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Software Developments That May Simplify Your Challenges

Here are some of the things that I saw at the National Design Engineering Show during National Manufacturing Week. Not everything. Just some items of particular relevance and interest.

DESIGN & COLLABORATION. The new features in Version 17 of Solid Edge computer-aided design (CAD) software from UGS Solid Edge (Huntsville, AL; www.solidedge.com) add to the previous version's hybrid 2D/3D tools, interoperability, and collaboration capabilities. Users can now create 2D views from finished 3D models and, as necessary, publish 2D layouts as 3D. (That 2D still prevails is a testament to the reality that some design problems are better understood in 2D, such as machinery equipment and shop floor layouts.)

With version 17, users can edit imported 3D solid models directly and "after the fact"—after they've been designed and imported—without having to import features and parameters and without knowing how the model was created (i.e., without having to edit the model's history tree). Models can be edited in a variety of ways—e.g., move, rotate, and resize features; delete holes and regions; and change thicknesses and bend angles. "Intelligence" can be added to unparameterized models so that thereafter, changes to that edit can be driven by parametric values. Direct Editing works the opposite way, too; users can simplify design details to protect their intellectual property (IP) before distributing their designs to suppliers. Version 17 can automatically simplify digital mockups of large assemblies (greater than 100,000 parts) by displaying only relevant external faces and removing internal details and small parts. The result is not a "lightweight assembly"—all the solids model data is still there—it's just that not all the modeling data is being displayed. (Users can still show specific details or entire subassemblies as required.) This permits engineers to work on large volumes of solids model data without bringing their workstations to a crawl. Other features include a start-up screen that acts as a launching pad to start or continue designing, a "command finder" to help new users cross-reference Solid Edge commands against those in competitive CAD systems, and some "assistants" that act as design and workflow wizards and troubleshooters. Version 17 also includes an integrated Catia V4 translator and a batch Autodesk Inventor migration tool that translates both 2D and 3D data.

New to Solid Edge is XpresReview, a utility for sharing multiple documents, while retaining associativity with the original files. Working with Solid Edge's Insight Connect, it bundles document files into a container called a "packaged collaboration file" (file extension .PCF). In the physical world, PCF files are like ECO/ECR or bid design packages; in the world of computer files, they're like ZIP files. The PCF container can be emailed anywhere. Recipients can view, interrogate, and redline documents within the PCF file, then repackage the documents to return or forward. External users without Insight Connect, which is included in Solid Edge, can download a free 8-MB XpresReview viewer. However, these users can not initiate (i.e., create) PCF files with just the viewer.

What this means: Many of the new features in version 17 are meant to entice CAD users, especially AutoCAD users, to switch to Solid Edge. Direct Editing, for instance, lets users easily import and edit complex geometry from any source, including PTC Pro/Engineer, Autodesk Inventor, SolidWorks, and even UGS NX software. What's more, this functionality goes beyond things of interest to traditional CAD users. XpresReview is the sort of collaborative tool that's a must-have for both within and outside design/engineering groups in a supply chain.

DATA REPACKAGING. Both Actify, Inc. (San Francisco, CA; www.actify.com) and Lattice3D (Los Altos, CA; www.lattice3d.com) provide software to (1) package, (2) share and interactively view, manipulate, redline, and then (3) repackage 2D, 3D, and other data over the Internet. End of similarities.

With SpinFire Professional, Actify's flagship software product, users save and share their design data in a compact .3D file. Now Actify has SpinFire for Microsoft Office, a $299 plug-in that embeds .3D files in Microsoft Excel, Powerpoint, Word, and Outlook document file formats. The plug-in lets users view from within the Microsoft document the 2D and 3D CAD design data in the .3D file, without having access to the native CAD system or even knowing how to use the CAD system. Actify now supports the 3D Industry Forum's (3DIF; www.3dif.org) Universal 3D format (file extension .U3D, developed by Santa Clara-based Intel Corp.). By the way, .U3D is the native 3D data format in the Acrobat publishing/viewing products from Adobe Systems, Inc. (San Jose, CA; www.adobe.com).

Lattice3D packages content in a container using the company's proprietary, format-neutral, highly compressionable "eXtensible Virtual world description Language" (XVL; see AD&P, May 2004; http://www.autofieldguide.com/articles/050411.html). The Lattice3D software suite consists of tools for data conversion, viewing, publishing, animating, encryption, and generating parts lists. A new tool, Lattice3D Embed, embeds 3D data into document formats including the Microsoft Office Suite, Adobe PDF, and HTML. A user can then rotate, zoom in, cross-section, markup, and otherwise manipulate the 3D data in that document.

What this means: At least three problems exist in design/engineering collaboration. First, solids modeling data sets, because they're so huge, have a knack for flooding the electronic "pipe" between organizations, namely the Internet connection. Second, displaying, manipulating, or revising digital representations of these huge files on anything but high-end graphics workstations can be stunningly slow. Last, engineers and even marketing people revel at having precise displays of visual data.

To date, about a dozen vendors have weighed in with publishing formats to handle these problems. So users have a choice. They can stick with the software utilities that come with their CAD and PDM systems (such as the aforementioned XpresReview). Advantages: no extra cost, no extra implementation, the software is already fully integrated with the CAD or PLM system. Alternatively, users can purchase utilities from third-party, "CAD-agnostic" vendors, such as Actify, Adobe, and Lattice3D. The advantages are weighted, depending on the needs of the collaboration group. Is high compression important? How about ease of use? How well is the third-party vendor's data viewer/publisher integrated with "standard" CAD, PDM, and even ERP systems, along with office suites and other desktop tools? For the time being, regardless of the 3D publishing tool users choose, which may or may not come at a cost, the 3D viewers to at least display that published data are free.

RULES THAT WORK. Software from RuleStream Corporation (Wakefield, MA; www.rulestream.com) automatically creates the highly customized designs and documentation produced by engineer-to-order/build-to-order organizations. At the core of this automation is rules-based decision making. Each time a project is opened or requirements and rules change, RuleStream creates new and customized product designs (and solid models) by running the relevant rules captured from design and manufacturing experts against requirements. It then finds the correct CAD part files and automatically inserts them in the assembly, properly mated. Both assemblies and individual parts can be scored against a user-defined weighted list of standard and functional requirements. RuleStream can also automatically generate engineering and manufacturing drawings, as well as tool and fixture designs.

What this means: While product data and lifecycle management (PDM, PLM) systems have tools to capture IP and triggers to manage that IP, they do not have the capability to automate decision making. That capability requires capturing, customizing, and adapting the rules relevant to performing specific tasks. RuleStream officials are quick to point out that "if you can see or explain it, you can make a rule for it," but that glosses over the bad rap that artificial intelligence (AI) and expert systems got in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, those systems probably deserved the knocks for their complexity and difficulty. RuleStream may have gotten AI right. It uses an open relational database containing rules, design requirements, design states and status, and revision histories. Any authorized individual within an organization can capture, define, and refine rules through a forms-based interface to a common database. Creating the rules also creates the user interface. New rules can reference existing rules, which helps in avoiding duplication, enforcing organizational standards, and both adding to and improving IP. Last, RuleStream works with a popular, versus proprietary, CAD system. (Currently, RuleStream is integrated with SolidWorks and Microsoft Visio.)

CONQUERING COMPLEX PHYSICS. Finite element analysis (FEA) vendor Abaqus, Inc. (Providence, RI; www.abaqus.com) and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) vendor Fluent, Inc. (Lebanon, NH; www.fluent.com) have new versions of their software, Abaqus 6.5 and Fluent 6.2, respectively. Of particular interest to automotive users is that both new versions work with the code-coupling MpCCI software from Fraunhofer-Institute for Algorithms and Scientific Computing (SCAI; Sankt Augustin, Germany). This code combines nonlinear structural simulation (from Abaqus) with dynamic meshing (from Fluent). This combination lets users analyze structural motion and deformation on fluids, including the steady-state or transient analysis of thermal-stress or mechanical deformation, or both.

What this means: Fluid-structure interaction (FSI) problems are complex physics problems that run rampant throughout automotive design (e.g., flow-induced vibrations in moving vehicles, fan blade flutter, passenger compartment ventilation, and heat transfer conditions). To date, engineers typically stick with one software vendor for all their analysis needs. The ideal is that the vendor has fully integrated its multiple software analysis products (developed in house or acquired) by using a common data structure across all products, or through bi-directional data communications between products, or as a result of an intensive software product rewrite. The alternative is to take advantage of something like the FSI capability from Abaqus and Fluent, which lets users take a multi-vendor, so-called best-of-breed software approach to solving complex structural-and-fluid-flow phenomena.