Knowledge is power

It has been said that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Whoever coined the saying could not have imagined that computers would one day become the repository of all knowledge. Taken out of human hands into the safety of an organised and bottomless electronic treasure chest, a very great volume of knowledge can […]

It has been said that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Whoever coined the saying could not have imagined that computers would one day become the repository of all knowledge. Taken out of human hands into the safety of an organised and bottomless electronic treasure chest, a very great volume of knowledge can become a very good thing indeed.

The latest design tools, often referred to as knowledge-based engineering (KBE), enable an organisation to harness its knowledge base and automate aspects of product development from concept to production. While such tools have formerly been limited to use by large companies in the automotive and aerospace sectors because of their cost, PC-based KBE is starting to become available. Interest from smaller companies is enormous.

The foundry industry is one potential application area. Many of the techniques and processes used in this sector are not fully defined. Also, because the industry is failing to recruit and train new apprentices to the same levels as before, it is in danger of losing its ‘knowledge’.

This is the view of Dr Clive Bancroft, who is leading a pan-European project at Coventry University’s KBE Centre to help the foundry industry develop the skill base necessary to support the adoption of KBE.

‘We are mainly working with small companies, helping them to avoid the loss of ‘black-art’ techniques as people retire, but also to use KBE to automate routine tasks to improve competitiveness,’ says Bancroft.

Projects under way will tackle the automation of tasks such as costing, the design of tools, the selection of tools, the design of products and product configuration.

Car companies are also concerned about the loss of skills. ‘Automotive engineering is a complex subject and skills are difficult to retain,’ says Tony Harper, Jaguar Cars’ main engineer responsible for KBE.

Jaguar has applied the ICAD tool for knowledge-based engineering since 1989. ‘It was a way to embed our knowledge into a system and distribute it so that lead times could be significantly reduced,’ he says.

The Unix-based ICAD system, from Knowledge Technologies International (KTI), uses an object-oriented engineering application environment. Its generative technology allows companies to create product definitions that incorporate the intuitive knowledge and the experience of designers and engineers.

These ‘virtual product’ models can be used over and over again to rapidly conceptualise and build new designs. KTI claims that, using ICAD, companies can reduce time spent on routine design work, freeing up designers for more creative thinking.

‘If you design a windscreen wiper in a typical CAD/CAM environment, it takes about 3 weeks because of the numerous parameters relating to the car design that have to be taken into consideration. Each additional design repetition then takes another three weeks. Using KBE, it may take 3 weeks to write the initial program, but once that is completed, each repetition takes only three minutes,’ explains Gareth Evans, chief executive of KTI.

British Aerospace reports that the automation of design procedures through the application of ICAD is giving order-of-magnitude improvements in time spent on conceptual design. In one new aircraft project, says Steve Allwright, engineering technologist, the company had time to create 67 different nose shapes. Previously it would only have looked at two because of the four or five weeks taken for each one.

At Jaguar, the advantages of KBE are many and varied. ‘One benefit is that every time you create a new design, that design obeys the rules, because it was created by the rules,’ according to Tony Harper.

Another advantage is consistency of design. ‘If you put two designers side-by-side, they’ll create two different designs, and the manufacturability of those designs will depend on how much each designer knows about manufacturing. With ICAD, we obtain 10 designs, all having first-time run capability.’

Overall, KBE technology offers the car industry the potential to reduce product development time by more than half, Evans claims. Automotive companies are, however, far from achieving this. ‘Car makers use KBE to less than 5% of its potential,’ he estimates, adding that ‘KBE is non-existent in Japan and Korea.’

But KBE acceptance is growing. Evans believes that, as conventional computer design aids reach the limit of their potential, growth in the KBE market will take off, ‘We have seen revolutions in electronic product definition, PDM and parametric design. We are about to see a massive expansion in the KBE market,’ says Evans.

At Coventry University’s KBE Centre, interest from smaller companies is also rising sharply. ‘KBE application is going to mushroom,’ says Bancroft. ‘Companies see it as a means of improving quality, increasing customer satisfaction and reducing their vulnerability to knowledge-holders.’

The arrival of low-cost KBE tools is certainly bringing the technology into the domain of the small company. The US-developed KBE tool Intent runs on any PC capable of running AutoCAD and costs less than $5,000 (£3,000) for the development system, with run-time systems starting at around $1,500.

‘We see KBE as a tool that should be in the hands of virtually every engineer and salesman, and have priced it accordingly,’ says Scott Heide, whose Massachusetts-based company Heide Corp developed Intent. The company is seeking a distributor in the UK.

Unlike ICAD, which is a stand-alone package, Intent is integrated with AutoCAD. This means that for companies already using AutoCAD, such as those in the architectural sector and small industrial equipment manufacturers, the Intent user-interface is familiar.

It also means that the interactive environment is highly developed, says Heide. To broaden its market, Intent products will be further developed over the next year or two to include other major CAD packages such as Pro/Engineer or I-deas. ‘This will depend on customer demand,’ he adds.

Today, the KBE market stands at about $30m, says KTI’s Gareth Evans, who reckons that the automotive and aerospace sectors account for about 85% of it. He predicts a growth rate of 20 40% a year over the next two years. ‘The growth rate will start to accelerate as the benefits become more widely recognised, and costs come down,’ he suggests. He is hopeful that in five years, the market will reach $0.5bn, and $1 1.5bn in ten years.

British Aerospace: pioneering KBE

British Aerospace Airbus is one of the pioneering users of knowledge-based engineering in the UK. Having first introduced the ICAD software seven years ago, the company’s first KBE-designed parts to ‘fly’ were in the fuel system.

More recently, BAe has applied the technology to the design of wing boxes for the A340-500 and 600 aircraft. Today, the ICAD tool is being applied in conjunction with CAD and specialist analysis tools as part of an initiative called Airbus concurrent engineering.

This programme aims to establish greatly improved multi-discipline engineering capabilities, to cut design and engineering costs by 50% and timescales by 30%, says engineering technologist Steve Allwright.

Jaguar Cars: 18 ICAD applications

Jaguar Cars, one of the first car companies to adopt the ICAD software, now uses the KBE tool routinely on new car design and has developed 18 ICAD applications. Each application takes about six months to establish, according to Jaguar’s Tony Harper.

One of the most successful applications so far relates to headlamp design. The traditional practice was to record digitised surface data from a life-size clay model of the new car. This would then be translated into a CAD model and sent to a headlamp supplier, who would perform a feasibility test on it. The design of the vehicle would then be altered to accommodate the headlamp.

This feasibility test took up to two months and would have to be repeated at three different phases during the vehicle design cycle: concept stage, styling stage and detailed design stage.

Using ICAD, Jaguar has now captured the rules governing lamp feasibility in a computer model so that the assessment of designs can be carried out rapidly and without the supplier’s direct involvement. This model contains information about the capabilities of its headlamp suppliers with respect to design, manufacturing and costing.

It enables Jaguar designers to custom-configure the headlamp supplier’s lighting assembly during the concept styling and concurrently resolve form, fit and functional issues.

As a result, each design repetition takes only a day. The headlamp suppliers have provided the data for the model and it is their responsibility to maintain it.