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Design Tools Get a Little Better

Tweaks, new versions, new products in the twin worlds of CAD and PDM—all are making design creation and sharing those designs easier and easier.

Tier product development environment

The 3-Tier Product Development Environment
To accommodate the fact that teams are not only made up of people within one company but may stretch across the globe and include representatives from various companies, SDRC has facilitated working together with its I-DEAS Enterprise, which integrates I-DEAS MCAD and Metaphase PDM together, eschewing the technology overhead that conventional interface approaches create.


All the talk about outsourcing, multiple partners, follow-the-sun design engineering, and e-business has put collaborative and interoperability technologies on everybody's checklist of features for design tools. There's good news all around. The technology is real. And it is being incorporated in computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided engineering (CAE), product data management (PDM), and other design-related applications. In fact, creating and sharing mechanical CAD (MCAD) information is getting better all the time. See for yourself.

Better clicks.
The latest version of Pro/Engineer 2001, the flagship solid modeler from PTC (Waltham, MA), features a "direct modeling" interface (other vendors call this a "heads-up" display). This interface lets users work directly with the geometry they're creating on-screen; that is, they can click-and-drag geometry into the desired shape, as well as selecting dimensional values from a drop-down list of most recently entered values. This replaces having users punch in parameters, dimensions, and the like from the keyboard (though that option is still at one's fingertips, so to speak). The upshot, says PTC, is that mouse travel and menu navigation for common activities is as much as 40% less than in previous versions of Pro/Engineer.

Better functionality.
Pro/Engineer now lets users create multiple variations of a design for process-specific tasks, such as analysis and manufacturing. These associative "process variants" are managed independently of the original design, letting designers make process-specific changes without having to revise the original design. Pro/Engineer also includes optimization technology that makes parts automatically adapt to stay in spec and meet desired functional requirements. The examples PTC gives are: "Cam shafts seek to stay in balance, containers strive to maintain correct volume, and mechanisms adapt to maintain desired performance and clearance objectives."

While PTC, SolidWorks and other CAD vendors prefer launching new CAD releases annually, IBM and Dassault Systèmes prefer the Energizer-Bunny approach: The releases keep coming and coming. The latest release is Version 5 Release 6 (V5R6), which comes only four months after V5R5, which came four months after V5R4. The latest release introduces an array of CAD/CAE/CAM enhancements, plus 17 new what-they-call "products" to the Catia line, which now boasts 78 what-I-call "modules." (Many of these are mainframe-based Catia modules rewritten for desktop computers running Microsoft Windows NT or Unix operating systems. Running MCAD and such on conventional desktops may be a "better" attribute in and of itself.)

One of these new modules lets users manage multiple instances of a subassembly, wherein each instance has a different positional configuration. This eliminates the need for multiple copies of a subassembly and bills of material (BOM). Moreover, users can define assembly features across multiple parts in an assembly—in one step. These features remain within the individual parts, even when manipulated independently.

Another Catia module adds the human element into product development: Users create virtual mannequins to help evaluate operational activities (lift, reach, maximum weight), comfort levels, field of vision, and other human interactions with machines.

Better translations. 
While you can "adequately" translate three dimensional (3D) geometry using IGES and STEP, translating the features in the models created by feature-based CAD programs is a stumper. A real stumper. According to the National Institute for Standards and Technology, interoperability problems for the U.S. automotive industry alone cost at least $1-billion per year.

It's getting easier, though. Translation Technologies Inc. (TTI, Spokane, WA) is an Internet-based service providing native-to-native, feature-based CAD model translations. These translations look and function as though they were created in the target CAD system. The company's Acc-u-Trans translation engine currently translates to and from Pro/Engineer and Catia; translations to and from SDRC I-DEAS, UGS Unigraphics, SolidWorks, and AutoDesk products are expected by the end of the year.

Translation involves five steps—all but one is automatic. These steps include a computerized review of geometric features in the incoming file, automatic native-to-native conversion of the geometry and features in the history tree, and automatic comparison of the original and new CAD files. Then a human steps in. An expert at TTI manually corrects the discrepancies identified in the comparison step. The last step is an automated quality-assurance check.

Translations typically take 24 to 48 hours and cost about $140. (An average file, according to TTI, is between 2 MB and 10 MB and contains about 100 features of average complexity.)

Better Webs. 
Solid modeling is all well and good, but seeing these models move is better. Costing $2,495, version 7.0 of IPA (Interactive Product Animator) from Immersive Design, Inc. (Action, MA) spits animations out onto the Web based on the parts and assembly information in Pro/Engineer 2000, SDRC I-DEAS Master Series 8 and I-DEAS Web Access, SmarTeam version 3, SolidWorks 2000, and Solid Edge version 9.


These are not "normal" AVI animations, though you can create those, too. You can interact with IPA animations–including zoom, rotate, manual explode–and selectively hide parts of the solid model. You can view these animations on any Windows desktop using IPA WebView, a free viewer, plus Microsoft Internet Explorer (version 4.0 or higher). IPA uses streaming technology and major-league compression to squirt these animations across the Internet. (Company officials say IPA files sizes are under 3% of the size of the original CAD models.) The Pro version includes a Web-publishing wizard to help you create HTML documents that include IPA animations, plus 3D product data, hierarchical product structure or tree views, BOM, and maintenance information.

Better inspections.
Comparing a CAD model to reality is easy with Geomagic Qualify, a $7,000 standalone program from Raindrop Geomagic (Research Triangle Park, NC). Geomagic Qualify shows the feature and geometric differences between CAD models and built parts (or between one CAD model and another). The source data, on the CAD side, comes from IGES or STEP imports; on the physical-part side, from scanned or touch-probe data. Geomagic Qualify aligns those data to make its comparisons. The graphical results use color to show deviations—either the whole range of deviation for detailed analysis or just a green-and-red display for "go/no go" decisions. As needed, you can add comments or deviation data to the displays, and then generate a web-ready HTML report to share with colleagues. This report can include numeric details, multiple views, user-defined and annotated views, and view-specific notes and conclusions.

Better integrations.
"People still have difficulty managing design data and going through the evolutions of the design process," admits Mark McCoy, MDA marketing manager for SDRC (Milford, OH). Hence the impetus for SDRC's I-DEAS Enterprise, which integrates the company's I-DEAS MCAD products and Metaphase PDM system together.


This integration is unusual because MCAD and PDM are typically "technologies interfaced, but separate," says McCoy. This is important because the interface approach—regardless of vendor—involves additional software, intermediate and time-consuming steps to "publish" and synchronize data, and a can of worms regarding data accuracy. Nevertheless, SDRC's Team Data Manager interface worked admirably well in groups of less than 100 people who are in the same location. However, today's virtual design environments are often much larger than that, and they are usually globally dispersed.

Enter I-DEAS Enterprise, a "large-scale environment where many contributors can collaborate in real-time without having to wait for information to be published," says McCoy. In this wide area networked system, both MCAD and PDM users see the same Windows-like views of product structure and information. Sharing data across the extended enterprise requires only a single-step data check-in (based on access privileges). Neither team nor enterprise data need reside in the same physical location. And released data can have different rules for ownership, access, and management.

Say you're not on an integrated design platform. There are other tools for data sharing. SmartBOM, from SmarTeam Inc. (Beverly, MA), creates a BOM directly from a PDM-based product structure and then packages that plus related documentation into a "self-contained, self-extracting, compressed, and executable briefcase." Think of this as a self-extracting ZIP or StuffIt file containing Everything You Wanted To Know About A BOM. Not only is the resulting file lightweight—read "small"—but it comes with its own viewer, which doubles as an editor. So you can edit, redline, and annotate to your heart's content, compare and consolidate BOM data from different suppliers, track changes, export and import the BOM to Microsoft Excel and other applications, and then close the file and e-mail it to someone else.

SmarTeam's SmartBriefcase does almost the same thing for product design. It packages together metadata, drawings, part data, part numbers, conventions, business rules, and optional tools. At the receiving end, a user without any pre-installed software can view and annotate the information within the briefcase using the tools bundled with the data. Upon return back to the sender, SmartBriefcase will synchronize and merge the new data with production data.


geomagic qualify

Colors displayed by Geomagic Qualify easily show how well a CAD model or original object compares to another CAD model or an as-produced part. Source: Raindrop Geomagic