This article discusses that computer-based technologies have greatly influenced the way design engineers work. The first technological innovation was the use of high-powered personal computers. With PCs, engineers had access to high-speed applications of computer-aided design software right at their own desks. Personal computers took the place of rulers and pencils. The second innovation, he said, is the advancing capability of PCs to function as supercomputers, crunching numbers much faster than formerly possible. By taking advantage of this technology, engineers untrained in a mathematical application such as finite element analysis can run an FEA software program that performs calculations automatically and will shave weeks off the design process. Hothouse uses the Spatial technology to repair CAD models brought in from outside sources and to translate CAD files the company sends to its suppliers, collaborators, and clients. Before Hothouse began sending CAD files to the online service, company employees spent days repairing or rebuilding files on their own. Sometimes suppliers or clients that received Hothouse CAD files had to do similar work on their end.
As design cycle time speeds ever faster, the method of design itself continually changes to keep up with the pace. Computer-based technologies have greatly influenced the way design engineers work. But more is on the way, according to Howard Crabb, chief executive officer and president of Interactive Computer Engineering, a Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., engineering consulting company.
When Crabb was in charge of advance engineering at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit—the job he held before turning to consulting—he urged executives to take advantage of three technologies in particular.
The first technological innovation—now well entrenched—was the use of high-powered personal computers. With PCs, engineers had access to high-speed applications of computer-aided-design software right at their own desks. Personal computers took the place of rulers and pencils.
The second innovation, he said, is the advancing capability of PCs to function as supercomputers, crunching numbers much faster than formerly possible. By taking advantage of this technology, engineers untrained in a mathematical application such as finite element analysis can run an FEA software program that performs calculations automatically and will shave weeks off the design process. Previously, the designs had been sent to an FEA professional for analysis, with a turnaround time that was weeks long.
A third change, which came about after the other developments laid the groundwork, Crabb said, is the emerging use of the Internet by engineers, who are increasingly designing in collaboration with partners in far-flung locations.
The Internet is seeing other uses in the engineering industry as well. Some vendors host software on their own servers and, for a fee, offer engineers access to programs via the Internet. This eliminates the need for engineers to pay for the software for longer than they need it. They do not have to download it to their own computers.
Software vendors are functioning as what are called application server providers. That is, the vendor is providing the application, which resides on its server. The engineers are merely accessing the application. They don’t own it or use it under an annually renewed license. Instead, they subscribe to the application, often on a month-by-month or per-use basis.
The benefits of not owning software but of having instant access to its use are myriad, according to Craig Lo-zofsky, manager of business-to-business software at MSC Software in Costa Mesa, Calif. In February, his company introduced e.visualNastran, an Internet-based version of the company’s program, which lets users perform integrated dynamic motion and finite element analysis simulations on design assemblies. Users go to the company’s Web site, where they can subscribe to the software.
At the Web site, they can choose to license the software for a set amount of time. After subscribing, they go to the site each time they want to use the software and click on an icon. That boots up the software and the user’s individual home page, also maintained on the vendor’s server. Though the e.visualNastran software appears to be running on the users’ computers, the screen is framed by the user’s browser because the application is accessed via the Internet.
The engineers subscribe to the software on a month-to-month basis. “It’s billed every month, just the way you subscribe to a cable service,” Lozofsky said.
The ability to buy monthly term licenses cuts costs considerably for engineering companies that may plan to use the program for a short time, Lozofsky said. He envisions many independent engineers or engineering consultants subscribing for the length of one project.
Also, because the application doesn’t reside on the user’s personal computer, it’s not gobbling hard drive and storage space or draining the computer in other ways. In fact, while the software performs its analysis, the engineer can minimize the screen and open an Excel spreadsheet or a word processing program to do other work. The complicated analysis doesn’t slow down other applications or prevent them from running, Lozofsky said.
“We’re trying to give engineers more access to computer power,” he said. “Software is becoming a lot easier to use. This way of providing software has been the holy grail in our industry.”
Simulation software is now being used in all areas of manufacturing and consumer design, Lozofsky pointed out. As the use becomes more common, engineers want greater access to the software, he added.
New analysis capabilities are speeding the pace of design, which, in turn, nudges engineers toward the need for networked capabilities and access to online applications, Crabb said. Engineers no longer need advanced training in finite element analysis, for example. Now, the computer program does the analysis for them, allowing them to analyze while they design.
“They can do FEA and kinematics and a number of simulations of that part very early in the concept stage in order to know whether the part will break or not,” Crabb said. “And when I say do it early, I mean they can do it in 10 to 15 minutes, rather than in two to three weeks. So at the end of the day, they have gone through many design iterations of the part, and they have a design they’re pretty confident will work.
“If you can take something that’s purely a concept and bring it to fruition in one year rather than in three or four, you’ve really got something,” Crabb said.
Another relatively recent advance, the capability to create the design in a mathematical representation called solid modeling, also is pushing the advance of online and networked applications, Crabb added. A computerized solid model provides a crisp, clear view of the product design, suitable for passing to manufacturing engineers and marketers within the engineering company, he said.
“Now you have something—pictures of the design— that you want to communicate to all these different people,” he said. “But how are you going to communicate this? Over the network.”
Many companies will find themselves taking advantage of the Internet or of an intranet, which, when coupled with a firewall or with encryption methods to ensure confidentiality, can act as a private network for company employees to communicate back and forth, or to communicate with vendors, suppliers, and manufacturers.
Solid models use large numbers of bits, which are the smallest units of data in a computer. The sheer number of bits that make up a model slows transmission across a network. But that is changing rapidly as bandwidth grows, Crabb said. When Crabb worked at Ford in the late 1980s, he had a hand in the company’s implementation of a proprietary network that could move information very quickly between computers.
Ford’s network, which doesn’t reside on the Internet, is built for speed. It moves a solid representation of a whole car from computer to computer in less than one second, Crabb said. That speed is coming to everyone, via the Internet, he added. He expects that in the near future, a single fiber will carry voice and data into homes and offices. And the fiber can quickly transmit a huge amount of data.
“Once that capability is widespread, you’ll have the capability to do concurrent engineering,” Crabb said. “Say a part has four different subassemblies. You can have the designer design one of the components in Dearborn, Mich. Say someone in Sweden is designing another component, and the other components are the responsibility of suppliers. Over the network, these people can assemble the parts in the blink of an eye from their various locations.”
Engineers at the different locations will need to run different types of analysis on the assembled part, which also can be done through the network, he added. Depending on the responsibilities of each subassembly designer, one design site may need to simulate part stress, another may need to test the crashworthiness of the product, and a third site might be interested in mold-flow application.
“These sites could take their individual parts and assemble them so they’re all looking at the same thing. Then, each can do a simulation in seconds or minutes,” Crabb said. They could then transmit the results instantly across the Web, so everyone is looking at the same thing.”
Crabb pointed to one software provider, Alibre in Richardson, Texas, which already uses the Internet as its computing platform. By use of Alibre’s Web-based technology, engineers in discrete locations can communicate in real time and take advantage of widening bandwidth to send encrypted data back and forth.
Founded last year, Alibre provides what the company calls a Web-centric three-dimensional mechanical design service. Again, the application doesn’t reside on the engineers personal computers or on their company’s server. The engineer uses the Web to tap into those applications at the Alibre server. Engineers access and use those services just the same way they would pull up any Web page. But unlike a Web page, the Alibre service is interactive; that is, an engineer can actually run the software right at his or her computer.
The company’s founder, J. Paul Grayson, said that an Alibre customer may be a small engineering company reluctant to pay the cost of moving from two-dimensional to three-dimensional design. A small shop may be reluctant to buy 3-D technology because of the cost of initial implementation and training, or because managers may feel upgrades to the technology come so fast that a small shop could never keep abreast of trends, Grayson said.
Alibre users pay a monthly subscription fee for the service. User companies can reduce information technology expenses because they’re no longer buying and maintaining expensive software, Grayson said. The nature of the Web also means that engineers can communicate with each other in real time on the same project, in a cooperative process often called “collaborative engineering.”
Crabb pointed out that engineering companies can use the Web-based technology quickly because they don’t need to buy software or, often, even hardware. Companies usually have Web-enabled personal computers. “They already have the complete infrastructure to allow collaborative engineering,” he said.
Crabb envisions a collaborative engineering environment that takes place entirely over the Web.
“These engineers can work together in real time from distant locations to come up with the best design for assembly,” he said. “Then, after they come up with it, they say, ‘Let’s go and sell it.’ Not only does this engineering environment pull in engineers, but it also pulls in product managers, manufacturing engineers, marketers, and senior management. They all have access to the system.
“The engineers usually have to sell the design to the senior management and this Web capability allows them to do that very easily,” Crabb added. “The managers can see the design in real time and if they ask a what-if question, like what would happen if you changed this geometry, they can run the simulation and see the results of what would happen right on the spot.”
Manufacturing engineers have access to the same online design in order to study up-close how to manufacture the product. They could also ask mechanical engineers questions about the design and could run simulations, if that should be necessary to get a question answered. Some technologies, such as Empower from Tecnomatix of Herzliya, Israel, are geared toward connecting, via the Web, makers of a particular product, even if parts of the products are made in separate locations.
Crabb predicts that the growing Internet bandwidth and a single voice and data fiber will soon let engineers talk and see each other in video images that will appear on one corner of the computer screen. That wiü enable them to guide each other through design images on the screen, as they speak. The technology would resemble the formerly futuristic space-age video phone, only images will appear on the computer screen rather than a screen attached to a telephone.
In December 1999, Alibre announced an alliance with Spatial Technology of Boulder, Colo., another provider of technology via the Internet. Spatial offers computer-aided-design translation and repair services. Spatial is one of several companies seeking to offer economical solutions to the insistent problem of incompatibility among CAD systems. Mechanical Engineering explores the issue and proposed answers in an article, “The Many Flavors of Open,” beginning on page 58 of this issue.
Peter Bessey has used the service since November 1999, shortly after it was introduced. Bessey is a partner at Hothouse Product Development Partners in London. The company designs and consults on industrial and mechanical engineering product design.
Faster Repair Time
Hothouse uses the Spatial technology to repair CAD models brought in from outside sources and to translate CAD files the company sends to its suppliers, collaborators, and clients.
“It reduces or removes the need to spend unprofitable time repairing or modifying imported file data provided by our outside sources,” Bessey said. “In some instances, the technology removes the need to completely rebuild models and it helps us assure our files can be sent without problems attached.”
Before Hothouse began sending CAD files to the online service, company employees spent days repairing or rebuilding files on their own. Sometimes suppliers or clients that received Hothouse CAD files had to do similar work on their end. “The nature of our business makes us a good match for the service because we deal with data files from all kinds of CAD systems and from all levels of modelbuilding experience,” Bessey said.
So far, the company has had one drawback: Because online technology does the repairs, Hothouse can’t learn from the process in order to prevent future flaws of the same type. The company also can’t determine if the geometry remains absolutely as intended after repair. “We feel we can only view the finished repair result,” Bessey said.
Bessey said he was surprised by the pace of upgrades to the service. Bessey’s company pays nothing for these upgrades, although it would have to pay for upgrades to model repair software it purchased outright.
For his part, Crabb is firmly convinced of the rapid pace of movement to networked technologies.
“The network is the future,” he declared. “The enterprise will change fundamentally, and you’ll never work the way you used to.” The time period for this move to complete network-based operations?
“It’ll be here by the end of the decade,” he said.