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Supply Channels PUBLIC ACCESS

Big and Small Manufacturers Say that Technology Can be a Key to Teamwork, but a Few Critical Issues Give them Pause.

[+] Author Notes

Associate Editor

Mechanical Engineering 124(05), 56-58 (May 01, 2002) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2002-May-4

This article discusses about a universal CAD language that would enable users to pass information freely back and forth between systems without a great deal of translation. Vital CAD information can get lost or botched when models are translated by means of initial graphics exchange specification (IGES) or standard for the exchange of product model data (STEP). Many small suppliers are more agile than their larger, bureaucracy-bound counterparts. BMW is experimenting with CAD conferencing technology that is similar to Harbec's software, although it has not yet brought a system in-house. Automakers must use CAD conferencing and other collaborative technologies more, but they are often held back by one very important issue: security. Collaborative technology allows OEMs to get design, document, and pricing information to their suppliers more easily, but it really does not change the true nature of the supplier and OEM relationship, which has historically included sharing documents and a level of trust.

Harbec Plastics is a molding supplier in Webster, N.Y., approximately 30 miles northeast of Rochester. The company supplies plastic injection-molded parts to manufacturers across the nation, thanks mainly to what Bob Bechtold, Harbec’s president, calls the company’s in-house quick manufacturing solution. Developed late last year, the system, which relies greatly on collaborative technology, is already working wonders, he said.

“When we started out, our customers were within driving distance, but we compete every day in a world market now,” Bechtold said. “The technology helps us increase the potential to secure customers.”

Bechtold spoke at the Daratech Summit, which was held in New York City in February and sponsored by Daratech, the Cambridge, Mass., computer-aided engineering market research and technology assessment firm.

When Harbec was established as a contract tool and die and general machine shop in 1977, Bechtold, the founder, knew that in order to be competitive he’d need to cast a wide net when looking for customers. And he’d have to be able to offer quick turn around times on any number and type of injection-molded parts.

In 1996, his company joined what was called the Open Supplier Integration Center at nearby Rochester Institute of Technology. According to Bechtold, Harbec was the token small company in a group comprising players like Kodak, Ford, and McDonnell Douglas, which sought ways to easily pass information back and forth with suppliers. Through the center, the companies investigated different technologies and methods of supplier collaboration, but the group disbanded after three years.

Using collaborative technology, Harbec Plastics, a midsize injection-molding supplier, competes in a global marketplace from its plant in upstate New York, near Rochester.

Grahic Jump LocationUsing collaborative technology, Harbec Plastics, a midsize injection-molding supplier, competes in a global marketplace from its plant in upstate New York, near Rochester.

In 1999, Harbec began using Microsoft NetMeeting software coupled with a computer-aided design viewer from Actify of San Francisco. The solution allowed original equipment manufacturers to talk with Harbec via the meeting software and to look at CAD designs with the viewing software.

The CAD viewer showed Harbec engineers how the manufacturer’s part design looked, but included no actual mathematical or milling information. Getting the CAD designs to Harbec still proved a challenge because each manufacturer used its own CAD system, and Harbec, of course, wasn’t equipped to work with every single CAD system, Bechtold said. And exchange was seldom easy.

“Manufacturers sometimes ran into firewalls when they’d try to pass the models out of their system and into ours,” Bechtold said. “We’d be going over telephone wires with modems to get. around firewalls as a last resort. That’s how important our need was. Sometimes we’d ship a laptop to a customer with instructions on how to connect it to the phone line.”

Bechtold said his company, like many others, continues to await a universal CAD language that would enable users to pass information freely back and forth between systems without a great deal of translation. Vital CAD information can get lost or botched when models are translated by means of initial graphics exchange specification (IGES) or standard for the exchange of product model data (STEP).

Last November, Harbec purchased collaborative technology called OneSpace from CoCreate of Fort Collins, Colo., which lets supplier and manufacturer exchange written and CAD information regardless of the CAD system in which it was created. Engineers can also hold real-time meetings via the technology.

Harbec uses OneSpace software from CoCreate of Fort Collins, Colo., which lets supplier and manufacturer exchange design information, regardless of the CAD system used to create it.

Grahic Jump LocationHarbec uses OneSpace software from CoCreate of Fort Collins, Colo., which lets supplier and manufacturer exchange design information, regardless of the CAD system used to create it.

In addition to using the software at its Webster, N.Y., headquarters, Harbec installs it at the customer’s site. For this, Harbec sends a diskette to the customer or has information technology employees download the program from the Internet. With the software, both Harbec and a client’s employees—wherever they might be—can hold a virtual meeting via the Internet and review CAD files together. The CAD files contain data that Harbec engineers use to make a prototype of the mold.

“Of course, for companies to work with us in this way, we have to trust each other and respect each other’s intellectual property,” Bechtold said. “Some IT departments in some companies are open and willing to help us and some are regressive. It’s like the toolmakers of old who protect trade secrets to make themselves feel more valuable. But that might mean we can’t work well with them.”

Often, when Harbec’s engineers tell customers they want to install the collaborative software at their site, customers react with enthusiasm.

“How do we promote this to customers? We say we’re concerned with communication. We stress the importance of communication between engineers and suppliers, and we tell them this technology will let them hold private meetings with us via the Internet,” Bechtold said.

“Real-time collaboration is an amazing tool for us to respond to customers faster,” he added.

Since implementing the collaboration technology, Harbec’s engineers have discovered they produce better designs that need less reworking. Bechtold estimates that turnaround time on tooling design has been cut by 50 percent since software implementation.

“We’re able to explore more designs and approach more ideas because we’re working with the clients in real time over the Internet on the designs,” Bechtold said. “Also, we can get more people involved in a design session without spending more money on travel. It’s very common during a session for someone to say, ‘Wait a minute, let me run and get the paint guy.’ ”

Engineers are also able to closely document the contract and negotiation process using OneSpace, Bechtold added.

“This is huge for us,” he said of that capability. “This software is a black-and-white tool that documents who said what. And that’s basically a way for us to go back to the customer and say, ‘But you did say this.’ We’re part of a team now, whereas before, the customer might just throw something over the wall for us to do and expect us to get it back to them completed.”

Another advantage: The technology lets Harbec cast its net a lot farther afield. Customers certainly need no longer be within driving distance.

Now that the Internet is a fairly commonplace system used by even avowed technophobes, Harbec’s customers are becoming less afraid of contracting with a supplier that might be located across the nation, Bechtold said. They’ve seen how technology can bridge both time and distance, and they’re willing to take advantage of that.

Joerg Schulte, the principal technology engineer at the BMW Technology Office in Munich, Germany, said that original equipment manufacturers such as BMW want collaborative technology like Harbec’s to become commonplace.

Harbec installs OneSpace software at a customer’s site. With the software, both Harbec and a client’s employees— wherever they may be located—are able to hold a virtual meeting via the Internet and review CAD files together.

Grahic Jump LocationHarbec installs OneSpace software at a customer’s site. With the software, both Harbec and a client’s employees— wherever they may be located—are able to hold a virtual meeting via the Internet and review CAD files together.

Many small suppliers are more agile than their larger, bureaucracy-bound counterparts, Schulte said. An automaker might choose to work with a smaller supplier over a larger one if easy-to-use collaborative technology were a part of the offer, he said.

For its part, BMW is now experimenting with CAD conferencing technology that is similar to Harbec’s software, although it hasn’t yet brought a system in house. Currently, some suppliers have access to BMW’s product data management system and can download pertinent CAD files.

“It’s better than sending out disks or tapes, but we still want to improve on that to make it more online and real time,” Schulte said.

There is no longer a need for customers to be within driving distance.

According to Schulte, automakers must use CAD conferencing and other collaborative technologies more, but they’re often held back by one very important issue: security.

Let’s say an automaker has a new headlight design it has to send to a parts supplier. The automaker won’t want to share that headlight design with just anyone. Officials will seek assurance that it won’t be passed to a competitor; they’ll send the design only to a trusted and select supplier.

They might choose a supplier that is nearby to avoid relying too much on technology and its attendant glitches. They might also choose a large, strictly automotive supplier. That’s what they might prefer based on security concerns, but it isn’t always the most cost-effective option.

“If the suppliers are more than an arm’s length away from BMW, it does become a security consideration,” Schulte said. “Let’s say we use an electronics supplier where automotive parts are only a small part of the supplier’s overall business. Our design might not be much of a business consideration for that company, so how much will they be willing to go out of their way for security issues? We have to ask ourselves those questions.”

Mike Jones, who works with information systems and technology at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth, Texas, said that Lockheed must also look into sharing more of its design data and product information with suppliers for business purposes, but the company is also stymied by the security issue. His IT department, much like Bechtold’s, is also frustrated by the lack of a universal standard used by all CAD vendors.

“We’re a Catia house and we tried to translate our own data before sending it to suppliers, but now we just say we’ll send it to you, the supplier, and it’s your responsibility to get it correct,” Jones said. “We know the pain we’re pushing out. It’s good that CoCreate and other companies like that are taking the responsibility to help with translation.”

The key to truly open and yet secure data sharing between OEM and supplier, Jones said, would be the capability to share open-standard encrypted CAD documents on the Web. Unfortunately, the documents would need to be heavily encrypted and such technology isn’t available, he added. But, if feasible, that solution would let suppliers bid on a Lockheed Martin project regardless of whether they can translate Lockheed’s Catia CAD documents.

Other security issues come up when Lockheed needs to send CAD documents to certain vendors—for example, to the harness supplier that completes electrical-system wiring for the entire aircraft. The supplier needs to see models of that whole plane.

Other Lockheed suppliers receive CAD models of only one Lockheed part—the part that they’ll produce. Sharing a model of the entire aircraft is certainly a far greater security risk, Jones said.

But the key to security is to keep model sharing in perspective, he added. Collaborative technology allows OEMs to get design, document, and pricing information to their supphers more easily, but it really doesn’t change the true nature of the supplier and OEM relationship, which has historically included sharing documents and a level of trust, he said.

“This information has always been moved around. Technology makes it faster. But it shouldn’t disrupt the way we do business,” Jones said. “Now there’s a trail left by technology for processes that were undocumented in the past. We just have to change our IT culture to reflect that.”

Copyright © 2002 by ASME
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