The Internet and collaboration are the biggest deals in mid range CAD today, with moves afoot to allow 3D models created for engineering to be used throughout the organisation right out to manufacturing and beyond. Dr Charles Clarke explains how even couriers, airlines and phone companies are being challenged.
The mid-range CAD market has come a long way since it’s inception in 1995. The current buzzword in the market is ‘collaboration’, allied to whatever flavour of alphabet commerce takes your fancy across the web. The continued drift towards Windows NT and Windows 2000, fuelled by every organisation’s desire to reduce the cost of ownership of its IT infrastructure, has inevitably led to more high end enterprise process functionality migrating to the mid-range.
These moves have coincided with the dramatic increase in the use and take up of the Internet. So much so that the implementation of collaborative engineering in today’s Internet age, using mid-range products is significantly different to that of the high end vendors of yesterday.
Time was when you used to get much better collaborative results if everyone involved used the same CAD system with all its integrated components and swapped native data. For the MCAD marketplace, that usually meant Catia, Unigraphics, Pro/E or Master Series. And you were also better off using their data management solutions. By linking data management systems you could do all the sorts of things that collaborating engineering departments wanted to do. However, it had serious cost implications – and transferring native model data was often time consuming.
A mid-range CAD/CAM/PDM solution generally means, for example, SolidWorks or Solid Edge with SmarTeam and any other components needed to make the system work. This is a really tough situation for the customer as it’s usually a DIY job. The mid-range reseller is not necessarily experienced in the wider context of manufacturing integration (unless he’s done it before) and is not necessarily motivated or resourced to solve any detailed integration problems, as he has a different kind of business to run. In these situations the customer is usually left to sort it out for himself. That’s OK if you are up to speed with all the emerging technologies. Otherwise you either have to find a reseller who knows what they’re doing, or do a significant amount of your own home work, or (heaven forbid) employ a consultant.
Mid-range vendors are now coming to the rescue by offering easy to use web publishing tools. Such is the nature of this volatile market that a few months can make all the difference. Using SolidWorks today you have a module called 3D Meeting which is built on Microsoft NetMeeting technology that enables users to view and collaborate in real-time on SolidWorks models and drawings over the Internet. This product can potentially rival the collaborative character of ISV CoCreate’s OneSpace collaboration tool. SolidWorks also has a thing called 3DInstantWebsite which allows you to post your 3D designs on the web to be accessed by others – and 3DPartStream for downloading 3D solid models of standard components.
According to Jon Hirschtick, CEO at SolidWorks, “The Internet to us means that everyone can share the power of 3D. The 3D model that has been created traditionally for engineering, CAD and design can now be used throughout the organisation. This does not mean that everybody should be viewing it using a CAD tool: everyone that ought to be looking at the 3D model is going to have a tool that presents it to them appropriately.”
He continues, “People are currently engaged in collaboration using companies like Fed-ex,”. “I view our competitors in collaboration to be the courier companies, the airlines and phone companies.” SolidWorks’ role is to put the 3D into these processes. “We’re not building a vast collaboration framework,” says Hirschtick. “We are building the 3D tools that enable people to share the designs, because that’s what we’re good at.”
This is all relevant to process: you start with your 3D model and link it to everything else, including to the logistics software where necessary. “Our vision is what we call 3D-commerce,” asserts Hirschtick. “3D-commerce means that everyone throughout the business process will have access to the 3D model. 3D for everyone, everywhere at any time.” The web enables this kind of collaboration. “Just as Windows enabled SolidWorks to say every engineer will have 3D on his desktop. So the web enables collaboration and allows us to say everyone will have 3D.”
The way SolidWorks has chosen to implement this strategy is not through complex system implementations like CPC (collaborative product commerce). As usual it is taking the pragmatic approach using some very simple tools like 3DinstantWebsite. “It looks like an inexpensive tool but it has real process collaboration,” insists Hirschtick.
This is the kind of thing everybody needs: for the longest time engineers have had to send several different kinds of data to their sub-contractors and suppliers in order to document their designs fully. What they needed was somewhere to post their designs in such a way that they can be accessed quickly, with the right amount of animation and interaction, to allow anybody that needed access to understand the model and its purpose completely.
In the old days sending the various different descriptions of the model on paper or on floppy disk took time – not any longer. It’s so simple and obvious to post these designs in 3D on the web that it’s a wonder no one has thought of it before. “3DInstantWebsite is a perfect example of a very practical tool that will empower 3D-commerce and link engineering right into manufacturing business processes,” says Hirschtick. “When it comes to selling the solution to customers our approach in 3D-commerce is a solution called 3DPartStream.net.”
3DPartStream includes two development tools: 3D Content Publisher and 3D Model Manager. The former is built around a multi-user server version of SolidWorks and allows customers to configure, view, translate and download parts over the web. 3D Model Manager is based on Microsoft’s SQL Server 2000. It is the tool companies use to enter models into a parts catalogue that can be hosted by an ISP (Internet service provider). The ISP delivers faceted image data to Windows clients using MetaStream, a compressed file format for streaming 3D models. Essentially, streaming technologies enable the delivery of faceted 3D models over the Internet in real-time. The only software that customers must concern themselves with is the MetaStream piece, which plugs into Microsoft or Netscape browsers.
SMC Pneumatics, a maker of pneumatic and electrical devices, has launched SMCetech.com, an on-line catalogue built using SolidWorks’ 3DPartStream. SMCetech represents a major step forward in using the Internet to distribute information about industrial components. The SMCetech.com web site allows you to view and manipulate 3D images and download simplified CAD models of hundreds of SMC’s products. And the models can be delivered in a host of popular formats for incorporation into assemblies modelled in the major mechanical CAD systems.
What distinguishes 3DPartStream from other players in the on-line catalogue market is the decentralised approach SolidWorks has chosen. Unlike other players SolidWorks doesn’t aspire to control a single portal for engineering information, and it is sharing the labour and rewards of developing on-line catalogues, allowing 3D publishing partners to take the lead in signing up customers and supporting them. This share-the-wealth (and the work) approach should help 3DPartStream’s uptake, though only time will tell whether it is superior to other ‘go it alone’ strategies.
SolidWorks is one of the few taking the pragmatic approach to collaboration. Engineers generally want to do the things they do, but quicker and easier. Most are not interested in complexity or learning to use new technology to reach the same end – they are much more interested in improving existing processes.
The other benefit of 3DInstantWebsite and 3DPartSream is the size of the models. Half a megabyte is not a problem; several megabytes is (as is the case with native CAD data). “We went to great lengths to make sure that when you visit the site, even if you have a slow connection you will get an image up pretty quickly,” says Hirschtick.
There is significant benefit in the mid-range market place of going with one of the major players. SolidWorks, Solid Edge and SDRC’s Artisan are mature products today so less of their development activity is spent making the basic software work. They now have the luxury to be able to position their developments in relation to current trends.
On the other hand, you have the total integration of Solid Edge and Unigraphics – a range of integration that no other vendor can match – as against SolidWorks, the market leader and its apparent understanding of what customers want with regard to web-based collaboration.
“Most people like to move in small steps,” says Peter Thorne of engineering consultancy Cambashi. “With minimum impact at every stage and with some kind of payback at each stage. If the mid-range vendors are smart, they will condition their offerings to accommodate these desires in order to keep out the high-end vendors or the bigger system approach.”
This only really works if the software authors are in control, but a feature of the mid-range market is that they are insulated from market feedback by their dealers. Consequently, they need to have a good marketing communications approach and/or educate their dealers to make sure they exploit the current software developments.
The mid-range channel is so varied in all its expertise it is difficult to impose a single strategy that suits all dealers and all customers. Because the mid-range market is so DIY-orientated and the Internet is moving at such a pace you have to be more aware than ever before of what’s around the corner. It’s worse than buying your first calculator or first computer.
Author: Dr Charles Clarke