I know what’s been keeping you awake at night. Small, indescribable flashes of light, a mustache, and software UI’s changing because someone in a drunken stupor said ‘ribbon’ instead of ‘simple.’ It’s easy to discuss how some things in the engineering software industry come to be and even easier to show you one place where that and early onset liver inflammation happens.

COFES 2011. The Congress on the Future of Engineering Software. It’s where VP’s and execs from various engineering software companies pay a few grand a pop to be in the midst of monumental discussions on the future of stuff we use to design stuff. I was invited, got out of paying, slept and dined in the same room as Al Dean and Martyn Day (of Develop3D), augmented a VP’s eye sockets with small limes, punched another VP repeatedly in the Hugo Boss, learned about urban beekeeping from an esteemed industry analyst, talked future of rendering software, software changes, blogging platforms and heard the best joke I’ve never understood from a Italian paratrooper. I’ll show you (some of) what goes on and give you just a taste of what it’s like and how it all happens.

COFES 2011 was the 13th Congress put on by Cyon Research and sponsored by many more (Technology Suites alone cost $15,000 a pop.) Held against the sublime backdrop of Scottsdale, Arizona at the Scottsdale Plaza Resort, the conference allows people typically denied access to each others minds, a chance to get in a jiggle all that mash around. It’s held over four days and it’s over those four days I discovered a lot more happens there than simple meetings and presentations.

The Photos

I could have put up a lot of photos that represent what COFES is. This one represents it all the best. That’s a photo of Tuomas Holma. He’s the VP Sales and Marketing at CadFaster. He’s also the best lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas I’ve ever know. (Yes, that is a real word. Finnish for ‘technical warrant officer trainee specialized in aircraft jet engines.’)

This “what-the-what? I will eat your skull” look, demonstrated best by Tuomas, was pretty common, from speakers being confronted with difficult to answer questions on sustainability software to the sight of two 34″ pizza being consumed off a 28″ bar table. You may see a lot of photos taken from inside a ballroom or other small room, but a large chunk of COFES happens outside. Something much preferred which, far and away, sets COFES apart from other conferences. You can see the whole set of photos taken on the SolidSmack COFES 2011 Flickr set. I warn you, there is a series of a man in a striped shirts showing his moves. His name is Jim Brown.

Who Wasn’t There. Why?

With the horde of people attending COFES, the list of companies represented and the context behind why COFES happens each year, you would think anybody who is anybody in the engineering software industry is there. Maybe the people who were there feel that way (I’d agree with them on that fact alone). However, some people, people running the show and inspiring others, were noticeably missing. We can’t let them get away with that now can we? Here’s the list of who wasn’t there…

Jim Heppelmann – CEO, PTC
Bernard Charles – CEO, Dassault Systemes
Bertrand Sicot – CEO, SolidWorks
Carl Bass – CEO, Autodesk
Tony Affuso – CEO, SiemensPLM
Paul Grayson – CEO, Alibre
Jon Hirschtick – Group Executive, SolidWorks
Buzz Kross – Senior VP Manufacturing, Autodesk
Karsten Newbury – Senior VP Velocity Series, SiemensPLM

…the list could go on. Point being that while many of the head honchos weren’t around to partake in conversation and lamb chops, discussions still happened, inspiration still inspired, people still got hammered, software and technologies are still developed… not unlike the normal day to day. Still, a lot of the influencers from each company were there. That the other execs in the list were not there says a lot though… about them or about COFES. It either says, they don’t care, COFES isn’t that important of an event or they had better things to do, or it says, maybe COFES isn’t all that important, nothing happens there that is worth the time/money, and the whole outfit is in it to fund their ‘research.’ Either way, if you weren’t there, you know who you are. May Brad Holtz haunt your dinner conversations and give you brief, mild indigestion and may you haunt his.

The Design and Sustainability (DaS) Symposium

Surprisingly, people care about stuff. The World, what we’re doing with it and what we’re excreting into it are few of these things. The Design and Sustainability (DaS) Symposium focuses on that and brings focus to the tools and the talk aimed at making the World less filthy to live in. Some of the more interesting talks were on planned obsolescence – using biomimicry to think of waste as a means of doing good design – and Compression Thinking – (presented by Doc Hall) eliminating waste out of work processes and everything unnecessary, along with other environmental evaluations. Now, you can’t see the presentations they gave from this year. (I’ve been told they will up within the next 4 months.) However, you can see some of the previous 2010 presentations on DaS including this great presentation by Doc Hall on Compression Thinking.

Maieutic Parataxis

Yes, a session of sitting in a large ballroom. However, despite it looking boring and having the name of gargling fang monster speaking Latin while attacking your neck vein, this part of COFES is the fast-paced, dynamic part of the conference. This session, made up of 5-minute presentations, focuses on new technologies being developed which advance or affect the future of product development. It’s kind of like Seedcamp, Ignite, Pitch Perfect or other events that use this format. Honestly, there could be more of this at COFES and that would be fine. The presenters covered topics such as data mining, using bacteria for mass storage and 3D digital sketching akin to I Love Sketch. Here are just a few companies/research highlighted you want to check out now.

Quirky – a social product development site
Pixolu – a visual search engine by similarity

To me this event is what the essence of COFES is about. People presenting new ways of taking on old problems, disrupting technology, showing others how it’s done. To learn more about what MP means and see some of the past presentations check out the COFES MP page.

The Best Grab bag Gift (Possibly Ever)

You’ll now it for it’s utilitarian charm, but who would have thought it would be analogous to some engineering software. SpaceClaim was a ‘hospitality suite’ sponsor. They also gave out a handful of customized tie-wraps in the COFES gift bags. How those two things go together, or if they actually do, will never be known. What is known, is that they are very convenient for strapping a person’s bag to their chair and 5 cups to a person’s bag.

I actually have a few Spaceclaim tie-wraps left over too. Whoever makes the first comment below will get a handful of them, along with a shiny SolidSmack sticker.

Does it matter?

So, does COFES matter? Is it that conference that sets forth the standard of engineering software for the future? Yes and… not so much. It certainly has great aspects – the outdoors, the informal (shirt tucked in khaki shorts with sandals) feel, the desire to promote discussion about technology and the interest in new technologies. Many will tell you a story about how a conversation changed or set in motion where they are today. A place where that happens. That’s important. But, as many will attest, the demographic is aging, the list of CEO’s not showing up gets longer and much of the motive behind COFES remains the funding of Cyon Research. Not that any of that is particularly bad, but it does take the focus off of the ‘innovation’ and puts it squarely on the ‘invitation’ and the list of people that can pay to be a part of joyous ‘innovation in the face of complexity.’

Until next time COFES, until next time… and maybe not. Yes, I’m ending with another photo of a fountain.


Josh is founder and editor at SolidSmack.com, founder at Aimsift Inc., and co-founder of EvD Media. He is involved in engineering, design, visualization, the technology making it happen, and the content developed around it. He is a SolidWorks Certified Professional and excels at falling awkwardly.