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Articles from 2007 In January

Bush Goes green

Bush Goes green

Like it or not, design engineers need to get prepared for more environmentally oriented requirements. The newest evidence is an executive order from President George W. Bush that ramps by green requirements for the federal government. One of the six parts of the new order requires federal agencies to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 3% annually through the end of fiscal year 2015. President Bush also wants agency acquisitions to reflect sustainable environmental practices, including acquisition of biobased, environmentally preferable, energy-efficient, water-efficient, and recycled-content products, and use of paper of at least 30% post-consumer fiber content. The requirement on bio-based materials is interesting. Design News plans to look intensively at the potential of bio-based polymers for engineering applications in the April 30 issue. Stay tuned.



Online video demonstrates XRF RoHS screening

Online video demonstrates XRF RoHS screening

Innov-X Systems has posted an online video demonstration produced to help companies learn about handheld XRF RoHS compliance screening products. The portable, handheld EDXRF is designed to be a non-destructive, low-cost tool to determine whether a product, sub-assembly or component contains hazardous materials banned by the European Union’s RoHS directive.

The video produced by Innov-X Systems allows viewers immediate access to a demo of the XRF unit at their desktops. It also provides detailed information about the Innov-X Analyzer capabilities when used with the company’s RoHS-Star software. “This video is just one part of our commitment to helping electronic component suppliers, OEMs and contract manufacturers mitigate the impact of RoHS,” says Don Sackett, CEO of Innov-X.

USB Batteries Lead the Charge

Everyone hates dead batteries, and even rechargeable batteries are a pain when the charger’s not around, but what if a battery had a built-in charger?

It does now. It’s called USBCELL, and its designers are trying to change the way the world uses batteries, according to Christopher Wright, the design director for Moixa Energy Ltd., the UK-based company that makes the batteries.

The concept was simple: Make a battery that can recharge off a USB dongle, but design engineers had their hands full with trying to juggle two different technologies — basic battery chemistry and the electronics of a USB interface — at the same time, a requirement to make the product work, Wright said.

“In order to achieve that, it has required the design team to understand batteries holistically,” he said. “One had to understand (both) the way batteries are assembled, as well as the electronic circuits.”

On top of that, Wright said, there was significant pressure to innovate, what with the battery market in general being saturated with cheap disposable batteries already.

“In the end, we’re competing with a very low-cost product,” he said.

The rechargeable battery and its benefits, both to the environment and the consumer’s wallet, have been obvious for years, but Wright said the idea here was to come up with a way to prevent people from carrying a brick-sized charger around to plug into the wall, or being forced to retreat to the charger once the batteries run out.

That, and the product had to be something people could easily use.

“We spent a lot of time trying to make it, how shall I say it, as consumer-proof as possible,” Wright said.

The USBCELL has an intuitive interface — just pop off the end and the flat, USB dongle is easily recognizable to anyone who uses a computer or other modern consumer electronics device.

“You take of the cap and it’s kind of iconic, you know, ‘There’s a USB!’” Wright said.

Benny Har-Even, deputy editor of, an online consumer electronics review publication, said the recharging mechanism makes the batteries unique.

“So many of us have USB ports around the house, so when (the batteries) run low we can recharge them easily,” he said.

Luke Morgan, of Rochester, N.Y., uses the batteries for consumer electronics such as CD players, wireless controllers and other equipment he uses.

“That way, I don’t have to carry any extra equipment to recharge, and also don’t have to worry about my batteries running out on me during my extended trips,” he said.

He carries the batteries with his laptop computer, a ready source for the USB ports that charge the batteries overnight, he said.

“I have bought four sets so far,” he said.

The company first designed the AA model because it is so common, and because it was the smallest size they could easily fit the USB dongle into, Wright said. They are about to release an AAA version, which has a dongle that folds in half when stored inside the battery.

Right now, the batteries are available in England at retail outlets, and can be bought online from anywhere else in the world. Within the next few months, Wright said the company plans to sign a deal bringing the USBCELL to retail outlets in the states.

A Window to Vista: What the Reviewers Are Saying

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Now that Vista has been released, the major debate is who really should make the move to Microsoft's newest and long-delayed Windows operating system. While Vista has taken security to new levels, some argue that the advancements don't justify an upgrade. Others are awarding Vista the title of Microsoft's best Windows OS. Still others say the majority of improvements over XP are more conveniences than essentials. It's questionable how many PCs will be able to take the upgrade easily — Design News Editor-in-Chief John Dodge's PC did not, at least not on the first try. Most reviews of Vista include advice to purchase a new PC with the operating system preloaded, which makes it much more expensive and time-consuming than in the past when it was just a matter of upgrading the software. And the many different versions of Vista create more choices to make.
We've compiled a few reviews to help you decide whether or not to go Vista. Be sure to e-mail us with your own Vista experiences. And check out our latest Software/Hardware feature for information on how Vista will affect design software.
Strike One
Our own Editor-in-Chief John Dodge tried to install the home version of Microsoft Windows Vista on his computer as an upgrade from XP. It hasn't been easy. (Design News) Full Story Don't Buy Vista for the Security
Windows Vista is a leap forward in terms of security, but experts from Gartner and Rescuecom say the advances aren't enough to justify an upgrade. (CNET) Full Story

Worthy, Largely Unexciting

After months of testing, while Walter Mossberg tags Vista as the best Windows yet, he doesn't see it as a breakthrough in ease of use. ( Full Story
Microsoft's Best Operating System
Peter Lewis' verdict on the newest Windows: Vista is definitely the best operating system Microsoft has ever made. (Fortune Magazine) Full Story Uninspiring Vista
Read how Vista has turned one former Microsoft apologist and devoted supporter into a Mac fan. (Technology Review) Full Story Vista's Three Killer Features
To upgrade or not to upgrade is definitely the question — while you're deciding, Ed Bott highlights three killer features of the OS that haven't received nearly enough attention. (ZDNet) Full Story

Humanoid Robots Put Best Faces Forward

David Hanson does something most other robot builders just won’t do. He creates robots whose faces mimic the appearance and movements of a real human face. That might not sound like such a radical idea, but it is.

The vast majority of humanoid robots, for all their artificial intelligence and ability to perform some human-like behaviors, still have abstract faces and expressions. One reason is a pervasive view in robot building circles that people find realistic renderings of human facial features creepy. “That’s a view I completely reject. We are naturally attracted to faces and gestures,” says Hanson, president of Hanson Robotics Inc.

Another reason has to do with the significant technical challenges of building an AI-driven motion control system that can credibly simulate the human face’s 48 major muscle groups in response to speech and machine vision inputs. “The robots don’t just have to make the right expression, they have to make the right expression at precisely the right time,” Hanson says. Expressions based on eye contact, for example, might have to take place in less than a third of a second in order to appear realistic.

Hanson, who studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design and is completing a PhD in Interactive Arts and Engineering from the University of Texas, says he’s been working to overcome both problems with “a combination of artistry and engineering.”

The artistry is easy to see. Hanson’s robotic heads, which include well-known depictions of Albert Einstein and writer Philip K. Dick, can typically display many thousands of nuanced, believable facial expressions. “A lot of us intentionally avoid making our robots look too human, but David pulls it off because of his incredible attention to facial detail,” says Aaron Edsinger, a researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and another builder of humanoid robots.

From an engineering standpoint, Hanson’s robot are a study in how to create low-power, compact motion control systems. Consider that his Einstein robot head, which is actuated by 33 servo motors and related linkages, requires just 10W of power at 6V to achieve its full range of expressions. That’s so little power that it runs on eight AA batteries. Other “expressive robots,” not to mention the “dumb” animatronic exhibits found in theme parks and on movie sets, typically require more than 3 kW of power and must be tethered to power supplies, as well as air sources or hydraulic fluid reservoirs, according to Hanson. “Before Einstein, robots capable of complex facial expression were not self-contained,” he says.

And self-containment matters a great deal if expressive humanoid robots are to take part in what Hanson calls “the robot revolution.”Robots appear likely to become more ingrained in our daily lives over the next few years.The 2006 World Robotics study published by the International Robotics Federation predicts that number ofnew domestic robots, including vacuums and lawnmowers, will reach 3.9 million units by 2009. The study forecasts that there will also be 1.6 million new entertainment and leisure robots by 2009.

Hanson wants to make at least a few of those new robots. Until now, he has delivered just a handful of pricey custom robots, some costing in excess of $130,000, to museums, entertainment venues, and research labs. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab., for example, has one of his robotic heads. So does the Cooper-Hewitt museum, which last December installed a new version of his Einstein robot as part of the National Design Triennial. In the coming months, though, Hanson will unveil new biped robots aimed at the consumer market.

Created in conjunction with Tomotaka Takahashi, a well-known Japanese robot maker, these new RoboKind robots will be 14 inches tall with a body designed by Takahashi and a head designed by Hanson. These cartoon-like robots will not only walk around but also offer a range of facial expressions. “Biped robots aren’t that unusual in Japan. There are even soccer matches for them,” says Hanson. “But our new robot will be the only one capable of complex facial expressions.”Hanson says a limited edition version of the new robot will sell for roughly $10,000, while the standard model will cost around $3,000. There will also be a $300 model with a reduced set of features.

All of Hanson’s robots, whether for museum use or the home, share some key technical elements. The ones that get the lion’s share of attention have to do with Hanson’s approach to artificial intelligence — in particular the way in which he generates credible facial expressions based on conversational interaction. The Philip K. Dick robot even won an award from the American Assoc. for Artificial Intelligence.

But Hanson’s mechanical innovations offer lessons for engineers who have to design a compact, efficient motion systems. “If we want to bring robots into our world, power consumption becomes very important,” Hanson says. “Unfortunately, there aren’t many easy ways to decrease power consumption given current actuator technology.”Hanson, however, has figured out a few ways. Here’s a look at them:

Secret Skin

To understand how Hanson’s robots work, it’s a good idea to start with the skin. Rather than pick a skin material only for its cosmetic attributes, Hanson created “Frubber” a patented silicone elastomer whose mechanical properties influence the design of each robot’s entire motion control system.

According to Hanson, Frubber is a foamed platinum-based elastomer that can contains up to 70 percent air by volume. Foamed elastomers are commonplace in industrial uses. What sets Frubber apart, though, is that it has what Hanson calls a “structured porosity.” He has developed proprietary processing methods and elastomer chemistries that allow him to control the size distribution and shape of the foam’s open and closed air cells, which span a size range from about 1 micron up to a few millimeters. Hanson says this size distribution allows a given volume of foam to contain the maximum amount of air — with smaller cells filling in the spaces between larger ones. Hanson can fine-tune the amount of air, so the final density of Frubber can vary.

This airy material moves “a lot like human facial tissue,” Hanson says. It also moves without much force. The foamed elastomer contains only about 30 percent of the material of an equivalent solid elastomer. “So right off the bat, you would expect it to take only about 30 percent as much energy to deform the foam,” Hanson says. “But it actually takes less energy than that.”

Looked at under a microscope, the material has an accordion-like cell structure that unfurls when the material elongates. Hanson says the force required to elongate a typical Frubber formulation is 1/10 that of an equivalent solid elastomer, while the force needed to compress the same bit of Frubber is 1/13 that of the solid material — with the compressive forces slightly higher to return the accordion cells to their collapsed state. Hanson says the material can withstand “hundreds of thousands” of cycles. Elongations up to nearly 900 percent are possible, though the material’s cell walls may start to become damaged at 450 percent.

Frubber’s low-force deformation has some important benefits for the rest of the motion system. “Less force means I can use smaller motors and linkages, which in turn reduces my power requirements,” Hanson says. “Frubber makes it all possible.”

A similar view comes from Dr. Yoseph Bar-Cohen, a senior research scientist and advanced technologies group supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Bar-Cohen, a pioneer in artificial muscle research, installed one of Hanson’s robotic heads his Nondestructive Evaluation and Advance Actuators (NDEAA) Lab at JPL.

These clips show the sociable-robot prototypes in action. The polymer innovations allow the highly expressive folding and bunching of the skin, and consume little power while at it, enabling the lightweight robots to run on batteries. Video Courtesy of David Hanson.

Bar-Cohen plans to use the head as a platform to develop artificial muscles based on various electroactive polymers, which currently have some force and speed limitations. “David’s robots require very little force and power. That’s the beauty of them,” he says. “If there’s any platform suitable for testing artificial muscles for robotics, it’s this one.” Bar-Cohen says, though he adds that electro-active polymers still need some work before they’ll be ready to actuate robots.


Even with Frubber’s force reduction contributions, Hanson still had to develop actuators capable of displaying the facial expressions in response to inputs from each robot’s AI software — which is based on off-the-shelf speech-recognition, machine-vision and even face-recognition software. “I think of the facial expressions as four-dimensional sculptures,” Hanson says.

And that time dimension can be tough. What other sculptor has to close control loops in fractions of a second? In fact, Hanson closes different loops at different speeds, depending on the robot’s task. “For face recognition tasks, a robot can think for a while, perhaps a second, without seeming unnatural,” he says. Yet for maintaining eye contact, human-like speed dictates that the control loops close at 20-30 ms. “Any more than that is too much latency,” he says.

To physically create these moving sculptures, Hanson uses small servo motors — and lots of them. The current version of the Einstein robot has 33 different servo motors, about half of them bi-directional to mimic facial muscles that work in opposing pairs. The motors he uses have 256-increment feedback. “That’s not nanoscale precise,” Hanson says. Yet having 33 motors of that resolution provides “an astronomical number of motion possibilities,” he adds. Hanson usually uses off-the-shelf motors from HiTec. “They’re not the least expensive motors but they have a great price-to-performance ratio,” he says. “And you can pick them up at any hobby shop.”

To control all the motion, Hanson created his own PIC-based controller. It generates the servo outputs after blending inputs from the robot’s vision and speech-recognition systems — which together run on a single laptop computer connected wirelessly to the robot. To get a sense of how Hanson blends this data, consider how his robots interact with a group of people. It might turn its head or gaze toward a human speaker from the group and even seem to address that person in a conversation. Behind the scenes, the robot’s controls blend data from two sources in order to identify the speaker. The vision system lets the robots “see” whose mouth is moving. And the speech-recognition system’s stereo microphone allow them to “hear” from which direction the sound emanates – or more precisely, Hanson monitors phase difference in the stereo signal.

Identifying a speaker is just one example. Transforming all the sensory data into thousands of appropriate expressions in real time, requires thousands of rules, algorithms and even some reliance on a library of static expressions. And Hanson notes that human-like expressions have multiple degrees of freedom. For example, robots might simultaneously raise their eyebrows and open their mouths to register “surprise.” Creating all the rules that govern the expression generation relies as much “on cognitive science and my own intuition as it does on software engineering,” Hanson says.

For all his prowess controlling electric motors and packaging them within small robot skulls, Hanson does not believe conventional motors are really an ideal way to actuate robotic faces. In fact, he’s had to jump through hoops to use them as approximations of natural muscle movement. “Motors have inertial and shock behaviors that you don’t get with human muscle,” he says. Hanson has successfully accounted for these difficulties through linkage design. Often times he adds compliant elements to otherwise rigid linkages so they behave in a more naturalistic manner. Other times, though, he connects motors to a region of the face using braided nylon cables.

Always on the lookout for an alternative to motors, Hanson keeps close tabs on artificial muscle technology. Lately he has been evaluating piezo actuators, a project that has received some funding from the National Science Foundation. But he says these actuators are still too expensive, at roughly $700, for his real-world robots. Most of his hopes for future actuation rest on artificial muscles based on electroactive polymers. “They would eliminate a tremendous amount of mechanical complexity, especially if you could mold them into the skin,” he says.

Humanoid Robots Put Best Faces Forward

USB Batteries Lead the Charge

UK company’s USB batteries are a new take on an old problem

Lost in translation

Lost in translation

Sharing 3D CAD files is an on-going challenge, to say the least. First off, not every design team uses the same CAD tool, which can make the hand-off of a 3D model an exercise in translation and integration tools, most of which no one wants to master. Also, not everyone needing access to the data knows CAD, let alone your particular flavor. All of the CAD vendors have been actively trying to address the problem, pursuing a multitude of paths‹from so-called open CAD strategies to forging partnerships with rivals, even launching lightweight CAD sharing tools.

One software company on the periphery of CAD circles has actually put a lot of energy into the problem, and may, in fact, have the most straightforward and accessible solution. Adobe last year announced its Acrobat 3D software, which lets users create and publish 3D design data in the well-known Acrobat format, providing a familiar and cost-effective way to share these models with non-CAD users. Adobe just came out with a free download that delivers updated 3D CAD translators for Acrobat 3D, extending its support to the latest version of popular CAD file formats.

Simple, maybe. But a workable solution‹there¹s no doubt.

What About Fuel Cells?

What About Fuel Cells?

No alternative energy blog would be complete without a discussion of fuel cells.

Here’s all the history you need: in 1839, Sir William Grove created the first fuel cell. A few years earlier in 1824, Sadi Carnot demonstrated that the maximum efficiency of any heat engine is limited by the Carnot Efficiency. In short, the most work that can be derived from any power source via combustion is a function of how hot that fuel burns and how cold it is in the ambient environment.

Importantly, fuel cells are not Carnot-limited, setting them apart from automobile engines, diesel engines, coal/oil/natural-gas-fired power plants, and nuclear plants. Fuel cells do not ‘burn’ fuel in the conventional sense; they rely instead upon electrochemistry to free electrons from fuel and oxidizer. This process enables extraction of more energy from certain fuels than via combustion. Substantial buzz arose around fuel cells in the 1990’s because they seemed to represent a more efficient way to convert fossil fuel into energy.

For an exceedingly rosy view on the fuel cell industry, check out the Fuel Cells 2000 Web site. More balanced, academic-minded information on fuel cells can be found at the National Fuel Cell Research Center Web site and the Connecticut Global Fuel Cell Center Web site.

Ever wonder why fuel cells never seemed to evolve from “the next big thing” into commercial products? Significant problems are many, and aside from specific niche applications, no company has yet to manufacture a fuel cell product that tackles all the problems while remaining economically competitive.

Fuel cells rely upon catalytic electrolytes to drive electron-producing chemistry. These electrolytes are either extremely expensive or easily poisoned by trace fuel impurities (often its both). The principle fuel cell fuel is hydrogen, but no economically-viable hydrogen infrastructure yet exists to enable widespread hydrogen utilization. Furthermore, hydrogen has proven difficult to store and transport in a reliable manner using conventional technologies. Other fuels can be utilized in certain types of cell, but the majority of these are fossil-based. So adoption of fuel cells will not wean us from petroleum; it only prolongs our death throws.

My prediction is that fuel cells will continue to be around for a long time, partly because Joe Public and Jim Investor do not understand the technology’s limitations. However, companies with the best-of-breed technologies will also certainly penetrate specific markets to legitimately keep the fuel cell torch ablaze. For example, INI Power in Cary, NC will soon have all the pieces in place to compete with portable device batteries. Plug Power in Latham, NY is currently marketing a competitive back-up power solution. Nonetheless, without a substantial technology leap that I cannot fathom at this moment, there will never be a fuel cell in every car, every home, and on every desktop.

Vista Unlocks CAD Data

If a picture is worth a thousand words, wouldn’t a 3D image be all the more priceless? That logic belies the recent flurry of activity among CAD vendors to leverage Microsoft Corp.’s new Vista operating system and Office 7 productivity suite. They see the platform as a way to proliferate 3D design data to mainstream users who are integral to the product development process, but not necessarily part of the traditional engineering and design organization.

On the heels of Microsoft Vista’s release this January, most of the leading CAD software providers, including UGS, SolidWorks Corp., Autodesk Inc., and Dassault Systemes, are readying new versions of their programs that go beyond basic support of the operating system. Specifically, the new crop of CAD programs, most to be available later this year, will tap into Vista’s improved search, user interface, security, and performance enhancements to make the 3D experience richer and more productive, not to mention, accessible, at some level, to the typical productivity worker using Microsoft’s ubiquitous Office suite.

UGS, for example, is working to make its Teamcenter Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) platform directly accessible from the new Office 7 suite so non-engineers involved in product development — say, procurement specialists or sales reps — can gain access or provide early input on product designs without having to leave the comfort of their standard applications and without requiring them to purchase and learn a 3D CAD tool. Some vendors like SolidWorks are optimizing Vista’s built-in search functions to work with 3D CAD models with an eye toward promoting parts and design reuse, while others like Autodesk are tapping XML and 3D functionality in Vista to facilitate the sharing and markup of lightweight 3D models.

“We are seeing an increasing need for 3D across all industries,” says Simon Floyd, technology strategist for PLM, with Microsoft’s Enterprise Partner Group, which is part of the Redmond, WA-based software giant’s Manufacturing Industry Group. “3D speaks so well to people; rather than being restricted to CAD, medical applications, and games, we’ve taken some of the benefits those people have traditionally gotten in their 3D environments and put them into Vista.”

Opening up (or as some vendors say, democratizing) CAD data so it’s accessible across the enterprise and not locked away in a proprietary engineering system is absolutely essential in today’s global product design climate. Companies need tools that make it easier to share 3D models and iterate on designs with far flung suppliers and engineering partners who don’t necessarily have or need their chosen CAD tool. In addition, many functions outside of engineering — marketing, procurement or manufacturing, for example — need to weigh in during the design process, and a full-blown CAD environment can be overkill, both from a training and cost standpoint.

While Microsoft’s Vista and new Office platform certainly help CAD vendors unlock the intellectual property stored in their systems, it’s just one of many efforts underway to make product design and development more of a cross-functional process. “This is all part of the evolution of opening up CAD data,” says Mike Burkett, vice president with AMR Research Inc., a market-research firm in Boston. “Vista provides an incremental path these guys were headed down anyway — that is, to be able to interact more effectively with the non-engineering environment.”

Couch Potato, No More

Getting more people in an organization plugged into the rich set of product data is what UGS has been pursuing for some time with its open PLM strategy, according to Chris Kelly, UGS’ vice president of partnerships and platforms. Like many of its competitors, UGS offers lightweight visualization capabilities for allowing non-CAD users to view, rotate, and perform basic markup tasks on 3D models, and its Teamcenter Community offering builds on Microsoft’s SharePoint platform to facilitate collaboration around product-related data and tasks across an extended design chain. UGS’ support for Vista and its work-in-progress to integrate Teamcenter with the Office 7 environment are additional steps in that same direction, these giving non-CAD users the ability to create 3D data, not just consume it.

In Teamcenter 2007, slated for delivery in the second quarter, product-related documents or spreadsheets created in Word or Excel would be automatically routed to the appropriate Teamcenter workflow, where they could be acted upon, Kelly says. So, for example, if a service rep encountered a particular problem with a product, they could write up a report and a suggestion for a fix in Word, and that input would automatically be feed into the Teamcenter repository where it is immediately accessible to the engineering team. “With PLM, we’ve been talking for years about getting data outside of engineering and manufacturing, and all the talk so far has been more of a consumption push,” Kelly explains. “Office gives us a way to deliver tools to non-expert users, allowing them to actively participate rather than be PLM couch potatoes.

Vista’s 3D graphics engine and the XML Paper Specification (XPS) provide another avenue for CAD vendors to facilitate more widespread sharing of 3D CAD data. In this vein, Autodesk announced a collaboration with Microsoft to integrate its DWF (Design Web Format) technology into Vista, allowing users to view and manage the highly compressed and detailed DWF files without having to download the free viewer. For its part, Dassault has worked with Microsoft on the development of its 3-DXML, a lightweight 3D file sharing format, to make it fully compatible with XAML, the 3D language used by Microsoft Vista.

“Vista helps make DWF on par with other standard file formats in the PC world, like GIF,” notes Kevin Wandryk, senior director of marketing for Autodesk Collaboration Solutions, in San Raphael, CA. Previously, non-Autodesk users would have to download Autodesk’s free viewing and editing tools over the Web in order to make use of DWF files. With Vista, Wandryk explains, users won’t need to take that extra step to view DWF files.

Improving the CAD Experience

Beyond opening up CAD data to the masses, Vista ushers in a variety of functionality that can help improve the overall CAD experience, including a new desktop search function. In its 2007 release, due out this quarter [NOTE: Q1] SolidWorks is leveraging its knowledge of how 3D CAD users work to add intelligence to Vista’s Instant Search feature, making it easier for CAD users to browse and find designs for reuse. “There’s a lot of data locked into CAD systems in different formats, which presents a big barrier for design reuse or repurposing,” says Austin O’Malley, chief technology officer at SolidWorks, in Concord, MA. “People haven’t had a good way to categorize data or define the data they want to reuse — it’s easier to find something on the Internet than on your laptop. Vista’s comprehensive search makes it easier to find data based on entering key words or terms.”

Vista’s new Aero Interface – which touts slick capabilities like translucent windows, dynamic reflections, and smooth animation—is much better suited for 3D use, experts contend, enabling CAD users to focus on their content, not their tools. Aero is just one element of Vista that Dassault is leveraging for its next-generation CAD and PLM products, according to Kendall Pond, vice president of business development for the Surenes, France, company. In the forthcoming Enovia 3D Live product, currently in beta test and due out later this year, Dassault is taking advantage of its work around Service Oriented Architecture as well as tapping into Vista’s new interface, search, security, and collaboration capabilities to allow individuals to instantly search for and navigate design information, regardless of location, source or format, Pond says.

Vista’s new UI capabilities support better desktop organization for CAD use. “There are more capabilities for customizing the desktop to maximize real estate,” Pond says. “This lets you have information at your fingertips, but not in your face.”

Other vendors, while intrigued by Vista’s capabilities, said the operating system is by no means the panacea for unleashing CAD data. Alibre Inc., which markets a sub-$1,000 CAD tool, is focused on making high-end CAD functionality more accessible to the traditional engineering environment, while PTC, of Needham, MA, maintains a PLM backbone, not tight integration to Microsoft technology, is a better route for spreading design data to more users, officials there say.

“Providing 95 percent of CAD functionality at one-fifth the price and opening up your data model — those are the things that push CAD data out, not necessarily a new platform,” says Greg Milliken, CEO, of the Richardson, TX, firm.

There are other challenges to the plan to democratize 3D data, particularly if the vehicle is Vista. Like with most new operating system platforms, analysts expect a slow ramp up for Vista adoption over the next three to five years. In addition, there are cultural obstacles and ownership issues related to design engineers’ traditional reticence about sharing their work-in-progress with non-engineers as well as a lack of real understanding of how to best leverage 3D design data across cross-functional business processes. “While we’re seeing features that open up CAD data to the mass market, the mass market still requires more education on what it can do for them,” AMR’s Burkett says.

Even so, today’s greater emphasis on global product development, outsourcing, and extended design teams are fueling companies’ desire to scale all of these hurdles, one step at a time. “The whole process of collaboration and sharing design work with other partners or parts of the business is being seen today by engineering as more of the way to do business rather than being viewed as a danger,” says Ken Amann, director of research for CIMdata Inc., an Ann Arbor, MI, consulting firm specializing in the CAD and design market.