The conventional approach to supporting collaborative product development (CPD) is to buy a product lifecycle management (PLM) system, implement it, use it, and that’s it. But what if the vendor of the computer-aided design (CAD) system doesn’t offer a PLM system? What if a user company can’t afford—or even need—a full-blown PLM system? Often, there is a need to install third-party software systems to deal with some of the shortcomings in companies’ PLM systems. So the real question is: What makes CPD functional, easy to use, and, yes, collaborative? While that might seem to be answered by an assortment of technical details best left to the IT department, as is sometimes said, the devil is in the details, so it is the infrastructural and operational CPD details that design and engineering department managers are well advised to evaluate, specify, and implement. Here are four worth considering.
Regardless of whether a company is large or small, part of its CPD process involves file sharing across diverse and distant locations: within an office building or a corporate campus, between an office and employees’ homes, between product development partner organizations worldwide. The trick in these distributed operations is to provide the current copy of whatever files users need, provide instant access to those files, and capture changes to those files easily, securely, and in real time.
PLM systems and costly hardware-based virtual private networks (VPNs) provide the means to do that. Email kind of does that, but it’s slow and version control is complicated. Availl Inc. (Andover MA; www.availl.com) has another approach. It provides wide area file service (WAFS) software that “gives users instant, simultaneous, and full access to identical files at many remote sites,” according to company officials. Running on existing Microsoft Windows servers, the software accelerates and mirrors files among data servers in real time. Simultaneously, it manages document versioning and provides local hard drive access speed to files at each site.
Availl runs over any network: LAN, WAN, Internet, or VPN. The software uses byte-level differencing when transferring files. This means that only the modified portion of a file is transferred, not the entire file. That, plus not transferring unneeded system and temp files, plus compression, eliminates 95% of the network traffic between collaborating data sites. The software’s streaming capability ensures that even new files are immediately available. This is true even for large new files that have yet to be fully mirrored at a local data server. Availl streams data so that the file opens immediately in whatever application the user chooses; file mirroring and synchronization continue in the background. Availl also supports file and data locking in real time. If two people in remote locations open the same file at about the same time—we’re talking split seconds apart here—the second person will get a message that the file is in use. That person will still be able to open the most recent version of the file, but only as read-only. When the first person saves or closes the file, the file changes are then immediately distributed across the network.
There are at least two problems with having multiple CAD systems. First, converting native design data for disparate CAD systems is costly and time consuming. Second, many CAD translations, such as those using the STandard for the Exchange of Product model data (STEP), only exchange product geometry; other design data is lost.
To share multiple native feature-based CAD files, some automotive companies have turned to the Proficiency Gateway from Proficiency, Inc. (Waltham, MA; www.proficiency.com). This web-based product exchanges design data between major CAD systems, such as Dassault Catia V4 and v5, PTC Pro/Engineer, and UGS Unigraphics and I-DEAS. The gateway converts design data from the CAD systems into an intermediate format, which can then be reformatted and imported to other CAD systems. This is not merely a transfer of dumb geometry, such as a STEP transfer. Proficiency transfers design features and parameters, history, metadata, manufacturing properties, and assembly information—all the intellectual property (IP) associated with a product.
The gateway also controls IP. Users can create process templates that provide multiple levels of control regarding what IP can be exchanged, as well as to what degree. For instance, some suppliers can be given full access to feature definitions with manufacturing properties; others, just the geometry and feature history. The gateway not only validates the exchange of data, it also reports details about those exchanges. This way, design teams can better understand their product development processes, such as how data are captured and what modeling techniques are portable and standard.
The Proficiency Gateway can complement existing PLMs by, at the very least, providing a way to automatically convert design data as required. Likewise, the gateway can populate, validate, or reconcile PLM metadata with CAD model or drawing information.
Viewing native CAD, finite element analysis (FEA), and other files is important, to say the least. So is protecting them. Frankly, a password-encrypted ZIP file might not be enough to protect and manage a company’s IP when that file is shared across the Internet. For this reason, Pinion Software (Austin, TX; www.pinionsoftware.com) offers a variety of software packages for “technical rights management.” The various Pinion applications, say company officials, “give you full control over the information—even after it is out of your hands—and let you determine how and to what extent the information will be used.”
In particular, there is Pinion Desktop Packager-Workgroup Edition, a Windows-based application for protecting email messages and file attachments. The packager lets recipients view and work with protected files in the files’ native applications. The permissions attached to a protected file include password protection, whether the file may be printed, a date for when a recipient may first access a secure file, and a Mission Impossible setting—a shred date for when the file self destructs. The packager can also prevent users from cutting, copying, pasting, or otherwise grabbing the contents of a secure file using a screen-capture utility.
In operation, the owner of the content selects which files need protection and assigns each file the applicable in-use permissions. The Pinion Secure File Server holds the files and their corresponding permissions, and, as required, delivers the files to recipients. The recipient then uses the free Pinion Receiver to view and work with “pintected,” that is Pinion-protected, files within the file’s native application, based on the assigned permissions for that file. Content owners can change file permissions any time—even when the files are in use. Supported file formats include Adobe PDF, Autodesk DWF, Bentley DBN, Microsoft Office and Project, SolidWorks eDrawings, and various media file formats. The software operates as a standalone utility or through a plug-in within Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook. The workgroup edition, which includes a five-seat user license, lists for about $5,000. The entry-level version, which protects fewer file formats, lists for about $300.
Conventional free visualization tools typically display 2D and 3D CAD output (drawings and solids models) quite well. For the other Cxx applications—computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) and computer-aided engineering (CAE)—visualization tools are the domain of the respective software vendors. The fact is, sharing CAM and CAE data across application and management disciplines has not been tops in the collaborative lifecycle. As a result, a plethora of CAM and CAE authoring formats exist, along with the plethora of CAD formats, which brings effective communications to a crawl in multi-partner collaborative projects. And while .jpg and .avi files are suitably lightweight file formats for collaboration, they might not contain enough product data for all the collaborators to do their job.
VCollab 2006 is different. This utility from Visual Collaboration Technologies, Inc. (Troy, MI; www.vcollab.com) adds the two other Cxx applications to the mix so that users can view, publish, and extract data across CAD/CAM/CAE environments. VCollab even incorporates bills of material information into these files. VCollab Pro converts CAD, CAM, and CAE file output to a .vcb file. Another application, VMove CAE, converts native CAE (and computational fluid dynamics, CFD) results files to .vcb files. (VMove CAE supports Abaqus, Ansys, LS-DYNA, and MSC Nastran.) These are highly compressed files, so much so that they can load up to 100 times faster than the native file in its authoring application. The .vcb files can be combined within VCollab Pro to generate extensive digital mockups and virtual reality applications, such as animations, fly-throughs, assembly sequences, dynamic sectioning, 3D immersive stereo viewing, as well as view and markups. When it comes to show these results, VCollab Presenter lets users view and manipulate the CAD, CAM, and CAE information using Microsoft Internet Explorer, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Small companies can simply download the software, install it, and create 3D visualizations. In larger companies, VCollab applications are typically implemented alongside a product data management (PDM) or PLM system, or some sort of web archiving/accessing system.