Creative revival

As companies are focusing more of their resources on developing their products, new CAD software is opening opportunities for designers. David Fowler reports.

ARE recent advances in CAD technology a threat or a benefit to design engineers? IT experts believe that the latest CAD capabilities are more likely to free designers from repetitive work so they can be more creative.

It marks a trend by manufacturers to put products back at the centre of their efforts. After a period in which they sought greater profitability through large IT infrastructure projects such as ERP, the pendulum is swinging back.

‘There’s a revolution going on in the way products are designed, used and serviced,’ said Nigel Rodliffe, Northern Europe marketing director of CAD vendor PTC. ‘People are coming back to the view that in manufacturing, the most successful strategy for growth and creating value comes from great products.’

Companies can achieve this by pursuing a range of strategies, but underlying them all is the idea of generating more revenue from the life-cycle of the product. Increasing innovation, getting new products to market faster, and allowing more opportunities for custom-isation all allow the maker to charge premium prices, while taking on responsibility for keeping the product running generates revenue throughout the product’s life.

This is making new demands on designers and bringing dramatic changes in the way products are designed. If manufacturers are to be responsible for servicing and maintenance, they want to be sure the associated costs are kept to a minimum. ‘The product cost is a very small fraction of the lifetime cost,’ said EDS PLM Solutions’ European marketing vice-president David Punter. ‘There is more onus on the designer to ensure quality is high, and to use simulation to reduce life-cycle costs, for example through maintenance planning, to ensure servicing costs are not excessive.

‘There is also a growing need to share design data more widely, bringing in functions not traditionally associated with design. All this makes new demands on CAD suppliers. Software packages are being transformed as they get to grips with improving group, rather than individual, productivity.

‘On the whole CAD packages have not kept up with group productivity issues,’ said Mike Evans, chief executive of IT consultant Cambashi. ‘Today a lot of design engineering takes place outside the office, which means that not only is the team more widely distributed geographically, its members are not all in the same company.’

To keep pace with this development PTC is next month releasing the latest version of its ProEngineer CAD package, Wildfire. In a radical revamp it has been re-invented with web-based collaboration as a central feature.

PTC says it has simplified the user interface to make the package easy to use, while reducing file size to make saving quicker. Among new features is the ability to run design reviews over the internet, by sending only changes rather than the whole 3D model. But the most significant feature is that Wildfire is contained in a web-browser interface, so that the designer can search the web, look up product details and even download 3D component models into his or her design without having to exit the CAD package.

Wildfire integrates with PTC’s collaboration and control packages ProjectLink and PDMLink to create what it claims is the first integrated project development platform.

Punter said that customisation is one of the keys to being able to chargepremium prices and also to earn more revenue during the life of the product. Customisation can also continue through its life, he said. for example, you could contact the owner of a mountain bike to say new carbon fibre forks are available, and ask if he wants to upgrade.

EDS PLM Solutions, which has absorbed the leading CAD packages Unigraphics and SDRC, and PTC’s offerings allow customisation of existing designs with no extra input from the designer.

EDS’s software means product variants can be created in its product definition management system, Teamcenter Engineering, with all the CAD done automatically. ‘The tie-up between Teamcenter and Unigraphics is so tight you don’t need to go into CAD – you can drive it from the bill of materials,’ says Punter. This means a salesperson could devise a custom variant in collaboration with the client, knowing it will be buildable.

An example of this is Lucy Switchgear of Oxford which makes medium voltage switches to order. The basic core of each switch is similar but external parts such as connections vary dramatically. Each switch is thus a one-off, with 2,000components. Lucy uses Teamcenter Engineering to search its database of parts and configure products to customer requirements within a short timescale.

In the mid-market, SolidWorks has built up a strong presence by focusing on an easy-to-use 3D modelling package, and has devoted significant attention to collaboration. Its SolidWorks Collaboration Edition combines the basic package with add-ons to provide photo-realistic rendering, animation, and web publishing, plus 3D TeamWorks – its web-based collaboration software. In addition, 3D allows manufacturers to integrate 2D drawing and 3D CAD models into online catalogues.

But the biggest buzz surrounds its eDrawings communications tool, a viewing and publishing software package available as a free download for creating and interpreting drawings in a variety of formats. viewing software is embedded in the actual drawings which can be sent via the web in a compact file. The recipient can then view and rotate the model, mark it up and return it without needing to download a viewer.

In a similar way PTC’s Dynamic DesignLink, for the design-to-order market, allows rules to be set up on a website so that customers can configure their own product on the web and submit it for cost and timing estimates.

This is just the start, however. Many forsee an increasing use of knowledge-based systems, in which engineering experience is captured in the form of rules, allowing the system to undertake designs automatically, with the ability to make trade-offs between competing requirements.

Though the concept has existed for several years, CAD suppliers are now integrating knowledge-based engineering into their packages. EDS was first, embedding the Heide graphics engine within Unigraphics to create Knowledge Fusion ‘tool set’, while last November, Dassault Systemes acquired leading knowledge-based engineering software provider KTI to integrate it with its Catia package.

Alstom Power has used Knowledge Fusion to capture the design process for the ancillary equipment used in on-site installation of its turbines. Design of structural steelwork, piping or ducting is carried out once, captured by Knowledge Fusion and encoded within Unigraphics in the form of easy-to-follow product ‘wizards’ or assistants.

So far from putting designers out of work, the technology is good news, said Punter. ‘There’s a lot we can do to take the boring stuff away, so they can spend more time on innovation and producing premium products.’