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Lost in Translation PUBLIC ACCESS

It's the Paradox of Computer-Aided Design: More Software Systems, More Project Collaborators, More Wasted Time.

[+] Author Notes

David Prawel is president of LongView Advisors, a consulting firm in Loveland, Colo.

Mechanical Engineering 133(09), 44-47 (Sep 01, 2011) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2011-SEP-3

This article explains how software and networked information sometimes become a problem for mechanical engineers. Many mechanical engineers find themselves deeply challenged by their digital work environments. Supposedly created to relieve them of tedious and repetitive work, the ubiquitous computer systems all too often thwart collaboration among engineers. The variety of data involved in computer-aided design, simulation, and analysis is overwhelming. New-product development regularly presents translation challenges, starting with sophisticated geometry such as blended surfaces and variable-radius splines. Graphic formats also advance steadily. Software developers regularly update graphical user interfaces and enhance their data-capture capabilities. Because each drawing and its information are used again and again, every engineer who imports files into a new system has to choose between modifying as necessary and recreating them keystroke by keystroke. Recreating means that the original cannot be trusted and can entail an enormous waste of time. Manipulating information from one format to another is tedious and stressful, with big opportunities for error.

Software vendors fondly call their systems “solutions,” as in something that makes everyday problems disappear. And for most everyday design, engineering, and manufacturing tasks the products truly are powerful and robust.

Nevertheless, users grouse that while all that software and networked information may be indispensable, the tools often seem less like a solution and more like a problem.

It's a tough problem. Each software tool works best with its own data structures and format, but it also must play well with other software tools, so it must also share and accommodate other formats and peculiarities. This is the paradox of computer-aided design and, for that matter, computer-aided anything.

Many mechanical engineers find themselves deeply challenged by their digital work environments. Supposedly created to relieve them of tedious and repetitive work, the ubiquitous computer systems—CAD, CAE, CAM, CAPP, CAx, and dozens of others—all too often thwart collaboration among engineers. In recent years, some aspects of the problem have been improving, but many are getting worse.

Collaboration is essential to innovation, without which North American manufacturing, and the engineering that supports it, cannot remain globally competitive.

A big element of collaboration is trust—trust in the files and models of the original designer, trust in the digital translations of those files and models and their security, and trust that those files and models can be found, and then re-used.

Trust and collaboration suffer because the entire engineering software industry, tens of billions of dollars a year in revenues, is in a race with itself. Hard-charging developers need to create capabilities supported by new formats to keep revenues flowing in from demanding customers. Those who struggle in the realm of standards are equally dedicated; they have to ensure that new software tools can be used elsewhere in the organization with minimal messing about.

The result is a struggle between new formats and CAD data exchange standards that accommodate them. No clear winner is emerging, and may never emerge. The problems are too complex and the possible solutions too diverse. Technical issues aside, there are proven, common-sense approaches. At LongView we believe that the “right” solution comes from clearly understanding the requirements of one's business, its applications, its products, and its design systems. Only then can the infrastructure to meet those demands be implanted.

This means software users, and their managers, must ask fundamental questions and then honestly answer them. What does the organization need to compete successfully? What drives innovation and how can that be done effectively? In one's own market, what constitutes a great product? Armed with this understanding, a set of solutions can be developed and implemented to get there.

The basic solutions to foster the development of collaboration, and the trust it requires, are human factors. Users need training. Managers need to enforce consistency. Both can be costly, but skipping them is far costlier. Untrained users and ineffective managers will render even the best standards useless, adding to everyone else's workload.

What is manifestly apparent is that collaboration can only be built on trust, a trust that has three distinct aspects:

The quintessentially human: the trust placed in the designer or engineer who first generated the data or model. This covers drawings, dimensions and tolerances, analyses and their verification and validation, and the related meta data (“data about data”).

Security: being able to trust that data can be shared with a business partner or supplier with high confidence that it's secure and safe against abuse, unauthorized changes, and illegal copying. Absent that trust, it is nearly impossible to share and re-use drawings and files downstream in operations or anywhere else in the extended enterprise.

The totally digital: whether and to what extent to trust the translations, retranslations, and any other data manipulations. These changes are inevitable as data is replicated across the enterprise to dozens of other users. Data and information cascade downstream to production engineering, manufacturing, and test and inspection. Data and information are also replicated for engineering support, field service, customers, distributors and users, and for sustainability and disposal at the end of the product's useful life.

It is a fundamental lack of trust in the bits and bytes of CAD translation that leads to the waste of engineers’ time. Engineering managers and analysts put the waste at anywhere between 15 and 50 percent of an engineer's time.

This estimate would seem high were it not for recent research from Aberdeen Group, Boston, on the critical need for solutions to the interoperability problem. A December 2010 survey of 269 companies found 82 percent of respondents using three or more CAD formats in their design processes, and 42 percent used five packages or more.

What's more, innovation depends on far more than digital collaboration in product design. CAD analysts speculate that a single drawing or solid model is re-used 150 times or more. A standards expert, Steven Vettermann, general manager of ProSTEP iViP, added, “I could imagine that the real number is much higher than 150, not for every part/assembly, but for the most relevant ones, and that number will increase.” An internationally recognized standards organization, ProSTEP iViP is based in Darmstadt, Germany.

In a presentation given at LongView Advisers’ Collaboration & Interoperability Congress in May, Vettermann pointed out that, in any large manufacturing organization, “one has to consider the geometry needs of mechatronics, simulation, prototyping, production planning and preparation, change management, sales, marketing, maintenance” and many more functions. Re-uses often include multiple reformattings, manipulations such as defeaturing and partial redrawing as well as adding, deleting, and modifying information about the drawing such as materials and dimensions.

According to Vettermann, there are hundreds of visualization formats. He listed JT and 3PDF as quite popular, along with 3DVIA, 3DXML, XVL, VRML, Collada, ProductView, “and all the other vendor-specific formats and niche providers/specialists.” He said, “The simpler and more unique the methods and technologies are, the more widely they will used. Just think about the amazing number of things people do with Adobe's Acrobat Reader or Microsoft's PowerPoint.”

There are no reliable numbers for CAD translators, or for CAD translation standards. New standards for data exchange turn up almost every year. Each is intended to support a given technology, in a set of applications, in a given situation.

Collaboration challenges also arise from new data types. The variety of data involved in CAD, simulation, and analysis is overwhelming. New-product development regularly presents translation challenges, starting with sophisticated geometry such as blended surfaces and variable-radius splines. Graphics formats also advance steadily. Software developers regularly update graphical user interfaces and enhance their data-capture capabilities. Structures for meta data evolve. Every few years a new geometry kernel is unveiled.

Simulation and analysis add even more complications. There are hundreds of discrete elements in FEA, but new elements crop up regularly. Even seemingly simple things such as text styles can be perplexing.

Because each drawing and its information are used again and again, every engineer who imports files into a new system has to choose between modifying as necessary and recreating them keystroke by keystroke. Recreating means that the original cannot be trusted and can entail an enormous waste of time. Manipulating information from one format to another is tedious and stressful, with big opportunities for error.

Collaboration tools (from left): 3D PDF showing 3-D assembly, product structure, and annotation; Proficiency from ITI TranscenData showing product structure and geometry, identifying problems, and suggesting repair; the Kubotek Validation Tool comparing two models and searching for differences due to translation, data migration, or revision.

Grahic Jump LocationCollaboration tools (from left): 3D PDF showing 3-D assembly, product structure, and annotation; Proficiency from ITI TranscenData showing product structure and geometry, identifying problems, and suggesting repair; the Kubotek Validation Tool comparing two models and searching for differences due to translation, data migration, or revision.

This is an enormous time-sink for engineering. The recent LongView Collaboration & Interoperability Market Report & Survey (a free publication available a www.longviewadvisors.com), reported that between 22 and 29 percent of all design or engineering professionals in discrete manufacturing spend more than eight hours in a typical week translating or cleaning up CAD data. Some spend more than forty hours in a typical week in these activities!

Engineers should be creating, analyzing and deciding— innovating, in other words—and not recoding or redrawing. Much engineering time is spent reformatting data because no two systems or their users need exactly the same information. The consensus is that hardly any of these reformats add tangible value to the information and therefore nearly all this time is regarded as a waste, i.e. activity that adds no value. No tradeoffs are being evaluated, no simulations and analyses are undertaken, searches for better ways are put on hold, and no thinking is under way.

Proven CAD translation standards like STEP AP203 E2 are the best long-term bet, especially for long-term data archiving. But patience is still needed. Standards committees are consensus-driven and they need time to adapt to diverse requirements. Several of our client companies tell us STEP has made a huge difference to them.

Successful collaborators get professional training for anyone who creates CAD data. Training has proven time and again to be the most cost-effective solution to most common interoperability problems.

We recommend that designers learn the correct use of structures and meta data for each CAD system; that they learn how to correctly design and explode assemblies; that they be consistent with which information is placed on which layers; that they avoid needlessly complicated solid models; and that they share only the data that's needed. Bear in mind that effective collaborative engineering can often be accomplished with a 3-D PDF file.

Companies should standardize design methodologies. Users must sort out the many recurring “how do we model this” issues among the primary creators of product data and the downstream consumers who re-use CAD data. This is extremely important in FEA and CAM. Decisions and agreements are needed, for example, on how coordinate systems and datum planes are to be defined, how models are to be parameterized, and how to define the expressions and equations that drive the models’ parameters.

Managers must then enforce consistency. These internal standards can only be effective if engineering management enforces all of them. Enforcement starts with writing them down and sharing them with everyone in the extended supply chain. That shows them collectively how you want them to handle 3-D data. As consistency takes hold, users will at last realize they really can trust the models they import. With time, and maybe some luck, a key requirement for collaboration is established.

When problems arise, use commercial CAD translators and services whenever possible. CAD translation companies have been solving these problems for decades. They know the solutions, strategic and tactical. It makes no sense to squander precious design and engineering resources wasting time on problems that add no value to products and innovation.

Managements should also consider implementing lean principles to study specific work efforts, waste due to poor interoperability in mission-critical workflows. This kind of analysis is not fundamentally different from looking at the workflow of any engineering or business process. The lean initiative identifies the underlying problem so smart people can attack it.

In the end, each user company must measure its specific technology and business requirements against what is possible in the standards community, and overlay that with their timeframe. This will be the key to long-term success.

Copyright © 2011 by ASME
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