Verus Grond needs some good collaboration tools—not just for the work performed at his company CAD/CAM-Dienstleistungen GmbH in Hagen, Germany, but also to cut down on miscommunication during design validation. "Some of our customers don't understand how to read a CAD file, and about 10 percent of the time after manufacturing a customer suddenly says, 'That's not what I wanted,'" he says.
Grond's company is not alone. Product design today is a cooperative effort involving remotely located clients and suppliers. Even within a company, product design and purchasing departments admit they need to collaborate better.
The simplest approach is a lightweight viewing client or standard Web browser that allows those involved in product development to view 3D models. Some 3D viewers, such as Actify and Cimmetry, will have over 200 file formats (though only a few will be for CAD). Most CAD applications offer native viewers for their proprietary CAD format.
Visualization tools, such as Centric Software's Innovations, perform more advanced operations like collision detection and can be customized to allow queries of data management systems. Then, there are full-blown PLM systems, such as PTC's Windchill, Dassault Systèmes' ENOVIA 3d com, and EDS PLM Solutions E-vis and TeamCenter.
CAD Collaboration platforms like Alibre and CoCreate allow users to actually change the 3D model during collaboration. OneSpace Collaboration from CoCreate can function as a viewer and offers a CAD authoring module (based on Solid Designer) to modify parts during a session. The user interface sends commands to the server, which holds the CAD tool, enabling changes such as blending, moving features, and adding and removing details. At the end of the session, the administrator can input modifications into the original CAD model.
Leviton, a leading North American producer of electrical and electronic products, already uses CoCreate's Solid Designer as the primary CAD system, so OneSpace Collaboration offered a solution that could be completely integrated into their design process. "During a OneSpace Collaboration meeting, if someone says, 'We need to change the radius of this part,' we just make the change to see its effects while everyone views it in real time," says Harcharan Bagga, director of engineering database administration.
Ken Versprille, research director at D.H. Brown Associates, explains: "The Internet was designed right into Alibre Design, so users get both a basic CAD application and a collaboration tool. But, both users need to have Alibre."
ImpactXoft's IX SpeeD was also specifically designed for Web collaboration. Since the software only sends the instructions for the changes to the model, rather than an updated version of the model itself, real-time communication across a network or the Internet is then possible with connection speeds as low as 28.8 kbps.
Pierre Gerboud, an engineering manager at Schneider Electric, was very impressed with the test project the company ran using ImpactXoft. "We had a demonstration with the server in the US and the two PCs in France connected to the server via their mobile phones," he says. "It's astonishing that this worked."
When picking a visualization technology, a company needs to first define its needs and then map each application's abilities. Schneider Electric is looking for a "sandbox approach" to collaboration. "This specific collaboration space, which is in place only for the duration of this one project, ideally would have secure data sharing, workflow functionality, and traceability on the exchanges of information," Gerboud says. »
The more users want to do with collaboration software, the more the company will need to integrate the software into its business processes and IT systems. Simple viewing usually only requires putting files on a server and accessing them with the viewing application. Versprille points out that any increase in collaboration will mean an increased need for change management.
Companies should perform a general check of IT systems to ensure that users have the right level of computer and good communication lines in place to move the data. Getting data from the PDM system or performing more advanced operations will require IT integration capabilities. Company requirements should include a list of databases and process applications that will need to be accessed from the viewing tool. Firewalls will also need to be negotiated for any external collaboration.