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Designing Across Borders PUBLIC ACCESS

How Can Engineers Collaborate on Projects From Plants a World Apart Via Separate Computer Systems? A Product Data Management System Acts as Translator.

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Associate Editor

Mechanical Engineering 122(09), 58-60 (Sep 01, 2000) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2000-SEP-2

This article discusses that many companies are installing a companywide product data management (PDM) system, also known as an engineering data management system. These systems do several things, besides acting as a central data repository. Much of the data that overwhelms companies comes from engineers using a variety of software applications, such as computer-aided design, manufacturing, or engineering programs. The PDM systems manage engineering data that may come from a myriad of sources and applications but pertain to the development of one product. The chosen PDM system would have to track the design and manufacture of each part that would be assembled to form the finished printer. It would have to tell users what stage in the process each part had reached. But it would also have to serve as a virtual warehouse for all digital versions of a part and product, including older versions that could not be lost because they might be needed for reference at any time.

For many companies that employ engineers, the proliferation of computer software to address everything from design to manufacturing needs has proved a mixed blessing. Of course, computerizing the jobs that engineers formerly performed by hand increases productivity and makes most tasks quicker and easier. But as they incorporate more and more of these useful tools, companies can find themselves with a multitude of incompatible software applications creating incompatible data that nevertheless needs to be shared and accessed easily.

To ease the problems that inevitably result, many companies are installing a companywide product data management system, also known as an engineering data management system. These systems do several things, besides acting as a central data repository.

Much of the data that overwhelms companies comes from engineers using a variety of software applications, such as computer-aided design, manufacturing, or engineering programs. The PDM systems manage engineering data that may come from a myriad of sources and applications but pertain to the development of one product. You could say that a system tracks a product’s trail as it goes from design to manufacture, and makes the trail available for any employee to follow.

PDM systems give users a way to keep track of where the part is in the development process. In the past, no overarching technology was available to manage all of this disparate engineering data, so either it went unmanaged or only parts of it were managed.

Most companies already have a computer system that tracks business data, such as sales figures and financial results, and crunches numbers to give managers a bird’s-eye view of company finances. A PDM system can be thought of as the same type of tool, although product data management keeps track of technical and manufacturing information, said John Stark, president of John Stark Associates, a consulting company headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, which aids companies in PDM system installation.

Such a system ties together a company’s engineering and manufacturing data as if it were created in one common computerized environment rather than on several different software applications, Stark added. The system links engineering, manufacturing, planning, and scheduling via one cohesive system with a common user interface. These days, the PDM system is usually accessible via the Web for easy access by employees at dispersed company sites.

This tracking method reaches all users, no matter how dispersed. So a plant-floor manager can access the PDM system to see the CAD file from which he or she will be programming numerically controlled manufacturing machines. And two engineers working in distant locations on different parts of the same assembly can easily pass design information back and forth.

Stark said PDM systems can be viewed either as data processing systems that store information from all other applications or they can be seen as a backbone—along which flows engineering information from CAD applications, numerically controlled systems, and other engineering technologies.

Engineering companies, especially large ones, are finding themselves at the forefront of a still-burgeoning movement when it comes to putting PDM systems into place, Stark said. That’s because employees at medium- to-large manufacturing companies find themselves most in need of an organizational across-the-board backbone due to the amount of information generated and the number of employees working on one project. So far, Fortune 1,000 companies have generally been the first to tie together their disparate applications by means of PDM software, he added. Businesses include engineering and construction companies as well as discrete manufacturers in automotive, aerospace, electronic, and mechanical engineering industries, Stark said.

“These places know it’s not easy even to successfully implement individual applications such as CAD,” he said. “They’re unlikely to underestimate the difficulty of putting in a cross-functional system such as PDM, which will take many years to implement and will have considerable technological and organizational impact.”

Conversely, added Stark, small-to-medium companies that follow the trail blazed by their larger counterparts can also benefit from a PDM or EDM system.

“Compared to a larger company, they should find it easier to implement because they’ll generally have fewer people involved and less data to manage,” he said. Large companies that have been the initial PDM users report roughly a 10 percent decrease in engineering costs, a 20 percent reduction in product development lifestyle, and a 40 percent reduction in the number of engineering changes to a part after PDM implementation, Stark said.

Engineers at Seiko Epson use their PDM systems to collaborate on projects in real time with counterparts at the same company, who may work at a plant in another country.

Grahic Jump LocationEngineers at Seiko Epson use their PDM systems to collaborate on projects in real time with counterparts at the same company, who may work at a plant in another country.

One company that could hardly be called small—General Motors—installed a PDM system in May of this year to link its 20,000 engineers around the globe and to provide them with simultaneous access to 16 terabytes of product data, according to Detroit-based Kirk Gutmann, global developed product information officer for GM’s information systems and services group. GM put in the system to help get new vehicles to market faster.

In 1996, GM executives set a goal of reducing a vehicle’s development time from three and a half years to two years. One fly in the ointment, in terms of this productivity goal, was that the automaker’s largest engineering centers are located in Russelheim, Germany, and in Warren and Pontiac, Mich. Vehicles are designed at all three engineering sites and the vehicles themselves are then built in multiple locations. Obviously, said Gutmann, these sites had to be linked via technology so engineers in the different plants could work as closely together as if they were in the same room, even if they couldn’t actually sit down together for a coffee break.

For this kind of collaboration, GM executives chose to use a PDM system from the same vendor that provides the CAD and CAM system used by the 20,000 GM engineers. The company uses the Unigraphics CAD/CAM system and a PDM system called iMAN, both from Unigraphics Solutions of St. Louis.

“We’re one of the few original equipment manufacturers that uses a single system from art to part, from development to manufacturing,” Gutmann said. “We believe this is one of our biggest advantages.”

Heinz Lehnhoff, engineering information technology officer for GM International Operations, sees many advantages to the integrated CAD and PDM system. For one, CAD and CAM files are easy to find within the PDM system, which includes a search engine that lets engineers quickly locate any files they might need to see.

“It also makes data sharing almost independent of personal communications,”

Lehnhoff added. “It’s not that we want to avoid personal communications, but we don’t want to rely on it for data exchange.” Engineers are able to send personal e-mails back and forth to discuss changes to the parts, but the actual changes occur on the data files—in this case, CAD files—that are part of the PDM system. But in addition to getting the right information to the right people at the right time, the automaker is using the system to create digital prototypes of parts and even of entire vehicles. The prototypes consist of data from multiple GM engineering centers and from suppliers. The data files are all combined via iMAN and compiled into a complete, working part with the help of virtual reality technology included in the PDM technology. The prototypes, or mockups, are then distributed for discussion. The digital files are referred to as digital mockups because they can appear to be operating much as they would in real life, thanks to the virtual reality component included in the PDM system.

“We’re able to share information in digital mockup form throughout the globe,” Gutmann said. “We can look at different design alternatives, check out the use of different internal components in the vehicle, look at kinematics and so on, just as if we were all in the same location.”

Because Unigraphics Solutions provides the integrated CAD/CAM/PDM system, these digital prototypes can be made without the need for data translation, which saves time and also ensures that vital information isn’t lost in translation, he added.

Seiko Epson of Nagano, Japan, a maker of watches, electronic devices, and computers as well as printers and scanners, isn’t new to PDM. The company finished its system installation in June 1997, long enough ago to be able to assess its benefits and drawbacks. The problem the company wanted to address, according to Kenji Aka-hane, manager of the information system department, was that internal technology systems, such as parts lists, weren’t connected to one another. Users would have to search through one parts list, then log onto another system to continue searching.

The company’s internal PDM system—which included the parts lists- had turned into a snarled web of nonintegrated systems. Because the company makes printer models for so many different foreign markets, it had a keen need to streamline parts-list management, Akahane added. Identical components often have to be labeled in many different ways. And different markets require different power cables, power units, and peripherals, he said. The lists had to be itemized by destination, production sites, materials, forms, sizes, weights, and other designations, he said. Seiko Epson needed to take a hard look at its diverse group of homegrown organizational systems, Akahane said.

“We were forced to face some issues such as the preparation for Y2K and the increasing demand for the integration of several independently operating engineering systems,” he said.

Seiko Epson faced another problem in that manufacturing takes place in six plants scattered throughout Asia and the United States. Each plant had a separate computerized method for managing engineering drawings and documents, as well as other technical information such as parts lists. Since the systems weren’t interfaced and therefore couldn’t talk to one another, design and manufacturing engineers communicated across nations by paper, which was a cumbersome and expensive process. Parts- lists information took about two weeks to distribute, Akahane said.

At the same time, the company maintained several different drawing and wire-frame programs. Those in the IT department sought to transition from two-dimensional to three-dimensional design in conjunction with a move to funnel all computer programs across a PDM system.

At GM, 20,000 engineers are plugged into the same PDM system and share a common CAD system to coordinate vehicle development.

Grahic Jump LocationAt GM, 20,000 engineers are plugged into the same PDM system and share a common CAD system to coordinate vehicle development.

The printer manufacturer faced a daunting task. It needed a PDM system that could handle its complete parts-list management and that users could access in either Japanese or English. The PDM system also would have to be integrated with Pro/Engineer from PTC of Waltham, Mass., which was the 3-D CAD program chosen by the company, and to other programs, including a manufacturing system from Oracle of Redwood City, Calif.

The chosen PDM system also would have to track the design and manufacture of each part that would be assembled to form the finished printer. It would have to tell users what stage in the process each part had reached. But it would also have to serve as a virtual warehouse for all digital versions of a part and product, including older versions that couldn’t be lost because they might be needed for reference at any time.

In 1996, eight years after developing its homegrown PDM system, Seiko Epson began installing another system that linked all its plants and nearly all of the company’s technological systems.

The company chose the Metaphase system from Structural Dynamics Research Corp. of Milford, Ohio, which was y implemented in June 1997. Now that it has been up and running for three years, Seiko Epson says the system has given engineers the ability to work simultaneously on their pieces of a project while they share a master model among Asian and U.S. facilities.

For example, the company has printer and scanner manufacturing plants in China, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines. The PDM system is in place in all those plants. Before the system was installed, the plants merely assembled products using manufacturing techniques developed at the Japanese headquarters, Akahane said.

“Now that the facilities are linked, we can start the manufacture at the production plants right from the beginning,” he said.

Also, since the plants all have access to CAD files, design work is now done in Singapore, China, and Indonesia in addition to Japan. By sharing product data electronically among different designers, the company can adjust more quickly to the changes in production and design.

“It’s clear that our success depends on sharing real-time information between distant places and working concurrently,” Akahane said.

The result of having the system, he said, has been faster time to market for products and a more efficient use of resources.

Seiko Epson’s story reflects results found by Stark as he followed company changes in light of newly installed PDM systems. The main benefit reported by those companies in the months and years following implementation was that PDM tamed an out-of-control, paper- based structure of shared project information. Stark found the systems reduced the time to introduce new products, cut the cost of developing products, and improved product quality.

He is sure that Seiko Epson executives would agree.

Copyright © 2000 by ASME
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