What turned out to be a major shift in design strategy had its inauspicious beginnings at the coffee machine. There was a brow-furrowed conversation between two co-workers, a design manager and an application engineer, about how to tackle an upcoming engineering project. This was not just any project. It was a $24 million, five-year mechatronic modernization of one of the hydraulic locks along part of the St. Lawrence Seaway , one of the 20th century's engineering marvels. As the coffee brewed, the engineer turned to his colleague and said, "What are we going to do?"
Ostensibly, this is the story of Bosch Rexroth Canada, a drive-and-control company that, facing the prospect of losing a multi-million dollar project, made a difficult transition in the use of its chosen development tools, in the face of both employee and corporate resistance.
But it's also a metaphor for the challenges facing most companies in the mechatronics' space when it comes to development tools — the need to find integrated tools in order to improve their time-to-market; the difficulty of moving engineers trained in one discipline into unfamiliar territory and the difficulty of dealing with converting data along multiple phases of the design process.
The story hasn't ended, because Design Manager Jim Lambert and Bosch Rexroth still face challenges, but their journey offers some interesting lessons.
The Answer to the Question
Up until the time of the original bidding on the Seaway project in 2002, Bosch Rexroth solely used 2-D design tools. The problem was that increasing the complexity of equipment was turning the resulting assortment of drawings into what looked like, as Lambert put it, “steel wool on paper.” Anyone outside the engineering department — sometimes including the customers themselves — was having trouble reading the 2-D drawings. “The design intent was getting lost with information overload,” Lambert says. “We live in a 3-D world and it doesn't make sense to give customers three, two-dimensional views and expect them to put it back together in their heads.”
And there was no better time than with the Seaway project. The benefits of working in 3D were clear and with the need for digital prototyping, finite element analysis, dynamic simulation and other challenges, it was clear to Lambert his department “needed to embrace innovation and make the leap to 3D.”
Lambert's answer to the head engineer: “We're going to do this project.”
The project was anything but simple. It involved designing and building an innovative drive-and-control solution as a replacement for an old electromechanical drive that opened and closed the 11 locks on the Welland Canal, a portion of the Seaway. Bosch Rexroth was asked to modernize three of the canal's primary electromechanical components:100-ton mitre gates that open and close the locks; Taintor valves that control the draining and filling of the 18-ft channels of the locks; and ship arresters, which are steel cables that prevent ships from hitting the gate. (For an earlier Design News' article, including videos, on the engineering challenges involved in this project.
But the project meant incorporating the components into the existing mechanical infrastructure, which had to be re-created from the original parchment drawings from the 1940s. Once complete, Bosch Rexroth's team designed the new components using Autodesk® Inventor Professional. It took advantage of the software's dynamic simulation capabilities to make sure the hydraulic cylinders wouldn't interfere with the existing structure.
The engineers also took advantage of Inventor's integration with ANSYS DesignSpace to conduct finite element analysis on the design. “We assumed certain parameters for the cost of the materials in the gates and the valves, and the FEA analysis was able to confirm that we had neither overdesigned nor underdesigned,” says Lambert. That meant his team successfully walked the tightrope between safety and budgetary concerns.
The decision to use Autodesk® tools wasn't simple, either. Bosch Rexroth Canada, based in Welland, Ontario, is a division of Bosch of Stuttgart, Germany. Bosch recognizes many competing formats as a standard for 3-D design tools, based on application criteria. The Canadian division, which was acquired in 2001, just before the Seaway project began, standardized the Autodesk® applications.
Lambert says he looked at Pro/ENGINEER, along with Siemens' Solid Edge and Dassault's SolidWorks, before deciding on Inventor and its integrated family of applications. “We wanted something easy to learn and easy to use,” says Lambert, “and some of the other products were just too complicated.” He decided on Inventor based on several criteria: The company's previous use of Autodesk® Mechanical Desktop and its established relationship with the reseller who supported it; the ability to tackle a digital prototyping project from conceptual sketch to a finished product with a controlled PLM environment and the fact many academic institutions in the area were training their students in Autodesk® tools. That made hiring new engineers easier.
The Seaway project involved a number of products, including the Autodesk® Vault, the database for storing the drawings and maintaining version control; DesignReview, for internal reviews of drawings and commenting; and DWF Viewer, for external reviews. “Before, it could take us five days to get comments on a design from the appropriate departments within a company,” says Lambert. “With DesignReview, I book a conference and call everyone together. We can pull the design apart, rotate and mark it up. Within an hour, we have everyone's comments.”
Then, the revised model goes out to the customer either using DWF Viewer or DesignReview 2009. “We can provide fully functioning 3-D content and they can send us back comments,” he adds, noting this boosts collaboration considerably. “They're much more informed about the project as it progresses and we get more accurate feedback.”
Cultural and Business Challenges
The decision to move from 2D to 3D went beyond the project itself, in Lambert's view. It was both a cultural and a business challenge. “The motion control market is very competitive. There comes a time in a company's life when it has to decide whether it's going to be innovative,” he says. “If it is, it has to look beyond the boundaries of what it deems normal and transition into new creative processes.”
In Bosch Rexroth's case, it had to move beyond its comfort zone and move into digital prototyping. There's never a good time to make that kind of a change, Lambert admits. He had power users who were pushing him to make the jump and long-time employees who basically expressed the sentiment that Lambert could have their 2-D design tools when he pried it out of their cold, dead hands.
“It takes a large project to kick you out of your comfort zone,” he says, and he used the Seaway project to start the ball rolling. He told the two power users the company was bidding on the Seaway project based on their being the guinea pigs with Inventor. “They embraced it from the start with the design of the mitre gates,” he adds.
Halfway through the project, half the department had been rolled over to 3-D tools. When the hard-liners with 20 years of 2-D CAD experience came to Lambert to ask why other designers were getting so many projects, the answer was simple. “They can do the jobs faster than you,” he told them and basically said they had to make the same transition the company had. “You have to make the decision to jump on and do something new.” They did.
Using new tools meant Lambert's team could develop designs faster (and reduce errors), which means it could serve customers more quickly. “Time-to-market is a key way to differentiate yourself,” says Lambert. “We realized it would be a risk to make the change. That's why some companies are still using 2-D tools. They're not willing to take the risk.”
Issues Going Forward
This is not to say all of Bosch Rexroth's problems are solved. Lambert says he would love to see better collaboration capabilities across the Internet. “DesignReview is a great tool, but some customers can't install it due to corporate IT regulations,” he says. Moving forward, he wants what he calls a “zero-client” solution, one that allows his engineers and customers to look at a Web page containing the model and still be able to dissect, discuss and update the design. He offers his input at user group meetings held by Autodesk® and is confident it will be able to develop such a capability soon. It already offers the ability with products such as Freewheel and ShareNow.
There are issues further down the mechatronics' design chain, as well. Data doesn't stop at the simulation checkpoint. The next step involves moving data to product data management or manufacturing resource planning applications. Currently, there are no connections between the Autodesk® applications and Bosch Rexroth's MRP application, but Lambert says the company is investigating a leap to ERP systems in order to keep information better integrated.
But Lambert now has lots of experience in making those big technological leaps, so he's not as concerned as he was before.