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The Internet "will be the dial tone of the computer industry by the year 2000," according to a 1996 report by the influential Gartner Group consulting firm. But given the tremendous growth of the Internet over the past five years, few people need an industry analyst to realize that it is quickly revolutionizing the way we communicate.
In recent months, this has become particularly true for CATIA users. CATIA has long represented leadership in CAD technolo y,
creating the cutting edge in key areas such as hybrid modeling, concurrent engineering and virtual product development. But today, dramatic CATIA enhancements are becoming available which will extend this leadership to the Internet.
The newly-announced CATIA Web server, or CATweb Navigator, literally opens up the doors of CATIA to the Internet, letting users access and manipulate CATIA data in real time, from standard Java-enabled Web browsers. This "information anywhere" capability, which is very much in synch with IBM's corporate Network Computing strategy, will enable companies using CATIA to dramatically streamline the way they do business. This article will provide insight into what CATIA brings to the table now, and where the technology will go down the road.
CATweb Navigator offers the most dynamic remote viewing capability of any CAD software available today. But its true power is perhaps best described by the benefit users will see. Here are some basic examples. By accessing CATweb Navigator via the Internet, a marketing executive developing a magazine ad for a product can easily see a CATIA prototype, and even rotate it, so he knows what it looks like from every angle. Similarly, a manufacturing team preparing to retool for the next production run can call up the latest part model, verify specs and make sure it hasn't been modified since the last run. Or a manager can review and approve an engineer's design proposal wherever and whenever it suits him. All using a standard Web browser, without ever sitting down in front of a CATIA workstation.
CAD and the Web Today - Limited Options
Over the past few years, companies have begun to use the Internet in several ways. Virtually every major company has its own Web site containing information on the organization and its products, and these sites often contain news releases, job postings and other information relevant to insiders and outsiders. Some companies are also exploring the area of electronic commerce, actually selling products via the Internet.
Most people who use the Internet today rely on it as a reference tool, a way to view information. The Internet can be very useful when you want to get the latest news, find out about a conferenceor even get travel directions.
But for the specialized needs of design engineers, the Internet is less useful While designers may use the Internet to do things like research part information, or send email to contractors, most of their time is spent on proprietary CAD/CAM/CAE systems.
The Internet is already playing a role in the design process. Today, design review participants, who frequently outnumber design creators by a ratio of up to ten to one, can use the Internet to review and approve engineering changes. But in most cases, these reviewers are working with files that have been pulled out of the CAD system. So they may not reflect the latest design changes, or the most current version.
But in the world of true 3D design, the Internet has had only limited offerings until now. The Internet's most common 3D viewing technology, called VRML, offers only very basic 3D viewing and manipulation capabilities. More powerful ways are being developed to access 3D engineering data over the Internet, such as STEP-based browsers which have been shown in prototype demonstrations. Some companies have also shown that very limited
parametric modifications of CAD data are also feasible via the Internet. But tools for easily viewing and manipulating CAD data over the Internet have not yet become widely available.
CATWeb - A New Paradigm for Accessing CAD Data
CATIA's new CATweb application server offers capabilities that will greatly expand the utility of the Internet to the CAD world, and anyone that world touches. With CATweb, all CATIA information can be made available in seconds...to anybody, anywhere, at any time. People throughout a company, and even suppliers and business partners, can access information on products in development quickly and easily, without the need to learn CATIA. By eliminating paper drawings and other hard copy images, costs and lead times can be reduced. Worldwide communications about products can be greatly enhanced with current, accurate information that can include text, 2D and 3D images, and multimedia.
CATweb is not the first Internet capability that has been added to CATIA. In 1996, the first Internet-ready CATIA product was introduced with CATIA Version 4, Release 1.7 - CATIA Conferencing Groupware, which enables design teams working at different locations to collaborate across the Internet and review, annotate and revise CATIA designs. With the same release, CATIA's 4D Navigator was given the ability to read and translate VRML files. "Hooks" were also added to CATIA so that CAD models could be cross-linked to other Web-ready objects. In this way, users examining a CATIA model could click on a URL (Internet address) within the model, and a browser window would open with the appropriate data from an Internet or Intranet server.
But CATweb takes CATIA's Internet capabilities to a much higher level. With CATweb, users can log onto the CATIA server from any browser, and select and load a CATIA 3D assembly or model for remote viewing and manipulation. No plug-in is required. Internet objects attached to these models can even be viewed or executed. This capability could be used, for example, to do things like: view installation or maintenance information videos, examine related documents or outstanding changes, or step through text and graphics based fabrication or assembly process information.
For platform independence and portability, the CATweb Navigator is written in Java and runs on UNIX-based platforms. It runs in combination with a traditional HTTP Web server. From the Web server, applets are downloaded to standard Java-enabled browsers
(clients). Using these Java applets, clients can instruct the server to perform various database access and visualization tasks on both dynamic and static CATIA data. Instant Web publishing of CATIA information provides current HTML, VRML, and 2D snapshot images on demand. CATIA models and assemblies plus related attribute and main draft information are accessible through the UNIX file system or CATIA declarative files.
Advantages over Existing CAD Publishing Systems
There are several clear advantages to this approach over some of the more limited CAD/CAM Web publishing technologies that have
been implemented to date. Most Web publishing systems are based
on "push" technology, meaning they depend on batch processes that
publish predetermined information in static format. Once published, this information is disconnected from the core CAD database, and is only as current as its last refresh. If CAD models change, or different information or images are needed than were originally captured, that new information must be republished to the Web server. Similarly, since images have a set resolution, zooming in results in unclear or fuzzy views.
With CATweb Navigator's dynamic "pull"-based environment, 100 percent of the information on any CATIA data server is directly accessible, with no intermediate steps required. Viewers know the information is current and at the right version level. Viewing 3D geometry through 2D snapshot images delivers consistent response time regardless of model size, and allows new views to be generated on the fly. Zooming in or out provides clear refreshed images at high resolution. In the near future, additional Java applets will also be provided that increase the breadth and depth of client functions, beyond basic image viewing and manipulation.
Providing Value Through CATweb Navigator
Making all of CATIA's Virtual Product Model information accessible on demand via the Internet is a good start. But the real key to providing value in implementing a system like this is getting the right information to key decision makers when and where they need it. When implementing a CATweb application server, companies need to define and prioritize the processes that will be supported, and the types of information that users will need access to. Implementers also need to consider issues such as security needs, overall system performance requirements and the need for 3D versus 2D visualization.
Once some basic implementation parameters have been established, intelligent forms or templates can be created that provide users with the URL structure they need to "pull" the right information into their client browsers. The forms can even be designed to offer different users access to only the information pertinent to them. So for Project "X", for example, each person participating in a design review might be provided a different set of URLs depending on their individual discipline (i.e. analysis, manufacturing, materials, quality, etc.).
In the long term, CATweb should be able to perform well as a stand-alone system or in a shared HTTP server environment with common APIs, object handlers, and content handlers. This would allow users to focus almost entirely on the data they need, rather than what system it is coming from. A single query from a Web browser could access an intelligent search engine that would identify, locate and capture the appropriate information to respond to the user's request. That information could mix data from the CATIA database, a product data management system like IBM's ProductManager (which also has a Web interface), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems and other information sources, both within the company and on the Internet.
In the Future
The Internet capabilities that have been added to CATIA today are only the beginning. In the future, we anticipate that collaboration over the Internet will be possible with manipulation and editing of live CAD models in peer-to-peer browser sessions. As the Internet and intranets improve in reliability, it may also be possible to execute more robust engineering design functions through a combination of browser and Java technologies. Enhancements in Java performance and security will also increase the client-based capabilities, as will continued extensions to Java, HTML, VRML, etc.
As STEP matures, STEP-based browsers will emerge, breaking down the barriers between proprietary CAD systems while maintaining the intelligence within the models, avoiding the "dumbing down" process necessary in the creation of VRML models
While the technology will shift, and the changes will be diverse, the end result should be consistent. In the future, designers using CATIA and other CAD systems will find the Internet to be an exceptional tool, that will enable them to do more, and to do things more quickly and easily, virtually every day.