Joined-up thinking

Knowledge-based software enables collaboration on product design at all levels, at all stages and in all corners of the globe.

Most mechanical engineering and manufacturing companies accept that to stay ahead of the competition – or even in business – they must strive to achieve two goals: raise their productivity and increase their product innovation.

To achieve this, traditional departmental boundaries must be replaced by efficient interdepartmental interfaces, while customers and suppliers must be included in an extended enterprise. Concurrent collaborative access to design information within a controlled environment is the key.

This move has affected the way software developers approach their task. In the past much of their focus was on helping manufacturers do what they do now, but better.

Today, the focus is not on doing things better but on doing better things. It’s about taking a company’s ‘product intellectual capital’, adding value to it and making it available for use by everybody involved in the product lifecycle, from marketing, through engineering, sales and distribution, to maintenance and support, or disposal. Most importantly, it’s about the improved use of knowledge to automate repetitive tasks, to enable collaboration and to drive innovation.

For years 3D solid modelling-based CAD/CAM systems have enabled companies to define their products digitally – and to some extent their manufacturing processes. These tools were developed to assist engineers in their daily tasks.

Today knowledge-based software is becoming more important to the product development process, with tools being created to capture product and process knowledge so that it is easy to reuse and can predict the behaviour of a product or optimise the design at an early stage. These tools also create ‘smart models’ which add value by helping to drive innovation and to support design collaboration.

There are a number of generic software technologies, including parametric engineering, knowledge-based engineering, process-focused design and manufacturing and design analysis and optimisation. Parametric engineering combines parametric design – feature-based, variational geometry CAD – with knowledge-based capture of geometry and geometric rules. It uses these geometric rules to control design changes throughout very large, complex assemblies, of, for example, cars. This allows top-down control of a product’s development in which many different groups contribute to the design.

Knowledge-based engineering takes this further and allows engineers to capture and structure non-geometric knowledge and rules relating to the product’s design lifecycle and development, and then use it time and again. These rules might relate to manufacturing costs, performance limits or useability qualities and so on, and will be used to arrive at a fully optimised final design.

However, to use this knowledge effectively throughout an enterprise in a collaborative environment requires multiple ‘views’ into the same data, so that each user sees it in the context of his or her responsibility and information needs. It is now possible to collaborate technologically in this way across the world. Using the internet this means real-time screen sharing or CAD collaboration – between systems from the same vendor, between systems based on the same kernel and even between systems from different CAD/CAM or PDM software developers.

This is ‘game-changing’ collaboration. But to make it work requires an appropriate infrastructure, based on an effective product data-management (PDM) system. To be effective, a PDM system needs to address the needs and goals of three distinct audiences: engineers and manufacturing personnel for product development; IT personnel for systems integration issues; and senior executives for collaborative commerce (or c-commerce) initiatives.

For people directly involved in product development a PDM system needs to satisfy three requirements: design management, including CAD data management and component classification; change management, including workflow; and product structure management and visual collaboration.

However, in an extended enterprise the people involved in the product development and manufacturing process may well be dotted around the world. So a PDM system needs to enable a company to share information using its existing infrastructure.One answer is a portal, or single-user interface with which everyone interacts, regardless of his or her role. It can be the foundation for the integration of all applications, or the one point where the disparate data comes together.

Another way of making product information available to all is web-based PDM systems. These make optimal use of the internet or a company’s intranet to bring product information to the user’s desktop via a standard web browser. This approach can be useful for people who don’t create data but simply need to comment on it or approve it.

Once such an infrastructure is in place today’s new software for visual, collaborative working can really make an impact on product development and manufacturing processes. More than ever, success depends on effective communication with the supply chain partners who may be responsible for the majority of a complex product, be it a car, aircraft, washing machine or printing press.

With today’s software, secure, internet-enabled visual collaboration becomes a reality for extended manufacturing enterprises. It provides a group workspace that gives a single, easy-to-use view of critical data from multiple sources and the collaboration tools to manage that data within a PDM-controlled environment.

It also offers 2D and 3D visualisation tools that allow people to share, view and interrogate complex product data, without major investments in 2D or 3D authoring tools, while real-time, interactive conferencing facilities make it possible for people around the world to work with the same data simultaneously.

This can help manufacturers revolutionise the way they bring products to market, by enabling team members, no matter where they are, to participate, ask questions, get answers and make informed decisions. The software also ensures that collaboration continues throughout the product lifecycle by helping to communicate on-the-fly manufacturing changes and improvements to the shop floor quickly and easily, using standard internet technologies.

So while the internet is the medium for this emerging collaborative environment, the digital product model created with today’s knowledge-enabled 3D CAD/CAM/CAE systems remains at its heart.