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There are a lot of Acronyms Out There. We'll Help You Sort Them Out

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Associate Editor

Mechanical Engineering 125(01), 44-46 (Jan 01, 2003) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2003-JAN-3

This article focuses on how acronyms serve a useful purpose to people in a certain industry because they know right away what area is being referred to without having to go into a long, elaborate explanation. For the record, CAD stands for “computer-aided design,” CAM for “computer-aided manufacturing,” and PLM for “product lifecycle management,” which are all software applications used by engineers. Acronyms that are bandied about without ever being defined can make all but seasoned veterans feel as if they are in a subject over their heads. Manufacturers have an ongoing task of sorting through acronyms and finding those that have meanings for them, as opposed to those that are merely flavors of the day and will ultimately fall by the wayside.

ENGINEERS LOVE ACRONYMS, and they admit it freely. They should; their lives are filled with them. On the engineering technology side alone, there's CAD, CAM, CAE, FEA, PDM, PLM, and those, of course, are just the beginning. Three-or-more-letter acronyms can be a way of simplifying the world. Who wants to use long phrases to describe commonly referenced ideas that could be rendered in understandable shorthand-or be made maddeningly obtuse.

"Acronyms serve a useful purpose to people in a certain industry because they know right away what area you're referring to without having to go into a long, elaborate explanation," said John Krouse, editor of Engineering Process Journal, a management-oriented industry newsletter that covers CAD, CAM, and PLM.

For the record, CAD stands for "computer-aided design," CAM for "computer-aided manufacturing," and PLM for "product lifecycle management," which are all software applications used by engineers.

Sometimes, however, abbreviations can complicate language, muddying it instead of making it clearer. This is especially true for newcomers to an area of expertise. Acronyms that are bandied about without ever being defined can make all but seasoned veterans feel as if they're in a subject over their heads. Worse, they might not understand what's being talked about, but feel awkward asking for clarification.

"We try to stay away from acronyms in our company, but we end up having to use them because our technology is a mouthful," said Michael Jannery, vice president of marketing at Proficiency Inc. The Marlborough, Mass., company makes a technology that's called Collaboration Gateway, which allows engineers to pass CAD data back and forth between different types of systems without losing the information in translation.

"We're about moving design features, history, and constraints out of a CAD system and into a universal product representation, and that gets shortened into UPR," Jannery said. The engineering field may be particularly rife with acronyms, but no area of specialization is exempt, he added.

"I've been in the industry 20 years, and there's always been a lot of acronyms out there," Jannery said. "Engineers like acronyms. They are to the engineering world what legalese is for lawyers and what medical technology is for doctors. I have my annual checkup tomorrow and I'm sure the doctor will hit me with all kinds of things I don't understand. And after he's done, I'll say, 'You know, you really ought to be upgrading your DOS 386 to a DSL Internet connection.'

Jannery pointed out that there's even an acronym for three-letter acronyms: TLA, of course.

Quick-What does STEP stand for? How about IGES? The two acronyms refer to standardized methods of translating CAD images into a common language so they can be sent between CAD systems. Respectively, the words behind these commonly used acronyms are: "standard for the exchange of product model data," and "international graphics exchange specification."

The abbreviations are almost never spelled out in engineering literature. Does it matter? Maybe not, because those acronyms are so commonly used that most engineers know precisely what they mean.

Spelling out the proper name for these standards doesn't really help explain what they are. But sometimes when too many acronyms are bandied about, the alphabet soup can be thick and strong, and can occlude a subject's true meaning. Especially if the close cousin of the acronym, techno speak, enters the fray.

Krouse, the Engineering Process Journal editor, said that the particular shorthand used in engineering technology circles makes sense to people once they acquire a background in the technologies. But to outsiders with no background, the language will sound obscure.

"People recognize PLM as a shorthand for product lifecycle management, but they also recognize it as a whole explanation of the technology and the technological processes and the approach, so you don't have to go into detail," he said. "For people who are out on the fringes looking at how the industry communicates, it probably does look like a confusing alphabet soup."

Sometimes a technology vendor coins a new phrase and also its acronym-to try to differentiate itself from its competitors, Krouse added.

"They'll come up with acronyms that don't mean anything to anyone outside the company, which throws in confusion for everyone," he said.

Not to fear. Vendor-coined acronyms have a way of dying out quickly, said Bruce Jenkins, executive vice president of Daratech Inc., a CAB market research and analysis firm in Cambridge, Mass. Only acronyms and phrases pertinent to engineers remain part of the parlance, he said.

"There are plenty of acronyms. Almost half of them come to very little, but the important ones do find resonance with customers and get adopted by solution providers, and help to focus and frame what users are thinking about," Jenkins said. "That's the upside of acronyms. Yes, a majority of them don't amount to very much at the end of the day. But the ones that do amount to something tend to frame and summarize concepts that are useful to technology users."

Of course, engineers and acronyms have always gone together like Peaches and Herb, but Jenkins said that the use of acronyms began to proliferate in the 1970s, strangely enough about the same time as new and useful engineering technologies were being introduced into the market. And with the Internet and technology boom of the last decade came a concomitant rush of new phrases-such as "turnkey solution," "enterprise resource management," "e-business," and "business-to-business"- and their abbreviations.

Jenkins traces one of today's most familiar technology acronyms to the middle 1960s, when the phrase "computer- aided engineering," or CAB, took hold. It obviously refers to computers and other technologies helpful to engineers. Another familiar engineering technology acronym is FEA, for "finite element analysis." NASA itself an acronym-developed one of the first FEA codes, Nastran, also an acronym, which stands for "NASA Structural Analysis System." Nastran is now the FEA standard for structural analysis.

In the 1970s, CAD was introduced to engineers, Jenkins said. Then, developers added computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) and CAM. Technologies quickly grew and changed as developers found ways to make computers ever more pertinent to the job of the engineer. Only recently has product data management (PDM) been introduced to the market. This software application manages data and the resulting engineering work processes. PDM has spun off PLM, which helps organize the product creation process, Jenkins said. Other technological relatives of PDM include collaborative product commerce (CPC), component supplier management (CSM), configuration management (CM), software configuration management (SCM), and enterprise application integration (EAI).

All these acronyms, and many more, have been coined only within the past 35 years. Sometimes it's enough to make engineers long for their slide rules.

And yet, there's a story behind each TLA. (Remember, that stands for "three-letter acronym.").

"Each of these technological developments has been driven by commercial imperatives," Jenkins said. "In the middle 1990s, three-dimensional solid modelers became ubiquitous and viable because they were reasonably priced and could run on a personal computer. The industry began to expand from software design tools to environments that managed the engineering data and helped users get more leverage out of it."

A new parlance and its acronyms were quick to follow. And still they grow.

In the future, engineers should expect to hear more about CRM and ERP software applications. CRM stands for "customer relationship management." SAP is one well-known developer.

The software might help an engineering company build a database that describes customer relationships in detail, for example. Management, salespeople, and perhaps customers themselves could access information, to match needs with product plans and offerings, keep up with service requirements, or learn what other products have been purchased. It's sometimes seen as a marketing and sales aid, and its use is expanding.

ERP stands for "enterprise resource management." The software connects the entire company, so that an executive might use the bird's-eye view it provides, through graphs and charts, to see how human resources hiring practices are reflected by p ay roll, or follow a shipment of steel through the company as it is turned into products.

This type of enterprise software might be ripe for connection to a company's PDM system

Ultimately, it's up to engineers to puzzle through industry buzzwords, Jenkins said.

"Manufacturers have an ongoing task of sorting through acronyms and finding those that have meanings for them, as opposed to those that are merely flavors of the day and will ultimately fall by the wayside," Jenkins said.

The problem with industry- standard acronyms is that people like financial analysts, who aren't industry members but who study the industry, might be put off, Krouse said.

"If someone in the financial community has to understand what we're doing in the CAD, CAM, PLM industry, they shouldn't have to sort through all those acronyms and all that jargon all the time," he said.

But Jenkins acknowledged that the sorting might con1e with the job. "Every industry, I would imagine, without exception has its own j argon and acronyms, but where you have to be careful is communicating outside the industry," he said. "You have to make it really clear what you're talking about. A lot of these acronyms we use stand for different things outside the industry."

A quick check of one of the many acronym-finder sites on the Internet (www.acronymfinder. com) revealed that CAD also stands for "cable air dryer," "Cadillac," " the Canadian Association of the Deaf," the Canadian dollar, and 37 other things, including the British poet Carol Ann Duffy.

And now many CAE software marketers have turned the process on themselves. PTC, maker of CAD technology, officially changed its name fro m Parametric Technology Corp. Unigraphics, a maker of CAD software, was purchased two years ago by EDS, which soon changed the name of the company to UGS. EDS purchased SDRC at the same time and has since merged SDRC and UGS into PLM Solutions. Silicon Graphics Inc. formally became SGI, in another corporate paean to acronyms.

At first, it might appear that engineers need a hacksaw, or at least a butter knife, to cut through this hearty helping of alphabet soup. But by breaking it down into manageable chunks and learning as they go, they might just find the soup to be palatable after all.

UGS, which makes the CAD software above, and SDRC, were purchased some years ago by EDS, which merged them into a company called PLM Solutions.

Grahic Jump LocationUGS, which makes the CAD software above, and SDRC, were purchased some years ago by EDS, which merged them into a company called PLM Solutions.

Copyright © 2003 by ASME
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