Tuesday 28 May 2024
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on November 23, 2020 - November 29, 2020

When cloud-based word processing software Google Docs was first introduced as a serious contender to the on-premise incumbent market leader Microsoft Word, users were astounded at the convenience a cloud-based solution provides. It enables them to create and modify documents entirely on a web browser, changing how corporations and individuals share and back up word documents.

The same kind of revolution might be happening within the electrical engineering industry, after Perak-based Radica Software Sdn Bhd released Electra Cloud, the world’s first and only cloud-based electrical computer-assisted design (CAD) software that works entirely on a web browser, on Jan 16 this year.

CAD software is a tool used by industry professionals such as designers, architects and engineers to create, modify, analyse or optimise 3D or 2D designs with pinpoint accuracy and measurements.

Owing to the multitude of potential use cases, most leading CAD software tools are built to be flexible and accessible to many different types of design projects. However, Radica Software founder and CEO Thomas Yip says there are limited options when it comes to CAD software that is designed specifically for electrical schematics.

“Many electrical engineers are using AutoCAD or other mechanical engineering software that is not specific to electrical engineering. When it is not electrical-specific, a lot of the processes have to be done manually. It is incredibly tedious,” says Yip.

He further explains that many electrical engineers spend extended amounts of time labelling and linking wires and symbols during the design process, most of which can be automated. Yip himself went through this, which inspired him to develop an electrical-specific CAD software in mid-2015.

This was the year that cloud solutions such as Google Docs began to rise in popularity. The two concepts — electrical-specific CAD software and cloud-based solutions — were combined and after 4½ years of development, Electra Cloud was launched.

“When my partner and I saw how cloud-based solutions were going to be the future, we wanted to be part of it. But we are talking about a small company with very few people, trying to develop a solution that can replace existing software made by large companies. We had a lot of reservations, and the engineering challenge was high,” says Yip.

A screenshot of the UI/UX elements of Electra Cloud

“But when I brought my partner to Silicon Valley, we saw the potential of cloud solutions and did not want to regret not pursuing this project five or 10 years down the line. So, we decided to commit to it when we came back.”

Yip explains that having the CAD software hosted on a cloud platform makes file-sharing extremely easy. When using traditional on-premise solutions, companies would need to employ professionals to install servers and have product data management systems for users to check in and out of a certain file in order to edit it. With Electra Cloud, these processes are no longer necessary.

“It is becoming less necessary to create physical backups of your files because the files have backups on the cloud. If one of your employees resigns, you would not need to worry about locating a diagram or document because it is all stored in a central file location,” says Yip.

He also highlights that Electra Cloud allows multiple users to collaborate on the same schematic drawings in real time with team members located anywhere around the world, with just a web browser and no additional software.

Having full web browser support has enabled engineers to modify and edit schematic drawings on the spot during site visits using a laptop, as opposed to returning to the office to modify them using a desktop computer with dedicated software.

In addition to being more accessible to engineers, Yip points out that companies can also easily share the electrical schematics with vendors and customers and modify them on the spot. Just like Google Docs, Yip says the files have customisable file-sharing permissions to allow certain users to only view the files and not be able to modify them.

The software also includes many features that are aimed at increasing productivity, such as automatically wiring and tagging symbols and wires, and allowing the users to copy and reuse commonly used circuit diagrams easily.

With these features combined, the software claims to be able to help engineers complete schematic drawings up to 500% faster than traditional software currently available on the market.

“There is a high demand for such software worldwide, and we are barely scratching the surface. Other than just drawing electrical diagrams, it also features pneumatic and hydraulic symbols, which are symbols for air- and oil-related items,” says Yip.

“Essentially, most engineers who create machines will definitely require a combination of these three elements. Soon, we will include features to allow users to design piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs) as well.”

Among the well-known companies that use Radica’s software are Apple, ABB Group, NASA, Amazon, Siemens, SpaceX, Petronas, Ford Motor Co and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

According to Yip, one of the key challenges when developing Electra Cloud was that the software operates entirely on the internet and had to be accessible to users in developing countries with low internet bandwidth.

So, Yip and his team focused extensively on reducing the amount of bandwidth required to run the software. That journey has led the company to develop a separate mini-project called Nano, currently one of the world’s best SVG (scalable vector graphics) compressors, which reduces the amount of data needed to be sent across the internet.

SVG is an image file format frequently used in CAD software, and Nano uses lossless techniques to compress inefficient SVG codes by removing unnecessary data. The result is a compressed SVG file that is more than 80% smaller than the original file size, with virtually the same image quality.

“Nano is now used by millions of people around the world. Throughout the years developing Electra Cloud, we found ourselves understanding and mastering different types of technologies to become the leader in that field,” says Yip.

This mastery has also led to Radica Software’s developing several in-house tools for internal use. As an example, the company has developed its own team and project management software, eliminating the need to subscribe to paid services such as Slack or Trello.

Yip jokes that the engineers in his team, including him, are lazy and always looking for ways to make their jobs easier and more efficient. At first, they would automate small parts of their jobs using scripts or software, but the scope of automation grew and these solutions enabled the company to be run more efficiently.

“If you were a start-up that decided to develop the world’s first electrical CAD software on the cloud, there are many parts of the business you will experiment with, from the business model to marketing campaigns,” says Yip.

“Because we have been playing around with these aspects all these years, we also encourage our engineers to be creative. That is why they like to build all of these solutions to make their job easier. Now, we have these tools that enable us to work to our fullest.”

Despite having developed one of the world’s best SVG compressors, Electra Cloud will remain Radica Software’s top priority for now. Yip says it is easy for entrepreneurs to get sidetracked and lose sight of their original goals and that, when he envisions the company being a market leader in a particular industry, he sees Electra Cloud as the way to go.

“Right now, our vision for Electra Cloud is to gain market share in underserved geographies, such as India, Russia and Thailand. Our tutorials and product demonstration videos are also being translated into these different languages,” says Yip.

“We are beginning to see the fruits of our labour, because our sales in India are growing, and we have three enquiries on a distributorship deal there. Our active users are also growing by leaps and bounds.”

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