This article reviews computer-aided engineering software that is used to boost productivity ranges from computer-aided design (CAD) systems to product data management and visualization systems. MacDon Industries used a Solid Edge product to merge CAD and product data management (PDM) systems to give engineers easy access to already created designs. MacDon tracks its tens of thousands of part designs by use of Solid Edge so engineers do not have to spend considerable time searching for the designs. Bayside Automation of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, which makes automated assembly systems on which fuse boxes, valves, and the like are made, has discovered another area where technology—in this case, simulation software—can cut costs and increase productivity. CAD and PDM software from Alibre of Richardson, Texas, help the supplier and manufacturer pass translated design information back and forth quickly.


To talk about how a software upgrade or a switch from two-dimensional to three-dimensional computer-aided design software can increase productivity is so common nowadays as to be cliche. But like most cliches, it’s that way for a reason.


In case after case, engineering companies report that software implementation slashed design cycle time, sped production, or helped a supplier close on a contract. The computer-aided engineering software used to boost productivity ranges from CAD systems to product data management and visualization systems. Even less glamorous implementations, such as an accounting or spreadsheet program, can bring about an incremental increase in what’s loosely called productivity—that is, making a product faster or to tighter specifications than previously possible.

Manufacturers invariably are called upon to shorten the design cycle and, at the same time, to design complex products to catch consumers’ eyes. They must also get new products to market quickly to beat the competition.

The supplier network is becoming more distributed, as well. Suppliers must constantly be in contact with original equipment manufacturers and apprise them about part progress. Designs and information are passed with frequency between manufacturer and supplier. No wonder companies are calling in technology to help with these upgraded tasks.

“With the dot-com explosion diminishing, the chaff has gone out of the software industry, if you will,” said Gregory Milliken, vice president of marketing at Alibre in Richardson, Texas, which makes CAD and PDM software accessed via the Web. “What’s left is the need to maintain quality and productivity while cutting costs.”

One way for large manufacturers to do this, Milliken maintains, is to find a way to maximize the supply chain. That simply means having easier and cheaper access to suppliers’ technology in order to move designs and ideas back and forth. Perhaps suppliers and manufacturers could use CAD and PDM systems that speak to each other easily, thereby easing the need to interpret one another’s data by hand. Alibre makes a product that aims to do this.

“We focus on heavy manufacturing because these companies are typically building complex projects through a diversified supply chain, not putting out a different simple design every six months,” Milliken said. “The heavy manufacturers have a longer product development time and multiple tiers of suppliers they need to be in contact with.” Take the example of FMI in Wichita, Kan. It makes components for manufacturers in the aerospace industry, including Boeing and Cessna. Both customers use a wide, far-flung supplier chain. Delivery and production are often complicated by the variety of CAD systems used by Boeing, Cessna, and the other manufacturers that FMI supplies. The company obviously cannot have on hand and be ready to use every CAD system in place at the OEMs.

To get around that difficulty, the customer usually creates and ships to FMI 2-D drawings that tell the company how the parts are to be designed, said J.D. Sizemore, director of machining for FMI. Employees at FMI then manually recreate the 3-D data included in the 2-D drawings in order to program the numerically controlled machines that create the part.

Sometimes, however, the 2-D drawings are ambiguous, so FMI engineers must spend time interpreting the drawings and checking back with engineers at the OEM, Sizemore said. Also, when FMI engineers reinterpret the drawings, they can introduce error or let an error slip by undetected when they recreate a part or assembly. The process of recreating 2D drawings in 3-D usually takes around six weeks, although it sometimes takes months, Sizemore said. And simple translation errors waste money and time.


“What happens if our design engineers transpose two numbers in that process?” Sizemore said, speaking about an expensive casting FMI makes for one of its OEMs. “Think of how hidden that impending error is. We may not find out about it until we actually start machining the part. Each of these castings costs $8,000, so one mistake like that not only costs the loss of the accumulated labor, but the $8,000 casting as well.”

To keep mistakes like that from happening, FMI recently implemented the Alibre CAD technology, which includes capabilities common to a PDM system. A manufacturer might not use the Alibre system when designing the part, but the engineers at FMI now use the standard for the exchange of product model data, or STEP, to translate into the Alibre system. The process is much more accurate than translating 2-D to 3-D, Sizemore said. FMI engineers open the translated CAD program and export the 3-D data to NC software, which means the company is cutting metal almost immediately, without the six-week delay it experienced before.

“The big payoff is the quality of the part produced,” Sizemore said. “We work directly with verified data from our customer and don’t have to worry about accurately interpreting drawings.”

A greatly reduced cycle time translates directly into cost savings, both for FMI and the OEM.

Simulated Factory Run

Bayside Automation of Canonsburg, Pa., which makes automated assembly systems on which fuse boxes, valves, and the like are made, has discovered another area where technology—in this case, simulation software—can cut costs and increase productivity. By depicting an animated representation of a potential fine in use, simulation technology is able to show engineers and potential customers exactly how that line would perform, said Charles B. Nesbitt, a P.E. who is senior controls engineer at Bayside. Bayside ensures that its customers will get the most productive line possible by determining how a line is best laid out for maximum production.

“Simulation software helps us evaluate the system we’re providing for customers and helps us show it to them,” Nesbitt said. With increasing frequency, customers request that Bayside come to them with a computer simulation of the system before building it for them. The graphical representation helps OEM buyers sell the Bayside proposal to their higher-ups, he said.

But the software is used in other ways as well. “It’s important for the customer to buy the correct amount of automation,” Nesbitt said. “We don’t want to sell them more or less than they need. Sometimes it’s easier and more cost effective to do a manual assembly rather than an automated assembly, and the simulation will tell you that.

“Our customer will tell us, ‘We need X number of parts per year. What kind of system would you give us to do this?’ ” Nesbitt said. “This is where simulation determines the amount of time needed to put the part together. In the end, it can tell us exactly the amount of automation needed. If production doubles in a year from now, we can look again at the simulation to see how to upgrade the system to allow for that.”

His engineers like the software because it allows them to run what-if scenarios; that is, the software projects the difference in line productivity of, say, placing a robot in one particular spot rather than another. The simulation runs both scenarios and finds the outcome. The company uses simulation technology called AutoMod from Brooks Automation of Chelmsford, Mass., and products from Silma of San Jose, Calif.

Nesbitt has been at the company 16 years and, although Bayside has used simulation technology the entire time, it’s not used for every project, he said. The company charges extra for the modeling and projection capabilities. But during his tenure, Nesbitt has seen requests for the technology increase greatly.

“Now, about 50 percent of customers request some level of simulation. We can do a proposal without, but it makes the whole thing a lot easier,” he said.

Like FMI, MacDon Industries in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which makes harvesting machines like tractors, mowers, and bailers, has turned to a combined CAD and PDM system for maximum productivity. MacDon makes 12 lines of harvesting machines. That comes to 50 different products, each of which contains as many as 3,000 parts.

The 3,000 parts per machine generate, by necessity, a huge amount of design data that sometimes overwhelmed MacDon engineers. They had trouble finding a design or determining where it was in the production process or locating the original engineer charged with product design. Many companies with large part libraries face a similar problem. MacDon uses a CAD program from Solid Edge of Huntsville, Ala.


Because of the sheer number of part designs at the company and the variations in size and configurations, engineers were wasting a lot of time searching for designs, recreating the ones they couldn’t find, and fixing errors in outdated files.

“What we’d found through experience is that if you leave file organization up to individuals, short cuts are taken and the entire system becomes very difficult to manage,” said Jon Cook, engineering information manager. “This is exponential with the number of people creating and editing information.”

How could the company efficiently manage the large amount of design data being generated by the engineering group, Cook asked.

The company debated either buying a new PDM program for the 32-person CAD design team or building a custom program. The short-term answer was a custom program, which ensured that engineers create and save design data in a standard way.

But that system didn’t meet all the company’s needs, Cook said. He estimated that implementing a PDM system for MacDon would cost more than $250,000 for the software alone, not figuring training and implementation costs. Hiring a custom programmer to create an extensive program just for MacDon would, in Cook’s term, reinvent the wheel. Such a solution would mirror the custom PDM system already in place and couldn’t add necessary functions, such as the capability for engineers to check files in and out of the central computer server or record product assembly structures in a common database, which would allow other engineers to see where and how the designs had been used.

However, managers at MacDon had determined that implementing a PDM system would result in such cost savings that the company could no longer get by on its current custom system.

Without a system of managing design data, MacDon would be much less productive and recognize fewer cost savings than it could by implementing a standardized program. Designers desperately needed easy access to common parts used in multiple products and configurations.

CAD and PDM Merge

The solution came when MacDon volunteered to test a new technology called Solid Edge Insight, also from Solid Edge, which merges CAD and PDM functions. Cook approved the technology because, he said, engineers using their usual CAD program could easily learn the new system and, in fact, would barely notice its existence. Each time a design is created in the CAD system it is automatically stored correctly in the attendant PDM system. Engineers don’t have to spend extra time storing files.

“We removed the burden on the engineer to learn and implement what historically has been a complex, separate system,” Cook said. “Second, we significantly increased the individual’s design productivity.”

For example, with the system, engineers don’t spend significant time searching files for the design they want, which was a problem with the custom system, Cook said. This time can be spent on design.

“Searching our file system took so long that many users didn’t do it; they recreated work that had already been done,” Cook said. He estimated that when an engineer recreated the missing part, he had one chance in three of getting the orientation correct and had little chance of getting the surfaces to match. That caused assemblies made with the part to fail.

“With 32 CAD users doing that, I think they probably spent at least 5 to 10 percent of their day, if not more, fixing file management problems,” Cook said.

Though many aspects of increased productivity brought about by the new PDM system can be measured or projected—such as the time saved by doing away with the need to recreate files—other productivity benefits can’t be quantified in exact terms. Those benefits will accrue as engineers continue using the program and as more parts are stored in the system. The ability to view and find CAD models will now be consistent and standardized across the company, which saves a great deal of time and cost.

According to software companies, the FMI, Bayside, and MacDon stories are applicable to a wide engineering audience. Productivity gains come in different ways, perhaps some that aren’t immediately apparent or quantifiable, or that take years to funnel through the system after a new technology is implemented. Making an engineer’s job easier, for instance, often helps to cut the product design cycle.

Each software system works differently to exhibit productivity gains, and merging several of those systems cuts costs and design time and raises production even more.