CAD vendors wrap the web

DN Staff

February 17, 1997

13 Min Read
CAD vendors wrap the web

Purveyors of CAD systems tout their products as Web-enabled. But what, exactly, does the Web enable engineers to do with CAD?

According to Daratech, Cambridge, MA, and other industry research firms, the Internet and its intranet cousins represent nothing less than a revolution in engineering technology. Born in the secrecy of DARPA, nurtured in the circles of CERN, the World Wide Web was destined for collaborative engineering.

Commercial dial-in access and browser products now give engineers benefits their colleagues in the scientific and research communities have enjoyed for more than a decade. As a result, Griff Roberts, director of foundation products at Bentley Systems, Exton, PA, envisions four types of potential customers for his company's Web-related products:

- Design engineers sharing design data with partners for collaborative engineering.

- Engineering managers using the Web in the design review process.

- Contractors posting data on the Internet for subcontractors.

- Marketing organizations who want to take CAD images to the Internet. The Web allows users to fire up applications remotely, perhaps not so foreign a concept to design engineers. In fact, Bruce Boes, vice president of marketing at Matra Datavision, Andover, MA, points out that this technology has been around for some time: X-Windows makes it possible to access his firm's Euclid CAD/CAM package residing on a workstation through a networked PC. The latest offering, Euclid Quantum, introduced late last year, has the Netscape "N" proudly running in the upper right corner of the screen. The message: The Web is just another network, and a vast one at that.

"The year 1996 saw users reading information off the Web; 1997 will be the year engineers write to it," Boes predicts. "The Web gives access to information. Why not get into it?" But how does an engineer get into the Web?

Publish or perish. Bentley's strategy emanates from its Engineering Back Office line of products. It includes tools for exporting CAD models as Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) files. "The idea is to provide dynamic, live publishing capabilities for engineers that do not require any intervention on the part of the publisher," Roberts says.

First among these products, the Model Server Publisher, will make its appearance in the first quarter of 1997. The software includes Netscape Web Server and Enterprise Server for posting to the Internet and intranets respectively. "We put all the programs on the server side so the person looking for information can do everything with a browser," Roberts explains.

In the view of Sabine Gossart, manager of marketing communications at Solid Works Corp., Concord, MA, the most prominent Web-enabling technology currently in CAD systems is outputting vector geometry in VRML format. "It permits the posting of 3-D images to the Web and their viewing with standard browser programs," Gossart says. Browsers typically require some sort of VRML plug-in, which can be downloaded freely from many sources.

Paul Mikle, manager of technical marketing, Parametric Technology Corp., Waltham, MA, adds that the capacity for VRML export is the main Web-enabling feature in Pro/ENGINEER. And the company has under development a Netscape plug-in for Pro/Flythrough that will let users virtually explore 3-D models over the Web.

Baystate Technologies Inc., Marlborough, MA, added VRML output to version 7.5 of its CADKEY software. This enables users to perform "walk-around" examinations of 3-D models using browsers, enhancing communication between engineers. One CADKEY user, XYCORP Co., Malibu, CA, used the Web as a design forum for its SuperCar green-technology demonstrator, a project funded in part by NASA and the DOE.

Ralph Mayer, vice president of technical marketing at Adra Systems, Chelmsford, MA, sees tremendous value on the Internet for engineers. Adra is beta testing a new product that will enable users to access engineering data through the Matrix product data management (PDM) system over the Web.

Matrix customer Draper Labs, specializing in guidance and control systems for the military, uses a secure Internet site to provide the DOD a way to get in and look at CAD drawings. Files that are 2-D are in Adobe Acrobat PDF; 3-D files are displayed in VRML. The DOD has added a note pad encryption scheme for securing access.

Matrix can automatically process CAD drawings into Web format. It also has the ability to provide built-in data management. "The benefit is that it is not necessary to have 3-D CAD software at both ends of the pipe," Mayer maintains. "The Object Management Group is working on standards for querying PDM systems. We are working with CERN, a Matrix user and Web pioneer, to help us push an object-oriented approach." The Object Management Group, based in Framingham, MA, was founded to promote object-oriented technology in software development.

Speed brakes. VRML's 3-D format draws much attention. However, Kim Corbridge, senior manager of product marketing, Intergraph Corp., Huntsville, AL, feels a main shortcoming of the Internet is the limited bandwidth available to most users. Many users do not have access to dedicated network connections, and are restricted to the speeds of their phone lines and modems. Both drawbacks can choke the flow of 3-D data.

"A 2-D format such as Computer Graphics Metafile (CGM) offers useful information in a compact form," Corbridge says. Intergraph's Solid Edge CAD system can create a CGM file. For 3-D work, Solid Edge's ACIS-based modeler has an ACIS to VRML translator.

The Active CGM authoring tools developed by Intergraph subsidiary Intercap Graphics Systems Inc., Annapolis, MD, let users prepare 2-D vector or vector/raster hybrid files for Web distribution. The files can be accessed with Active CGM browsers, or with such commercial programs as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer.

A file created with Active CGM might have hot links that the user can navigate graphically: an assembly drawing with balloons, for example. Detailed drawings of subassemblies could be retrieved by clicking on the desired balloon. In addition, there could be a text index in HTML.

As for the number of engineers on the Web, Intergraph suggests it's a 50/50 mixed bag out there. "The more forward-looking engineering companies let people have access to their data through the Web," Corbridge says. "They see the advantages of linking up with customers to show engineering drawings over the Web."

What price, freedom? "The Web scares some people," says John Gebhardt, Intercap's chief scientist. "Engineers don't want to publish things people can use inappropriately."

This presents a dilemma for the Internet community. On the one hand, the Web permits open access to data. On the other hand, well, it permits open access to data.

"The question is how comfortable engineers are about publishing their designs," relates Solid Works' Gossart. "In general they don't like to share important data in such a free space." However, she adds, this freedom can be used by engineers to good effect. One Solid Works user, the Agile Manufacturing Network, Spokane, WA, provides an Internet forum that links designers with manufacturers.

One solution: offer different layers of Web access for different audiences. Intergraph has a private intranet for internal use only, a public Internet Web site, and an "in between" Web site that is password protected.

Advocates find the Web no less secure than mail or other media. Good security features are available, they say, for encrypting messages and drawings. "1997 will be the year the Net is used for secure transactions in a big way," Gebhardt predicts. "The technology and infrastructure are there. People just haven't gotten around to taking advantage of them yet."

The state of existing Web-publishing technology also limits how many engineering secrets can be disclosed. "CGM and VRML dumb-down the data a bit," Gebhardt notes, making it impossible to machine directly from the models or get at the underlying features, associations, and intelligence. "People will also rethink what is needed to be secure. Half the time nobody is interested in what you're doing anyway," Gebhardt believes.

The great power in the Web is that it provides windows into your engineering repository. "It really enables people to streamline the publishing process," Gebhardt adds. "This changes the whole dynamics of multi-national, distributed design. You don't really have to send anything to anybody anymore. Just publish it and they see it. Document management is much simpler."

The enthusiasm among CAD vendors for the Web seems unbounded: "Our vision is to make Pro/ENGINEER a seamless part of the Web," declares PTC's Mikle.

PTC is developing technologies to embed Pro/E in HTML-based documents. This will enable engineers to use the associativity and parametrics features of Pro/E through a Web browser, with the host doing all the work. "However, we just can't stick stuff out on the Web for free," Mikle says.

Freedom for a price. And there's the rub. How do you make engineering products for the Web and still make money? Autodesk Inc., Sausalito, CA, uses the "dumb-down" approach for the Internet version of its PartSpec catalogue of mechanical parts.

"The question at Autodesk was how should PartSpec be delivered in the future," says Chris Hock, marketing manager. "Our research shows that 60% of Autodesk users have access to the Internet. It is easier to post information to the Internet than it is to produce CD ROMs. Therefore, we went live with our initial release of PartSpec Online last November."

The Internet version contains the same information as the CD ROM version, except drawings are in a DWF format rather than DWG. The former provides a quick view of vector data within the rather narrow restrictions imposed by a Web site. These cannot be downloaded into vector CAD files.

Technical product information remains free, but if the user wants to download DWG formats, he or she has to purchase the CD ROMs. Autodesk is working on this issue, and plans eventually to provide downloadable DWG to customers on a subscription basis.

Another approach: use the Internet as a network connecting full-blown CAD sessions. This goes beyond publishing--or falls short, in some views--in that both the sender and recipient must have licensed CAD seats. Henri Evain, marketing manager at Dassault Systemes, Paris, France, says Web-compliance at his company means products that publish CAD data in VRML format and make them available on the Internet while taking advantage of intranets as a means of collaborating in a networked environment.

Dassault's offering, Catia Conferencing Groupware, provides bi-directional coupling between two Catia sessions over an intranet. Through a Netscape Navigator interface, users can video conference while interacting with a CAD or assembly model, in real-time. Such sessions demand a lot of bandwidth, however, therefore the system works best on dedicated lines.

Catia Conferencing Groupware ships with Netscape/InSoft network conferencing software, which possesses all the audio and video plug-ins required. A Catia Conferencing plug-in is also provided. Users can open Catia sessions while navigating HTML pages. This gives intranet users access to Catia data from an intranet front end, such as a browser. However, Catia must reside with the browser.

Evain feels collaborative engineering is best provided within the secure and bandwidth-generous structure of an intranet: "Engineers balk at the Internet," he states.

This is not to say Dassault developers do not have more grandiose networking schemes in mind. In particular, Evain alludes to a project aimed at VRML acquisition and reading that would enable Catia files to be reconstructed from VRML format. "How much intelligence can be restored to VRML files?" he wonders. A tough question that most CAD vendors say they have no plans to tackle.

Just build it. Matra Datavision's Boes is mindful of the fact VRML provides little more than pictures. "Why not use STEP over the Web?" he asks, referring to the developing standard for transferring solid CAD models. He points to an initiative sponsored in part by D.H. Brown that would extend the graphics-exchange standard more rapidly to cover Web-related features.

Intercap's Gebhardt points out that transferring CAD intelligence over the Web is not as simple as transferring images. "VRML was designed as a publishing standard, not as a CAD interchange standard," he says. "It is not meant to exchange things that can be built. STEP, which is designed for manufacturing-caliber data exchange, is too big and heavy for publishing."

Performance issues come down to phone line and modem capacity. "We need to get the Internet to the performance of a dedicated line for real-time use," Boes says. "We know how to do it. Somebody just has to build it." dn

One of the world's largest research communities is concerned with how the very smallest objects conduct themselves. The nuclei of CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, are its facilities on the Swiss/French border. However, thousands of scientists all over the world are involved in particle physics research there. This is one of the reasons CERN initiated the World Wide Web in the first place.

The latest instrument of big science at CERN will be the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Designing and building the massive LHC accelerator is a two-decade endeavor, and as much a global project as the research it will support. Therefore, CERN managers have ensured engineering data management will be a Web affair.

Claude Hauviller, senior engineer at CERN, says the data describing LHC and its resulting experiments, when built, will be complex, multi-disciplined, widespread, and long-lived. "Our work is performed in collaboration with many different institutes, located all over the world, in formats ranging from paper documents to Web-based information systems," Hauviller says. "CERN created the Web to provide a forum for communication and research exchange. For this reason, we wanted the engineering effort for LHC to integrate seamlessly with the Web, too."

CERN has installed 300 seats of Adra Systems' Matrix product data management system to manage and process data associated with the LHC project. With them, engineers at Geneva will be able to evaluate CAD drawings over the Internet with subcontractors and institutes, wherever they may be.


Visit the following Web sites to get the latest on-line information from the CAD vendors in this article

Adra Systems:


Baystate Technologies:

Bentley Systems:

Dassault Systemes:

Intercap Graphics Systems:

Intergraph: www.intergraph. com

Matra Datavision: www.matra-

Parametric Technology:

Sign up for the Design News Daily newsletter.

You May Also Like