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One approach to collaborating from afar

One approach to collaborating from afar

One of the marks of modern engineering is outsourcing, the parceling out of pieces of the design project to teams outside the walls. Sometimes those teams are down the street, sometimes across the state or country, and sometimes even across the ocean. The further apart they are, the more important the process that enables them to collaborate. That's because no matter how far flung or sophisticated design teams become, they still need to talk to each other to brainstorm problems and solutions until they get the product right.

Several companies tout technology for enabling collaboration. One of the pioneers is CoCreate. Its OneSpace design collaboration website keeps growing in capability and users. In addition to being able to transfer designs from virtually any CAD program into OneSpace, users can now also share basic product data management (PDM) information from most of the popular PDM systems, and transfer design changes made in OneSpace back into their own in-house PDM programs.

And, CoCreate claims engineers can use OneSpace to collaborate in real time-right away, as if they were all in the same conference room.

Aptec, a professional services firm that design products for major manufacturers in such industries as automobiles and appliances, is one of the companies to which design work gets outsourced and is also a beta partner with CoCreate for future development of OneSpace. Tom Morris, chief information officer for Aptec, says, "We're testing a new Session Manager for OneSpace that promises to let us spread out our collaborative network to ever more remote geographical areas." Session Manager is the name of one of the features in OneSpace that allows a person who is running a collaboration session to enable another engineer to enter the collaboration session at a later time that day and make suggestions on the design.

It works like this: The person running the collaboration gives the engineer a session number and special password that lets him log-on to OneSpace in his own timeframe and access design information. The customer can make changes and suggestions, and OneSpace will generate a detailed report about the changes and why they were made.

Aptec, located in Florida, has a customer in China-a daunting number of time zones distant, and a natural user of the new session manager. Morris says, "More than 80% of the information in any company isn't shared-but it needs to be. With OneSpace, we can make the information easily accessible, with tools ranging from CAD models and drawings to MS Office documents. OneSpace functions as an office everyone can go to in his or her own time zone."

Aptec works very closely with the companies for which it designs products. "We've leverage OneSpace and other collaborative, web-based technologies to become a virtual product development department for many companies in many industries, and many geographic areas. Technologies such as OneSpace makes this possible on an international scale-by letting us provide more content and service with no geographical barriers. We also use electronic data transfer, and our own Extranet with HTML timelines for customers. The Extranet service is very secure, because some of our customers compete with each other, and it would be disastrous for them to be able to see each others' projects."

Mike Pelland, who heads up Visualize, another product development company that uses OneSpace frequently, says, "We want to create a virtual company, even though we're in different locations. OneSpace lets us look as though we're under one roof, but without the associated costs and time involved in being in a single big office."

Pelland, who believes that true concurrent engineering isn't possible, says, "Each stage of the design development process needs one discipline to finish a part of the project before the next can get involved. But OneSpace lets us overlap the serial aspects of the design cycle and provide more productive design reviews."

Both Morris and Pelland depend on the OneSpace translators to let them work with designs from any CAD program-no matter how difficult they may be to translate with other protocols. The translators transfer model data into a slimmed-down version of CoCreate's Solid Designer CAD product. Morris says, "I tested OneSpace by taking a part originally designed in Pro/E, transferred it to Unigraphics, and then to OneSpace, and from there to CATIA. I don't personally use CATIA, so I sent the model to a colleague who uses it. He opened the model, and found it to be a clean CATIA model. It's a 'dumb' model, in that history gets lost in the translation, but it's also a clean model that can be used immediately."

Pelland uses a number of different CAD programs as well, "We use the CAD system the client has, because that makes it easier to share information," he asserts. "I've made a lot of use of OneSpace's translation capabilities, to help customers who can't share their CAD information with their customers because none of the existing translation protocols produce models as clean as those from OneSpace."

Like Pelland, Morris also uses the site's "virtual conference room" feature often. "It's a place where decisions can be made and people can leave with specific action items at the end of the session. More than anything else, it gets people on the hook for fulfilling their responsibilities." When using the service, Morris usually designates a specific person to make design changes, although anyone at the session can work on the model. "The model is on each computer simultaneously, " Morris says. "Not only can anyone with permission make changes, but a report will also keep track of who made which changes and when. That way, you can get back to ground zero-the iteration of the design with which you started-very quickly."

By working in that manner, Aptec produced a hub cap design for Honda and got it into manufacturing in 14 weeks, which, Morris says, "was ahead of Honda itself."

Gary McCormack, a CoCreate spokesman, says, "True design collaboration is like an electronic cocktail napkin. It involves design in real time, with each person involved in a project adding to the design as ideas come to mind. OneSpace enables the same kind of synergy to develop-only it's done electronically."

This article is part of a continuing series of monthly pieces on "E-services and the design engineer," sponsored by Hewlett-Packard. Design News will continue to report on the latest developments on the Web, and how new web-based products and services make life easier for engineers. Please share with us your experiences with websites that help you do your job better and faster.

Direct information to National Editor Paul E. Teague at [email protected], or fax him at (617) 558-4402.

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