2009: Feisty Vuuch Offers Social Network Technology for ‘People-Centric’ Product Development

In 2009 CADCAMNET interviewed Vuuch’s feisty CEO Chris Williams, who says true design history is in the discussions, not the CAD files. Williams also says other vendors who call their technology “social” are being disingenuous.

By Randall S. Newton
From the CADCAMNET archives

September 17, 2009—Back in February a small exhibitor bought a single table space at SolidWorks World at the last minute. It didn’t take long before the crowd around that table blocked the aisle whenever the exhibition hall was open. The company and its eponymous product was Vuuch, and it is still in pre-release development with an open beta.

The premise of Vuuch is simple. During the initial stages of design, there is much important information not captured by CAD or PDM software, scattered across email, word processing, spreadsheets, and sticky notes. People who never touch a CAD program wield as much influence on the design as those who draw.

Vuuch uses social network technology to bring all the discussion about the product inside the existing product design process. It is not a file manager, it is a conversation manager. If you use Twitter, Facebook, or MySpace, think of a similar program inside your CAD software and your web browser that allows you to talk about a part, an assembly, or a idea. With Vuuch, you don’t ‘tweet’ to followers, you ‘tweet’ to the product team. The software connects the conversation to the specific CAD file or other document yet doesn’t rewrite those files.

Leading social network technology analyst Jeremiah Owyang of the Altimeter Group says the three key features of any social network technology are a public profile,  the ability to connect with others, and sharing information. Email does this, of course. But it is separate technology apart from CAD and PDM. Vuuch aims to put the conversation inside existing product design technology.

Vuuch doesn’t organize files, so it doesn’t fit in the category of PDM. It does add value to the product development lifecycle, so it fits in PLM. We don’t see anything else like it on the market or under development.

For now, Chris Williams is the public face of Vuuch, as CEO and co-founder. His last job was CEO of Seemage, which was acquired by Dassault Systemes in 2007. During a busy career he has been a CAD VAR, a vice president at PTC, a director of manufacturing research and development with a staff of 250, and a practicing mechanical engineer. He and his co-founders came up with the idea of Vuuch after Williams left Dassault following the Seemage acquisition. The following is an edited transcript of our interview with Williams.

CADCAMNET (CCN): What is the basic premise of Vuuch?

Chris Williams, Vuuch CEO

Chris Williams (CW): Right now most discussions about product design take place in email. With Vuuch, those discussion are attached to CAD. Each specific discussion knows it is about “that feature” in “that model.” Anyone in the product development team can search Vuuch based on content or context. An example of content would be “show all SolidWorks discussions.” An example of a context-based search would be “show router.”

We also expand the ability to use spreadsheets and word processing documents in the design process. While in Microsoft Excel, a Vuuch user could select some cells and connect them to a discussion. Or connect a paragraph in Microsoft Word. This isn’t cut and paste; the user selects the paragraph or cells and connects them to a Vuuch conversation.

On the surface this use of social networking technology could be generic, useful for many disciplines. We believe it gains huge value by going vertical, and we want to bring it to product development first. The CAD guy knows the parts and the files, the manager knows the product. Vuuch unites both in a product development social network. This is very different than existing PLM technology, we are not talking about a new variation on file management. We think of it as people-centric PLM for the very early stages of product design.

CCN: How did Vuuch get started?

CW: When I was CEO of Seemage, before the Dassault acquisition, there were two groups exploring new technology. One group was working on wiki technology for product development, another on extending regeneration across applications, such as from CAD to Excel. As we got close the the acquisition, work on these side projects stopped. After the Dassault acquisition a few of us who didn’t stay with the company regrouped to study how people communicate and interrelate in the design process. As a result, we came up with what we call a people-centric approach to PLM, in which social network technology allows people to connect and interact in product development.

CCN: How is this a social networking technology?

CW: There is a strong social aspect to product design. In Vuuch, a team member can use a web client to link to a large design and see who is interacting on it, who is connecting to it, and so on. The designers using CAD can create notes in Vuuch—using a client inside the CAD program—that become conversations about parts and assemblies. Two years later, a manager can look back and see who contributed to the project. She can ask, “what issues came up?” In planning a team, someone can review the Vuuch record to see how the team worked before, how they connected and related. These discussions are stored separate from the working product, so the CAD files can be used in the future without the old Vuuch data.

Vuuch can also be considered a knowledge capture tool, to capture design history in words, not just as a record of changes to geometry.

CCN: How has Vuuch been received so far?

CW: When we show the product, most people get it in five minutes or less. Then they start to describe how they would use it. They wind up telling us the the story of their lives in product development. Early on it became clear that we offer a value proposition people quickly understand. The response reminds me of the early days of feature-based CAD.

CCN: How does Vuuch fit into PLM?

CW: This is a new space, addressing a different part of the product lifecycle. There clearly is a design phase, a release phase, a manufacturing phase. The design and release phases don’t have much in common. For years PLM has been held captive to the tools of the release phase. There is no single PLM solution or suite out there that covers all three phases. Does a design phase exist separate from PLM? To put it another way—and to borrow a term from PTC—does social product development exist? Absolutely.

Right now the big CAD companies are slapping new names on PDM and calling it social networking for product development. Putting Windchill on SharePoint [Williams refers to PTC’s ProductPoint. -ed.] doesn’t make it people-centric. It is the same file management approach using a new platform. Other stuff out there is not true social network technology under the covers, it is just HTML. It is no good outside the corporate firewall. How Web 2.0 is that?

We are developing a technology that understands all the people relationships, not just the geometry and document file relationships. True design history is in the discussions, not the CAD files.

CCN: How close are you to releasing a 1.0 version?

CW: Right now the product is in open beta, and it has been from the early days of this project. We want as much user feedback as we can possibly get. We are not taking a skunk works approach to this, working in the dark hidden from users. We are not doing this in a vacuum. We want feedback.

About 1,000 users have banged on Vuuch so far. We have a few user sites where they are already using it for product development. We don’t have a release date yet for a first shipping product, but we intend to extend our beta soon to include more companies willing to put it to work in real product development, and not just bang on it  on the side.

CCN: What products will Vuuch work with?

CW: So far we have versions for Pro/ENGINEER and SolidWorks. We also have fairly poor implementations for Excel and Word. We use Adobe Air and web clients as our platform. Right now Adobe Air is the technology we use for notifications. We will expand it to do responding soon.

CCN: Have you set prices or decided on a sales channel yet?

CW: We have not yet set the price or the sales method. A while back we suggested to our beta testers that we might sell it for around $50 per user per year. The response surprised us; most users said the price is too low. Many suggested between $200 and $300 per year per user for the basic service, with higher fees for advanced features. So, right now we are thinking about a tiered service. Our beta users also told us “there is no need for a free version.”

CCN: How big is Vuuch the company?

CW: The team is three founders and five code writers working part-time. Most of the team members are in stealth mode, while they work elsewhere. We are all volunteers at this point, working for equity. You can get a lot done with small resources these days. If we decide at some point to seek venture capital, we will be able to stand our ground in a valuation conversation. We already have users working with us; that’s huge when a start-up reaches out to the venture capitalists.

We might not use venture capital at all. We are discussing if we can get the product functional without that type of investment. The decision may come down to how fast we want to scale up.