There’s been plenty of consolidation in the design tool industry during the past couple years, but that hasn’t decreased the number of software programs used by engineers who develop large, complex products.
“I’d guess we’ve got 50 to 100 different tools with all the different versions,” says Ram Bhandarkar, safety and CAE process supervisor at Chrysler.
This diversity permeates down to fairly specialized areas. “In aerodynamics and thermal analysis, we’ve got seven or eight major tools. Engine cooling, climate control, air-fuel mixtures and intake all use specialized tools, then when we do system analysis, we use a totally different set of tools,” says Richard Sun, senior manager, Aero Thermal Development and core CFD group at Chrysler.
Though this diversity means engineers can get tools well-suited to whatever task they’re doing, it poses a challenge when they want to share data with engineers in other departments. In the CAD world, data formats and compatibility are not terms that fit together.
“There is an increasing amount of pain associated with interoperability,” says Mike Campbell, PTC vice president of product management, MCAD Solutions.
A survey of Kubotek USA customers found that translator issues are a key problem for engineers at the likes of Chrysler who create 3D CAD models with one program, then move them to other CAD systems.
CAD tool providers are addressing this issue in part by providing a broad suite of tools that allows engineers to stay in a compatible environment for many tasks. The list of acquisitions in the CAD world is long, and it’s driven in part by this focus on data mobility. “Data compatibility was absolutely part of why Autodesk acquired Alias,” says Richard Jones, vice president for Autodesk’s Alias Design Products, based in San Rafael, CA. Alias is a suite of design tools that covers product development from basic concepts through to production lines.
While using compatible tools helps, it’s definitely not a total solution. Users note there are any number of issues that can derail attempts to provide compatibility. “If we have 100 parts with six degrees of freedom, that’s 600 things we need to look at. If one group sets them up a certain way and their order is different than the group they’re sharing with, we need to write a translator,” says Gene Lukianov, manager, Core Vehicle Dynamics analysis at Chrysler.
That underscores the human element, important for companies wanting to get the most out of their technology investments. The processes engineers and others use when they’re developing products play a key role in productivity.
Coming up with an approach that addresses corporate, technical and human factors is not an easy job. But it’s something companies feel is worth addressing. “We’ve worked diligently for 10 years to commonize pre-processing and post-processing of tools,” says Chrysler’s Sun.
Software vendors are making compatibility a key issue. There are a number of different techniques for moving data from one program to another. One approach is to make sure it’s easy for engineers to know whether they are working with the right version of a file.
“Our tools make it obvious which version is the latest, and they make sure people don’t work on a file for a couple days without logging it in,” says David Taylor, vice president of automotive industry marketing at UGS.
Even companies that don’t provide CAD tools are jumping into the act. ThomasNet provides component information, but wants designers to think of it as a place to get data that works with any CAD tool.
“Component suppliers would normally send, say, a SolidWorks file. Instead, we create CAD models with an online technology that assures the files can go into any CAD system,” says Peter Mooney, CAD Solutions product manager for ThomasNet.
This type of incompatibility is often solved by standardization. There are some standards in tools for the electronics’ industry, but that’s partly because electronics has a smaller number of parameters than the broader world of mechanical design. Thermal analysis tools have little in common with software used to create bushings, for example.
Though standards bodies have made some headway with the Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES) and Standard for the Exchange of Product Model Data (STEP), there’s not a lot of hope that CAD standards will bring big benefits found in other high-tech fields. Some observers say even if useful standards did emerge, they might not get strong support. “People do use IGES and STEP, but most people want native translations so they know what they’re getting and there’s less chance of losing something,” Autodesk’s Jones says.
Though there’s a strong focus on making sure not one bit of data is lost, vendors note it’s sometimes important to reduce processing requirements by eliminating unnecessary portions of a file. For example, designers and engineers checking for collisions between moving parts or looking at surfaces don’t need a lot of information that’s embedded in CAD files.
Those who focus on geometries and visual aspects like the fit of a car door don’t usually need the feature tree that explains how the part is built, for example. “We try to put a lot of this in a lighter weight mode to keep the size of the files down. Depending on what type of part they’re looking at, that can reduce memory requirements from 10 to 80 percent,” says Fielder Hiss, director of product management at SolidWorks Corp. of Concord, MA.