Digital Design: Bridging the digital divide

Monday October 02, 2006
Written by Peter Fretty
Pick up a pen. Have a sip from your coffee mug. Climb into your car, grab the wheel and drive to work. Start up your computer. Lean back and enjoy your ergonomically designed chair. Call your spouse on your cell phone. There’s an increasingly good chance that all of the physical objects that you interact with on a daily basis started out in digital form. A host of new product development, analysis and design engineering tools are transforming the way manufacturers bring products to life. Despite the amazing advances, many visionaries and experts say we are really still only in the infancy of figuring out how to easily and accurately convert digital ideas and concepts into physical products. But as you’ll find out in our feature story, every day, brainy new entrepreneurs, engineers and software developers are taking us one step closer to bridging the digital divide. For designers, a gulf still exists that prevents them from easily and seamlessly converting their ideas into final products. But the gulf is narrowing all the time, and new technologies are part of the answer. Cultural change is another key element that is still missing. Even in the early days of CAD/CAM integration there was a noticeable rift between the manufacturing and design aspects of production-centric organizations. In most instances, it was the manufacturing process component that was the primary area of contention, says Dick Slansky, a senior analyst with the Dedham, Mass.-based ARC Advisory Group. "Fortunately, as Dassault, SolidWorks, Fluent and other industry leaders have matured we have seen continuous movement into an era of complete integration including virtual product and process validation as well as simulated production line processes using existing PLM data," says Slansky. "All of these aspects help in validating the production process without physical investments. Being able to accurately do this has the true ability to change the entire time to market." As promising as the future looks, however, Slansky acknowledges that a divide remains. "There is no question that the two sides still do not connect. Yet, it is not a matter that the tools do not exist. The various vendors are offering very robust tools, but discrete manufacturers need to embrace the components and the two sides need to understand that when working together it is possible to accomplish the goals before them," he says. "This all comes down to the basic aspect that people need to work together to bring a product to market in an efficient and agile manner. Widespread adoption of simulation is what will make this possible." Harnessing the information Jim Heaton, president of Chelsea, Mich.-based KVQuest Ltd. says that throughout the trials of trying to get along, most"product design and manufacturing organizations have tried to maintain some direct control over critical systems. He says this led to situations where significant computer capacity and systems are not being controlled by manufacturing operations. The "digital disconnect" is often more organizational and cultural than issues of vendor / developer focus, explains Heaton. "Investors invest in companies that have products that sell well," he says. "Going after users with real problems but no budget control does not produce software sales. Underserved"markets are usually an indication that the real need does not equate to"a"currently"viable, commercially servable, market there." Robert Axtman, Delmia’s director of worldwide marketing, (part of Dassault Systemes) says the gap is being closed quickly with the advent of tools designed to eliminate the problems caused when engineers "throw stuff over the wall" to manufacturing. "Part of this is the bidirectional data conduit that can pass back and forth so that everyone is looking at the same data at the same time. Interweaved PLM options are also about having one depository of data so that manufacturing can make its changes while design is taking place," says Axtman. "This does not mean that it is possible to eliminate engineering changes, but we can make changes further up in the design where the cost is much lower – something that is crucial to any production environment." Axtman says that closing the divide further will require a business paradigm shift. "There are too many silos that are not connected, and the sequential production mentality needs to change," he says. "Management needs to make a decision to accept this as a means of reducing time to market while improving quality. There needs to be a justifiable ROI that is acceptable." IT STARTS WITH PARTS In the CAD market, led by industry leaders Autodesk, SolidWorks, SolidEdge and PTC’s Pro/Engineer among others, part design has arrived at a point where many of the latest innovations are now incremental. Whether a company produces small components or large assemblies, chances are that the design process started with some version of CAD software. As this technology marketplace matures, 3D solid modeling tools have propelled growth and consolidation as the top vendors wage war over features and functions. In its attempt to change how developers approach the industry, Richardson, Texas-based Alibre Inc. embraced a strategy to offer professional class 3D modeling tools at under $1,000, which the company says puts power in people’s hands who otherwise could not afford these tools. "The technology is not in the hands of many small manufacturers," says Alibre’s CEO Greg Milliken. "As businesses get larger, access is more common, but the broad base is what makes up most manufacturing and they have long been ignored." According to Milliken, the new view of the market is that the Internet is a vehicle for obtaining software. "If anyone can download and try products without making large commitments, this allows more manipulation and discovery without constraints and stipulations," he says. "Easy access is vital to the industry. Put only what people need out there at a reasonable price is what will breach this digital divide. The barriers need to be removed." VALIDATING ANALYSIS TOOLS As simulation becomes more prevalent and works to bridge the gap between design and production, tools offered by companies like Ansys, CosmosWorks and Fluent will continue to drive analysis and design for manufacturing into uncharted waters. In reality, it may be the validation component that truly bridges the gap to close the digital divide. According to Slansky, the most crucial area where validation tools come into play is the simplification of new line design. "For years the major manufacturers worldwide relied on the combined expertise of design engineers and manufacturing engineers to select the right equipment and then put it in place to allow full steam production," says Slansky. The sticking point, however, is that commissioning the actual process development and analysis is been one of the most time consuming and costly undertakings for discrete manufacturers. "Fortunately, simulation has matured to a point where it is possible to accurately accomplish these tasks without going through the process of physical validation." The same philosophies also exist when a company is developing a new product that relies on various components for ultimate success. "The ability to avoid designing component mishaps can also be a major issue, especially in a marketplace where component design and production is commonly outsourced," says Slansky. "Being able to ascertain compatibility before physically making a part improves the outcome. However, at least in this arena, a key component to making sure that this all works deals with the ability to embrace the various collaboration tools." IMPORTANCE OF DATA As the two sides come together, all parties will rely heavily on the data that holds everything together. Understanding how to deal with,"manage, reuse and preserve all of the digital data that comes from each end could serve as a key indicator as the digital development movement continues to mature. Kevin Prendeville, is a product development practice manager with the New York, NY-based Accenture consulting firm. Prendeville says the biggest problem facing full integration of the data sector is a fundamental fragmentation that also contributes to slower product development and launch schedules. "The translation is too fragmented from customer requirements to technical requirements to solutions to testing solutions," he says. "When, in fact, this should be the driver so that people know when they are done." Prendeville says that there needs to be a single source of data that supports the entire process from requirement to launch. "Fragmentation creates extreme difficulties that are not impossible to overcome but it means that you need to go beyond the technologies and actually adopt processes that work," he says. One frustrating trend that Prendeville sees is that even the more progressive companies have numerous tools that support all the process, yet they still put the data into silos. "There is a need for the industry as a whole to provide better reporting so that it is possible to make solid business decisions based on all of the information." Digital development tools are robust and getting better all the time, but the business processes still need to catch up. Peter Fretty is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Advanced Manufacturing. You can reach him at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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