World wide working on the Web

Dave Wilson rubs his crystal ball to see how the Web might provide a new tool for designers working in concurrent engineering teams

Concurrent engineering, or simultaneous engineering, aims to speed up the design cycle, enabling products to be brought from design to manufacture faster than ever before. Many of the technologies that will allow this to happen have been widely reported: from integrated CAD and CIM systems that enable a design to be taken from art to part through to rapid prototyping tools that will allow designers to make last minute changes that would otherwise be costly.

All these hardware and software packages will, in the future, be complemented by the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Web will provide faster communications between manufacturers, their customers and the end users who will eventually use the products. As a result, design times will shrink further.

David Bird at CADSI, a vendor of simulation and analysis tools that enable engineers to create software prototypes of their products for testing in a virtual environment, feels that concurrent engineering itself, however, has far more to do with the internal culture of a company than technology or product availability.

Although he believes that the Internet and the Web can help extend the concurrent working environment to other engineers outside the company, he observes that `it would never happen if the OEM hadn’t already addressed the issue of culture change and good concurrent engineering practices internally.’ Conversely, many of Bird’s customers that have outstanding Web connectivity and communications do not practice good concurrent engineering and the engineering process really hasn’t changed much despite lots of hype. `They just have lots of engineers that do their work in a similar manner as before and use the Internet as needed,’ he adds.

Demand for Web based communications will be driven by the designers’ needs to communicate better. The ability to share files, email models, concurrently view model structure and data across the Internet will be inevitable. Helix Design System from Microcadam, for example, allows users to send and retrieve 3D models for Helix Modelling and 2D drawings for Helix Drafting in native formats across the Internet or Intranet. Helix users can also generate data from both products in appropriate industry standard formats for viewing across the web by persons, who have no direct access to Helix. Jack Horgan, a Senior VP at the company says that Microcadam also offers an Internet helper application that allows individuals to dynamically view, markup, perform dimensional measurements, generate cross sectional views, create slide shows and print this data as well as data from other CAD and CAD-related products.

And while use of the Internet can eliminate plotting and mailing of large drawing packs newer technology, like SDRC’s PMI (for Product Manufacturing Information) provide the capability for information like surface finish to be embedded on the solid model and distributed via a VRML file, eliminating the need for 2D drawings as an inspection tool.

Christopher Cheek at SDRC claims that there are two classes of users in engineering companies that will benefit from the Internet: he calls them information producers and information consumers. Information producers, he says, are design engineers (who produce information about the design such as solid models, drawings), manufacturing engineers (who produce tool paths), and test engineers (who produce finite element models or physical prototypes). Information consumers, on the other hand, are shop floor workers or suppliers who consume the data produced by the information producers. Information consumers don’t make changes to the information, but use it to develop shop floor assembly methods and provide visualisation capability for manufactured part inspection. Suppliers, like mould shops, consume the information for purpose of bidding on and building moulds, tool making and inspection. These consumers are on the critical path of the product, thus they need the right data in a timely manner.

Cheek claims that at large discrete manufacturing companies, the information producer to information consumer ratio is as low as 1:3 and as high as 1:100. So for every one design engineer using a CAD product, there are between three to 100 other people who need to view this information. Since consumers don’t produce or modify design information, they shouldn’t be required to interface with a CAD system simply to `look at’ information. Consumers need a “thin” easy-to-use client and that is where the Internet, with its browser and viewer capability, fits the bill.

From the manufacturers’ perspective, the Web has also been used as a conduit to allow them to present all their latest news, technology and product information that design engineers can then access from their desks. Web sites have also been used as a way to let designers easily update their software. At the Autodesk site, for example, the user can purchase around one hundred add-in products, with more being added in the future. In addition, Autodesk, like others, has discussion groups where designers can talk with like minded individuals.

ON-LINE CALCULATIONS

Most vendors of parts now offer technical specifications and drawings of all their products on the Web, so designers need no longer thumb through catalogues or retain CDs. But some vendors, like DZUS Fastener Europe, are going further, featuring other ideas that can be helpful to the design engineer. On the DZUS site is an on-line calculator that gives visitors the ability to generate the length of a stud needed to suit the requirements of their particular application with their selected receptacle.

One problem with the media at the moment is that it tends to build one-to-one relationships, not one-to-many, as is typical in most engineering environments. Design teams specify parts and services from many suppliers, not just a few. Most Web sites, because they are developed by a single vendor, tend to deal just with one particular product or technology. The designer, on the other hand, must deal with many vendors.

It’s likely that new Web based organisations will emerge to solve that problem – they will be set to cater specifically for the needs of a group of manufacturers in a highly specific product area. Imagine, if you will a Web site solely dedicated to the needs of the bearing industry, supported by all the major players in the industry. Here, the designer could perform a search for a product of interest, compare product offerings, as well as order products directly over the Web.

Design engineers have always been faced with the problem of finding a part or locating a supplier. At the present time, to locate a part may still take half an hour on the Web, even if the supplier is known. It may be hours longer if research must be conducted from scratch. Present day search engines work in a rather ad hoc fashion: they know no difference between SKF bearings and a garage selling bearings in Adelaide, Australia.

In the future, however, customised search robots will become more commonplace, even allowing designers to build their own custom newspapers, and perhaps further along, radio and TV channels simply by specifying their areas of interest and allowing Web software robots to locate and then present highly specific topics of Interest to them in a single `Web publication’.

Such virtual Web sites will also address manufacturability issues as well. They will provide designers with details of suppliers who can manufacture a part, and they will characterise the material with which it is to be made too. Designers will be able to download this information from a supplier, and use it as a basis to judge the applicability of an individual material and manufacturing process to their own design.

Today, however, the Internet is still in its infancy. Future technical changes to the technology will allow the Internet to bring more than just data, mail and chat to the designer’s desktop. ADSL and cable modems (see Design Engineering June 1988 p. 21-22) will boost the bandwidth of the Internet to the user by twenty-five times what is available today. Such bandwidth increases will make it more commonplace and effective for designers to take part in virtual conferences on the Internet. Increased bandwidth will also allow developers to share and view models of designs with `virtual customers’ who are also on the Web. Imagine the impact of receiving feedback from thousands of potential customers of a new product prior to its introduction.