evan was more optimistic and we talked a bit how universal API based on inter-modular messages could make this construct feasible. I think our conversation was in line with another Alan’s slogan that software modules should be a population of species rather than a set of gears.

Overall, the second day of COFES-2012 was almost completely filled in with section discussions in groups of 10-20 participants that took place simultaneously. The problem of choice was practically insolvable. For instance, how was it possible to miss a discussion with Alan Kay, whose presentation, in spite of all my concerns, majority of participants considered the key report (taking into account the number of interesting and universally valid ideas), or a presentation of Inforbix solution, which is on the cutting edge of a fashionable cloud computing trend, and at the same time satisfy personal interests and learn how metrics predetermine success, or how modern computer-aided engineering deals with uncertainty and minimizes risks?

The latter issue generated a very hot discussion: I was under an impression that the guys dealing with engineering computations unanimously decided to complain about their life and argued mainly about what exactly did not make it trouble-free. Discussion covered both general problems of uncertainty of input value distribution in statistical analysis (apparently, even if in theory probability of the worst cases is small to negligible, in practice such cases take place on a rather regular basis), and shortcomings of specific tools. The most important, perhaps, was a simple observation: people tend not to be involved in “robust design” because they believe that it’s a rocket science and are afraid to use the existing solutions.

Even those presentations that did not raise general technological issues and instead focused on specific products were of considerable interests because it was not just that vendors wanted to advertise themselves. Representatives of redway3d talked more about solutions offered by their partners, who use company’s technological components for photorealistic visualization, rather than about themselves. I was pleased to see that the list of companies included two LEDAS customers: ASCON and Bricsys.

Time between presentations could be valuably spent studying posters – it’s yet another method using which COFES attendees can approach the assembly of brains (and wallets) of the engineering world. Last year Russia was represented by a poster of Dmitry Ushakov (at that time - LEDAS CEO, see his "Get back! (Personal Impressions from COFES-2011)") about variational direct modeling; this time ASCON presented its new “monolithic” 3D-kernel C3D. This poster was perhaps the most interesting for the crowd – it’s not often when one can see the news about launching such fundamental product as 3D geometric modeler to the market, and if one could stop and listen to a whisper around, then the news about two Russian geometric kernels could truly catch the imagination.

The evening session of the second day, “Maieutic Parataxis”, had an unusual but very exciting format: 5-minute speeches with maximum concise presentation of a new, sometimes not even sufficiently established idea. The subjects can be very diverse. Look, for instance, at this scheme-collection of various methods and techniques aimed at generating ideas (it seems that the speaker was trying to replace this freak show with a single Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, well-known to the Russian-speaking readers).

And compare it with an idea of a completely different category – about cyborg-insects that immediately became the most popular COFES-topic in the blogosphere:

In course of this very intensive session participants touched in passing some very important issues such as an increasing gap between those who possess information and those who are able to analyze it (probably, this distance looks especially unpleasant for the scientists who claim that they can carry out such analysis).

Another very controversial statement that nevertheless makes one think was a remark that although real economy is based on electric power industry, there is no reliable statistics how the energy is used, therefore ideas about reducing energy consumption hang in mid-air.

When the discussions were over, COFES participants had a visiting session in Los Cedros, half-citadel / half-rancho, where we not only enjoyed a dinner in the open air under the stars, but also appreciated the beauty of (pure-bred?) Arab horses, as well as a little technical miracle: the four-meter deep swimming pool to bathe the horses with a special inclined entry.

Some expression of American “democracy from below”.

The third day

It started with a presentation by Richard Riff, an expert from Ford, about intersection of design and risk. It had interesting mathematical constructions, for instance, a well-known problem / paradox from the theory of probability about three doors with a prize behind one of them, and a possibility to make and then change one’s choice. It is always nice when after presentations declaring slogans and vigorously supporting a particular concept, you see real mathematics on the screen: choice tree and Bayesian conditional probability estimate.

I could not help wiring in isicad Twitter a note about the background of Soviet engineering school, that included studying the works of Martin Gardner and the “Quant” journal, which discuss these and much more brains-beating problems of decision-making. I must have second sight – next Richard Riff relayed a not less known probability problem about flu and a test with 95% probability to learn the truth.

But I should not be trying to find faults: intensity of presenting information was very high, the audience was shown numerous methodological diagrams and statistical data that in the aggregate gave the maximum possible broad picture of the risk concept and its practical (and economic) use. There, for example, was a classification of various reasons why we error making decisions.

In particular, we are too disposed to rely on our intuition and make estimates that are too shallow: we try to fit probability of any event in the known patterns 50%:50% or 80%:20%, and make far-reaching calculations in the basis of such a rough estimate.

At that moment my activity shifted to Twitter where I discussed with Alexander Bausk second-order ambiguities, problems with estimating distribution of input value probabilities in statistical methods, the magic of interval mathematics and its exposure. It was a pleasure to accidentally meet a person (from CIS:)) who has the same, rather specific mathematical background.

As the day before, the key report was followed by short section presentations and the groups of interests.

BTW, during the break I found that posters had got reinforcements: one new poster was about novel mathematical approaches to dynamic systems analysis, and another – about a new modeling method that imitates biological forms. It was proposed to model dynamic systems by constructing all possible mathematical formulas and then combining them by genetic algorithms. I was almost tempted to exclaim the famous Stanislavsky’s “Disbelieve!” – the proposed approach seemed too checkrow for such a subtle subject.

After lunch I joined the Round Table “What is Wrong with CAM?”, where participants looked into a rather important question - why in the 1970s CAD and CAM went “neck to neck”, while in the new century CAM is clearly dragging behind CAD. Last year LEDAS got the first client from the CAM world and this year we have got the second one so there was no way I could miss that discussion.

Participants raised very diverse opinions; I’d like to summarize the ones that I remember:

  • Due to economic reasons customers wish that their expensive machinery would work 24x7, so they do not want to waste time for integration and tuning of new CAM software systems;
  • This factor is aggravated by intensive competition in production, which the USA has already de facto lost to China and it creates money stringency in the industry. Unlike CAM, CAD is not so physically linked to real production processes, and its results can be easily moved to another country;
  • Production technologies are very complex and need many years of experience;
  • Engineering faculties in the USA are not very popular among students because young people do not see prospects for themselves (even absence of girls at engineering faculties makes an impact :);
  • Specialists do not wish to introduce new technologies on-site because the old ones work anyway; in particular, 2D dxf continues to be the absolute industry leader;
  • One of the participants of the discussion was upset that for decades PTC was gradually giving up its positions, “while they had a good end-to-end production technology”;
  • There are no enough conventions where vendors of CAM solutions, manufacturing engineers and customers could meet up regularly and discuss the existing problems.

All this is completely or partly true, but it seems that the principal problem is lack of universality caused by objective reasons: in CAM developers deal with multiple different technological processes, different models of machinery made by different manufacturers, different tools for that machinery and numerous technological limitations. And CAD-systems only have simple and clear 3D space instead of the garden of forking paths.

The after-lunch session focused on two questions: summing up the main subject “Design and Risk Intersection” of COFES-2012 and discussing a very speculative area of cloud computing. Clearly, the second subject prevailed and participants expressed rather different opinions:

  • Clouds constitute a principally new technological solution, which will change the engineering world as much as the Internet changed it at the end of the 1990s;
  • Clouds are just a new platform, similar to, say, Windows 7, and it is necessary to pay more attention to the problems to be solved with the software rather than the issues of its integration with the platform;
  • Clouds enable a breakthrough engaging new people in the industry because they remove high economic barriers and what earlier was available to only thousands, now is open to millions;
  • There are no clouds; there is a well-known to everybody Internet and a desire of vendors to throw dust into the eyes of the buyers with yet another marketing trick instead of fulfilling old promises and implementing complex technologies, like hybrid modeling.

Understandably, such discussion could only be very vivid and dramatic; but certainly everyone remained of the same mind, except perhaps broadening one’s horizons with regard to this problem. Finally, there was COFES-2012 award ceremony. Unfortunately I could not remember the names of all winners, but it is not possible for me to forget about CAD Society Leadership Award won by Oleg Shilovitsky, a blogger and the founder of Inforbix, and I sincerely congratulate Oleg from the bottom of my heart!

Overall, the presence of Russian-speaking participants this year surpassed the achievements of 2011. By this I mean not only the number of participants but also how noticeable it was in Twitter (see tag #COFES2012), popularity of C3D kernel, and I think that Oleg’s award also confirms this. Hopefully, next year we can expect new records!

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