To remain competitive, it's imperative for manufacturing firms to embrace knowledge-based engineering (KBE)—the use of software tools and techniques for capturing and reusing intellectual property and product know-how in ways that bring product design into closer harmony with manufacturing, support, finance, procurement, sales, marketing, and other domains.
KBE creates potential opportunities for design engineers functioning as subject matter experts, or as knowledge application authors who use KBE tools. Ken Versprille, product lifecycle management research director at Collaborative Product Development Associates, a consulting firm based in Port Chester, NY, says many companies will choose to employ engineers, rather than software programmers, as knowledge application authors because engineers can converse more readily with subject matter experts.
The secret to a KBE system's success is "manageable consistency," according to Versprille. "Managers look for best practices repeatability to minimize risk," he says. "They can select and document proper procedures, but then a KBE system is needed to ensure those procedures are being followed, and that improvements to processes are communicated effectively."
Three major components of an effective KBE system are objects, rules, and knowledge process modeling. Objects are the facts that must be uncovered about the product and process. Relevant facts may include specific numbers —lengths, widths, weight, etc.—and attribute information, such as material type. Versprille explains that rules are the operations offered by the applications that are being automated. "In a CAD application, for example, a rule could be the creation of a fillet or the placement of a hole form feature. In a CAE application, a rule might be a meshing operation," he says. Knowledge process modeling uses product and process knowledge to put the application's rules together in the proper sequence.
"To transition from facts to knowledge, connections must be made between different sets of information and prior experience," Versprille says, adding that knowledge involves identifying relationships and drawing conclusions. "Implicit knowledge is transformed into explicit knowledge by codifying the steps, whether by classic programming or sketching graphic flowcharts, depending upon the software tool selected."
Versprille sees the deployment of KBE tools as inevitable, but concedes that some design engineers will balk at the idea of using them, believing that templates or rules will impinge upon a designer's creativity. "The intent of KBE, though, is to automate the boring portions of the process or to accelerate the time it takes to use a process," he explains. "The extra time can be used to innovate, or to look at more alternatives."
The more tools a design engineer is capable of using, the better for his or her career, Versprille observes.