Computer Aided Engineering means better corporate integration, business process improvements and, ultimately, increased productivity By Chris webb

Asked what is meant by Computer Aided Engineering (CAE), 10 engineers will probably give 10 different answers. The genre is often confused with plant modelling, predictive control and computer integrated manufacture. And if all of this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because C&I has said it before.

CAE is more to do with database and software tools which can smooth the progress of project engineering, from design and development to installation and commissioning, right through to maintenance.

Increasingly, thanks to some of the more recent developments, CAE is also to do with information sharing, a potent software enabler that can redefine a company’s efficiency boundaries. And it is that aspect we will dwell upon here.

Understanding the potential of CAE and implementing sensible systems and procedures can, without doubt, pay considerable dividends, as C&I reported in an earlier look at the subject. The financial return from investment in improved control, we reported then, can be substantially better than that arising from more costly plant modification or modernisation.

Andy Parnell-Hopkinson, of Newbury based Performance Graphics, an ardent advocate of CAE, couldn’t agree more. `Companies that address the issue of multiple access to data reap the benefits of enhanced corporate integration, business process improvements, simplification of engineering procedures and ultimately increased productivity’, he enthuses.

Since the introduction of the latest breed of CAE systems, companies have been able to produce complex screen based models of products which to date have not been available to any other department.

This means databases are accessible by everyone in the company from their own desktop computer. The work of each department can be viewed and used by all other departments including design, manufacturing, quality control, marketing, maintenance and services.

Parnell-Hopkinson uses the point to press home a commercial truism which is costing industry dearly.

`Engineering companies are wasting millions of pounds maintaining CAD software licences in the misguided belief that they need them to access their legacy data’

The licence agreements, he says, each one costing thousands of pounds a year, are in most cases no longer needed because new and inexpensive software is available to make older CAD files usable within more advanced systems.

`One of the most valuable assets of any company is its information database. The information residing in its CAD files represents, in many cases, millions of pounds worth of time, effort, imagination and heartache. Yet for the majority of organisations this information is stored away and made unusable because its only access is via an outmoded CAD package.’

The solution, according to Performance Graphics: its Data Migrator software which allows companies to import foreign CAD data without the need to use the originating CAD package.

CAE is also making an impact on IT system development. The use of computer modelling in various forms is well accepted in a whole range of other engineering disciplines but is not by any means yet standard practice in this area.

ERA Technology has drawn on its background in data communications which applies computer simulation to the task of designing and developing bespoke IT solutions. The technique has expanded from consideration of the IT system alone to include the surrounding business environment because experience has shown that this can have a marked effect on the success of a system.

Simulation and modelling can be used in conjunction with conventional methods to improve the chances of success in IT system design and implementation. Value from the technique can be gained from the very early stages, to make informed design choices when the cost of rectification is still relatively low, through the full system lifecycle for proactive capacity planning.

The Computing Suppliers Federation has just published a 32-page executive guide which underlines the potential benefits of investment in CADCAM design technology. These include not only major financial returns in the design office itself, but considerable help throughout the rest of the organisation. Independent productivity studies confirmed that initial investment in CADCAM can double design office productivity, and that enhancement to three dimensional modelling and analysis can produce paybacks in under two years.

But other benefits were also highlighted, and these arose from a greater involvement of other departments in the design and direct re-use of electronic design data in manufacturing or construction, making the case for CADCAM very compelling indeed.

Project management, as we have said, is an area which is ripe for development in CAE terms. With this very much in mind, Primavera, the PM software developer, recently announced Web Publishing for its Windows based SureTrak Project Manager.

With the capability to deliver project management information over the Internet and intranets, the package is designed to increase the communication and visibility of projects across organisations with the aim, overall, of speeding completion. It has, in other words, the precise goals of generic CAE set in its sights.

The software tool enables user-controlled reporting for project managers, delivering access to assignments, deadlines and project status, and is designed to provide all project participants with a fuller understanding of their relationship to the entire project.

Joel Koppelman, Primavera’s president, explains: `With the growing popularity of the Internet and the use of browsers, a corporate intranet has become the perfect platform for making sure that everyone has access to the most up-to-date project information.

Production management, similarly, is fair game for CAE. Prodac, from Canongate Technology, for example, is a production management decision support system for beverage plants. It gathers, collects, saves and processes data about all aspects of production, sharing vital real time and historical information between managers, line supervisors, quality control managers, schedulers and plant managers in accurate, intuitive displays and reports that are specially designed to their needs.

The system highlights areas that require immediate attention. It compares production, performance, quality control values and yields to predefined standards and to planned quantities, and issues timely warnings when it detects problems.

On a company specific basis, Massey Ferguson, the agricultural tractor manufacturer, is using CAE to shorten engineering cycles and reduce the time to market and associated costs through a £150,000 investment in Electronic Product Definition (EPD) software from Computervision, supplied by Desktop Engineering.

Fundamental to EPD is the ability to electronically generate all the information needed to manufacture a product, and distribute and communicate it throughout the company. Here the PC based seats provide real value. Roger Weyman, director of engineering, takes up the story. `We currently have a 10 seat pilot system, but this will be expanded until everyone in engineering has a system on their desk and runs their business through it. In time all data creators and users will be linked and each individual will be able to make use of the data owned by the company in ways appropriate to their objectives.’