Design of the times

The future of CAD/CAM is inseparably linked to the future of the rest of the business world.

Manufacturers continue to look for ways to squeeze more efficiency out of their production facilities.

The search for flexibility, quicker time-to-market, compressed planning cycles and enhanced supply chain planning has led to the examination of every aspect of a business’s activities, not least the link between the design office and production. In this environment, the future of CAD/CAM is inseparably linked to the future of the rest of the business world. No longer can either engineering or manufacturing remain outside the company’s main dataflow.

Indeed, recent changes have led some to argue that the CAD market is not only mature, but that the evolution of what used to be the CAD business into an ‘engineering applications’ business is well under way.

The recent purchase by IT services company EDS of SDRC – which is to be merged with EDS’s own UGS division – is seen as a distinct move in this direction.

‘In the past 24 months, we have seen the start of a network-based revolution in the way products are designed, developed and manufactured,’ says Dick Brown, EDS chairman and CEO.

‘UGS has given us a window on this change – and on the emergence of product-lifecycle management where digitised information is shared instantly and globally.’

Fast communication

Providers today are concentrating on ways of enabling the accurate and fast communication of design information between departments and to outside partners and suppliers. This is part of the move towards enterprise-wide manufacturing solutions, also referred to as collaborative product development (CPD).

The problem is that standardised data formats such as STEP have failed to live up to their early promise, with low uptake among providers. ‘The Holy Grail — the ability to exchange data between disparate systems – is still a long way off,’ says Nick Ballard, senior consultant at Cambashi.

For many years, CAD was the specialist province of the design department, in many ways isolated from the wider IT policy of the company. However, in a mature market, the barriers are coming down. It is no longer acceptable to continue down the old proprietary CAD road, and industry commentators believe that the drive towards collaborative working will see the further erosion of the old monolithic proprietary CAD empires.

Also, in an environment where six times as many non-specialists review designs as those originating them, there is a huge demand for generic ‘view and mark-up’ systems able to work across different CAD systems – and outside the design office.

While such developments are technical issues, the cultural question of passive resistance to change will also have to be addressed. A spokesman for Ford Motors, speaking at a recent international conference, described his company’s experience in overcoming the barriers to using collaboration tools as ‘80% to do with people and 20% with the technology’.

Developments in the CAM sector have mirrored changes seen elsewhere.In the past, data was often transferred from design office to manufacturing in a neutral-format IGES file, with the associated opportunities for translation errors and the difficulties of logging any changes made.

Over the past five years, the means of transferring purely geometrical data has improved. However, much of the associated information linked to the CAD-generated model is still difficult to access. ‘Geometry is one thing, but its value is less if the associated process, manufacturing or design information is not passed on too,’ says Ballard. Ensuring the transfer of this associated information is the next challenge.

The third-party CAM systems coming onto the market today are fully integrated with mid-range CAD solid modellers, such as SolidWorks and Solid Edge. They can read and interrogate data using the original CAD database, thus maintaining the integrity of the solid model.

‘CAM systems should not have their own database; they should be able to perform on other people’s data,’ says Brian Steatham, Pathtrace managing director. He reckons that integration is the way forward. ‘The functionality of the mini-CAD systems formerly built into CAM systems to create the geometry was miniscule compared to the modelling tools of mainstream CAD systems. Now we are using these.’

Cooperation with leading CAD vendors is allowing users to choose ‘best of breed’ CAM systems to suit their operations. For example, Pathtrace has recently integrated EdgeCAM with PTC’s Granite product, and can now take Pro Engineer and Pro Desktop models through to manufacture. Other CAD vendors like Unigraphics and IBM/Dassault are following suit.

Modern CAM systems incorporate increased ‘automatic feature recognition’ which matches machining cycles to features such as drill holes, and the like. Automated machining is also coming to the market, with systems which recognise manufacturing features and ‘suggest’ ways of making the product. These can cut lead times dramatically, generating tool paths which take account of the tooling available and the features of the component.

These advances go hand-in-hand with general developments such as high-speed and five-axis machining.

Virtual manufacturing

An up-and-coming customer requirement is for virtual reality simulations of machine tooling in operation. ‘People are increasingly wanting to see almost the complete manufacturing process before switching on their real machine tools,’ says Steatham. Peter Dickin, marketing manager at Delcam, says that the precision of most design packages is far in advance of machining accuracies. Such anomalies must be taken into account in the design-for-manufacture phase, where the original design file is taken and turned into something easy and cost-effective to make. ‘Designing to a higher tolerance than can be made is an irrelevance,’ he says.

As in many walks of life, the internet is forcing the pace of change, with languages such as the eXtensible Mark-up Language, or XML, and Delete, from Bentley Systems, allowing the simple, accurate exchange of data between applications.

Ironically, the better the exchange of data is handled by conduits such as XML, the less demand there will be for standardised data formats such as STEP. ‘The many data translation sources undermine the need for standardisation,’ says Dickin.

This is good news for sub-contractors down the supply chain who find themselves under pressure to adopt the same systems as their clients. Of course, the further down the chain you go, the less the effects of collaborative engineering are felt as, on the whole, less sophisticated technologies are employed by smaller companies.

One industry seeking to overcome these problems is the automotive sector where Ford, DaimlerChrysler and General Motors have built an automotive-manufacturing-industry supply chain and B2B exchange portal called Covisint. This is a central hub where car makers and suppliers of all sizes come together to do business using the same tools and interfaces. ‘Covisint Collaboration’ is designed to eliminate friction caused by the use of dissimilar collaboration tools among trading partners.

However, it is important to realise that the internet is just a way of communicating data faster: ‘Any impact beyond that is down to the company and the people in it,’ says Dickin.

Many argue that, in order to enjoy the benefits of collaboration, you only need to use the technology you have, not invest in continual upgrading.

The real challenge

According to Ballard, the benefits of one CAD/CAM system over another are outweighed by the time it takes to get ideas to market. He argues that saving hours or days using the latest software is meaningless if it takes 30 days for a subcontractor to produce a product. With technology squeezed to a reasonable degree, you have to find savings somewhere else.

‘It is important to improve the process leading to the making of a product rather than the tools used – the challenge is to improve the way a design goes through your organisation. You have to solve the problem of getting people to work together – technology is not going to do it for you.’

Steatham says it is an educational process, and that developments in technology only help it along: ‘People need solutions. CAM is part of the overall manufacturing solution – and should always have been – but people have not always been prepared to talk to each other.

‘However, the trend towards ‘plug and play’ systems is actually leading the way towards more integrated manufacturing, so technology remains critical if we are to achieve our goals.’