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The Process Is the Key to the Future

Most companies use CAD models to develop products. A number of companies are using simulation software to figure out how to best arrange their manufacturing resources, such as people and equipment. Rakesh Mahajan thinks that a real competitive advantage will be found by companies that do the best job of defining and refining their processes.

The products that Deneb Robotics (Troy, MI) offers to industry to perform 3D simulation, validation, off-line programming, and process visualization are, in a word, extensive. Certainly, there is a package like IGRIP, which allows robotic programming. But although the word "robotics" is in the company's name, there is a whole lot more to the software offerings, including such things as Deneb/ERGO, which is an ergonomics package that permits the analysis of people, not machines, and Virtual NC, which permits emulation and validation of machine tool programs.

Since it was acquired by Dassault Systemes (the company that developed, and continues to develop, the CATIA CAD/CAE/CAM suite of software products), Deneb's focus has not only broadened, but the wherewithal to be an integral part of digital design and development of products and processes has been enhanced.

Achieving Integration.

Putting what the company is doing into context, CEO and founder Rakesh Mahajan, who had been with General Motors in the early 1980s, "when robot buying was a craze," admits that the initial focus of the company was robot simulation, such as of spotwelding lines for automotive and riveting installations for aerospace.

CAD rendering
Beyond a CAD rendering, this image is backed with full digital information about the objects, including not only the details about the bodies-in-white, but also the kinematic characteristics of the robots.

One of the things that was discovered along the technology trail that Mahajan and his colleagues blazed was that there was a lack of connectivity between different applications. That is, say there was a simulation of a spotwelding line and then one of a paint line. What invariably happened was that it was necessary to reload the data developed for the spotwelding simulation to perform the painting simulation. This was not only wasteful of time, but it also permitted the possibility of mistakes making their way into the process as the data was reentered. Mahajan says that what they aimed at was developing a means by which the entire manufacturing enterprise could be simulated without having separate sets of data being used. There would be an "integrated solution," one that would work for industrial engineers, manufacturing engineers, supervisors, etc. alike. There would be the ability to run simulations from the proverbial 30,000-ft. point of view as well as right down into individual cells or stations. Even the logic of programmable controllers would be checked.

All of which Deneb engineers and programmers eventually developed, something that, Mahajan says, makes their offerings unique. The software is offered in both UNIX and Windows NT versions ("Traditionally, people don't use UNIX on the plant floor," he notes).

But Mahajan is driving forward in developing a capability that will allow users to not only simulate their processes (for training, for finding bottlenecks, for performing off-line programming, etc.), but to link the three elements that he says all companies have in common in such a way that there can be bi-directional optimization of the entire product and process development chain.

He explains that the three common elements are:

•Product; process; resources.

The product data is, of course, contained in CAD models. (And it is worth noting that although Deneb is owned by Dassault, it has created native language links—not translations—for the major CAD packages so that its software can be used in conjunction with Unigraphics, SDRC, etc.) The resources are things like machine tools, conveyors, robots, people, and other factory factors. Then there is the process, or what Mahajan calls "the know-how that a company has." This element is what really sets one company apart from another.

Process Know-How.

That is, a company can buy the same software and equipment that its competitors have; it can hire good people and give them extensive training. But how all of this is orchestrated and put to use is what makes the difference. This process knowledge is the clear differentiator, and Mahajan believes that once it is captured in software it will become so important to the automakers that it will "define how cars will be designed, determine what the product will look like."

What Deneb has developed is a means by which integrated development can be performed. Think of a tree diagram that explodes the CAD model of a vehicle into its various components and models of the various lines in a factory right down to the workstation level. Each given part gets connected, Mahajan explains, to a resource in the model of the plant (e.g., if there is a body panel that is to be stamped, it gets connected to a press; if there is subsequent welding, then that part gets connected to the weld station). This way there can be upfront assurance that there is the means by which each of the elements is to be processed. Then the process optimization can be put into effect. All of this work, of course, is being performed on computers, not by drawing diagrams on white boards.

Mahajan foresees "1000s of process seats," just as today there are 1000s of CAD seats in place throughout the industry. "We are where CAD systems were 10 years ago," he remarks.