Although there are seriously powerful developments aplenty that ought to be setting the design engineering world on fire, with collaborative initiatives across the industry sectors, culture and practical problems are holding things back. Dr Charles Clarke explains.
Until about 1995 ‘concurrent engineering’ was the CAD industry buzz-phrase: now it’s ‘collaborative engineering’, and terms like ‘encouraging innovation’ have taken over from ‘reducing time-to-market’ as the marketing credo. To this end there has been more emphasis on web-enablement and whole new categories of product have emerged.
So-called ‘visual portals’ now allow access to native CAD data over the web so you can review progress, inspect and measure parts and even ‘fly-through’ complex assemblies without any CAD software on your workstation. RealityWave in particular has become a de facto standard in 3D streaming software: its VizStream product creates a compact version of a 3D model that can be viewed and manipulated while it’s being downloaded, so easing the difficulty of CAD model collaboration over low-bandwidth lines.
CoCreate, one of the early protagonists of ‘co-creation’, introduced us to live ‘any CAD’ review sessions over the Internet with its product OneSpace, and the firm’s customers quote 10:1 savings in engineering time, serious cost savings on travel and problem resolution in minutes instead of weeks. Not bad. And since OneSpace, SolidWorks has come up with 3D Meeting, a product built on Microsoft’s Net Meeting; and Unigraphics at Version 17 has Design Collaboration, which has similarities to OneSpace. There are also companies like Centric Software, BigBack Solutions and Alibre, which have joined the fray exclusively on the collaboration ticket.
All these developments have employed algorithms for data translation ‘on the fly’ and data compression or selection – to allow reasonable performance over modems and voice grade telephone lines. At a recent NDES exhibition and conference in the US several MCAD collaboration vendors were identified as the ‘ones to watch’ in the coming months. Websites include: www.3gacorp.com, www.aspire3d.com, www.autodesk.com/streamline and www.simulate.
But it is interesting to note that despite all this, security remains one of the most serious impediments to adoption, even by one of manufacturing’s most time-critical sectors – Formula One racing. Ironically F1 has most to gain by using these developments, but most firms remain reluctant even to use the Internet for sensitive data, let alone allow a third party to host any sort of collaboration. “We tended to use CDs and motorcycle couriers to share sensitive data,” says Phil Sibley, CAD/CAM manager at Cosworth Racing. “Now that we have a dedicated 2MB link into Jaguar-Racing, we are a little more relaxed about critical data going astray.”
However, the problem for Cosworth is not collaboration with its main partners, but the network of small sub-contractors that save its life time and time again, when the firm is up against it. “We can’t expect small companies to invest in encrypted web technology and the people to run it, on the level of business they get from us,” says Sibley. “In these cases we communicate with paper and we generally drive the job round to their shop and say ‘Can you do this now?’ If one sub-contractor can’t do it, we drive to the next.”
Paul Smith, senior design engineer at Delphi Diesel Systems has similar sub-contractor issues: security is a concern, but not a showstopper. “We need to do everything in the fastest possible time,” says Smith, “otherwise we not only miss project deadlines, we risk losing the business this time and possibly all future business from that OEM.”
Delphi Diesel makes diesel engine subsystems, like injector pumps, and over the years its project deadlines have been seriously contracted by the auto industry’s predilection for slashing new vehicle introduction times. “We are generally brought in after many of the initial engine decisions have been made,” notes Smith. “Our job is to make the ancillaries and have them ready for engine prototype testing – it usually gives us four to five months.”
Delphi Diesel uses RealityWave for collaboration with its subcontractors. “We would dearly love to host RealityWave projects on our own server,” says Smith. “But to set up our own web server would require significant internal discussion and I’m not sure we could acquire all the technology. Going outside to a secure service provider is the pragmatic compromise.”
Reliable Internet connection is also an issue. “As soon as you go outside you can have problems if you access the web from your intranet, because you can go through multiple links and proxy servers,” observes Smith. “It’s just too slow at best, or your data gets dropped at worst.” Too many complex links kills the streaming data concept, and data packets just do not get through. “By far the best solution is to have a machine with a modem going straight to the Internet but this is potentially dangerous,” he says. “We installed an isolated machine for this purpose with a ‘fresh air’ gap to our network.”
It’s worth it. Using ConceptWorks from RealityWave you can invite someone to inspect your data by e-mailing your IP address and a viewer. The remote party sees the model and can spin it around and access it with mark-up tools via the ConceptWorks Browser. This happens in real time during a ‘one-on-one’ telephone call, with specific feedback capability.
Things are changing fast. RealityWave’s ConceptStation takes its streaming technology and implements it on a secure website, rented on a time basis per project. You just save your file in its .ZGL format and upload it onto the site. Its web viewer (not downloadable) allows ‘fly-throughs’, mark-up and limited measuring. There is also a comment column down one side, which keeps all dialogue and you can relate model orientation to the annotation.
You get threaded notation, giving you a sequential history of the workflow on the project. This allows you to address multiple individuals and keep all the comments in one place. In addition, it takes care of different time zones. It does, however, pre-suppose that everyone gives things first priority. “This system is at present a very nice, effective, robust 3D view and mark-up tool with associative annotation, but it is the tip of the iceberg with respect to what is possible and what is coming soon,” says Smith. “There will be other things available in a few months that will do a lot more.”
Manufacturing is trailing the AEC market in embracing ‘e’ technology. Extranets or project collaboration sites have been slowly taking over the AEC market for the last seven years. The first of these sites, MPInteractive.com (now known as e-Builder.net) was established as far back as 1994. And possibly the best known, BuzzSaw, spun out of Autodesk in 1999. Even in this well-established collaboration environment, new, would-be users find it difficult to select partners, and indeed not all Extranet companies will be around for the long haul. Look at some history on www.extranets.cc.
There has been huge fallout in the AEC extranet market. At the peak of extranet fever there were more than 175 companies offering extranet services; the number has been dropping back weekly to a more realistic level. And we can expect further consolidation, with four or five leading players owning about 70% of the market, and the remaining revenues spread among 25 to 40 niche players. Owning a functioning web site is not an indication that an extranet vendor is prospering, or even doing business. It doesn’t take much effort to keep a web site going: a thorough investigation is required before committing large projects to new start-up services.
Meanwhjile, the traditional CAD vendors and the e-purveyors have been falling over themselves in the e-Olympics to convince us that theirs is the only worthwhile e-technology to even consider, let alone use. So where does this leave us? And is there an optimum collaboration technique?
Concurrent engineering taught us that early communication between disciplines is beneficial – early involvement by all participants can save time and other valuable resources. Similarly, ‘just in time’ manufacturing can bring with it many benefits. What has largely been ignored is the need for ‘just in time’ knowledge – the need to share information among members of a design team or production team, in real-time. The new collaborative tools provide a framework in which this can happen, if the organisation is ready for it.
According to Dr. Joel Orr one of the founding fathers and a leading light in extranets.cc, implementing these tools has one particularly frightening effect. It puts existing policies and practices, which have generally been implicit and unexamined, under a spotlight. “That means everyone’s work is exposed to scrutiny, which can be upsetting. People become afraid that their inadequacies will be revealed, and that they will suffer.” A phenomenon coined elsewhere as ‘cultural reluctance’ rears its ugly head and people find other reasons to sandbag the implementation. ‘What about security?’ ‘We can’t afford the time away from current projects’. And so on.
According to Steve Nevey, CAD/CAM manager at Jaguar-Racing, “In the new Internet collaboration age there is a trust culture developing between collaborating partners. And once you have all the confidentiality agreements drawn up and have implemented conventional securities like firewalls and secure servers, people are just getting on with the job.
“From my perspective the best approach with conventional software is to give a partner a window into your PDM (product data management) system – that way you can specify the access criteria and have total control. Also, with very close collaboration in a time-critical environment like ours it is beneficial if both partners have the same CAD/CAM and PDM systems – ‘like for like’ data transfer works every time.”
Jaguar’s iMAN PDM system can be accessed with iMAN-Web so small suppliers don’t even have to have any sophisticated software to access the data they need. “It is also useful to have ‘mission critical’ applications like PDM on a Unix server: that way it is an ‘always on’ facility, and with Auto RAID technology, any disk failures can be fixed whilst it still running,” says Nevey. “Always-On is also useful if you are collaborating globally: remote partners can access the system when we are home in bed.”
So what about guidelines?
Keep it simple, cut out proxy servers and complex links: telecommunications connections can be a nightmare, even with ISDN. It is very important which service provider you go through – do your homework, talk to people. Some high-speed links only work with copper lines to your local exchange – there is a lot of aluminium out there.
Even with modern Internet tools you inevitably reach a point where common sense must prevail – rather than spending hours downloading data it is much easier to send a CD, especially if your partners are relatively close. And you can get so much more on a CD while you’re sending it.
Bandwidth availability is also an issue, everyone having the same privileges leads to a bottleneck. Check out ‘Policy Based Networking’: you might need it.
As for collaboration, examine the tools that your CAD supplier supports as a starting point and talk to your suppliers and sub-contractors. Data translation can be a serious issue, avoid chasing new rainbows until you fix some of the fundamental things.
Ironically, now that collaboration tools are available, it helps people to do real concurrent engineering. Before, most organisations just paid lip service to it and carried on with their ‘pass the parcel’ approach.
Most of the web-based collaboration activity seems to be in the mid market. Large organisations with cumbersome high-end systems are hampered by rigid procedures. By the same token, it looks as if the advantages of technology development are drifting away from automotive and aerospace companies – because they are not agile enough.
Author: Dr Charles Clarke