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Report: Wider access to 3D CAD images can improve PLM

IDC says manufacturers should exploit 3D CAD and other product design software to improve collaboration throughout their product lifecycles.

Manufacturers can improve decision making by intensifying their use of visual product information and product design software throughout their organizations and supply chains, according to a recent report from IDC Manufacturing Insights.

However, some manufacturers that have made the effort say it requires significant bandwidth investment.

Longer supply chains, accelerated business processes, and increased use of outsourcing are prodding manufacturers to find ways to improve multidisciplinary collaboration, according to Joe Barkai, practice director with the Framingham, Mass.-based research firm and co-author of the report.

“It’s no longer possible to make decisions in a series,” Barkai said. “You make design decisions early in the process and are not able to undo them later.”

But conflicting goals and inadequate product design tools make collaboration challenging, he said. Supply chain managers seek lower costs, while design wants the best of everything, and “they don’t have any means to communicate their different views,” he said. “I’m not suggesting product design is a democracy, but at least every stakeholder has to understand the considerations of all the other stakeholders.”

Technology like 3D CAD design software, simulation, and virtual reality can encourage collaboration by synthesizing product data sources and making them accessible to broader communities of decision makers, according to the report.

Visual information has the most impact in the “process interfaces” where departments hand off decisions to one another, Barkai said. For example, by improving visualization in product lifecycle management (PLM), companies can see how designing better quality into a product can reduce service costs. . 

Aberdeen Group came to similar conclusions about the untapped value of 3D CAD in a recent study of 166 companies. Successful companies are more likely to include 3D models in manuals and work instructions and to use visual technologies to solicit design feedback, plan manufacturing processes, and validate products with customers, according to Aberdeen. Companies should pair PLM software with enterprise content management (ECM), Aberdeen's senior research associate David Houlihan said.

“If PLM provides a central foundation, ECM extends the benefits of that foundation to non-technical organizations,” Houlihan wrote in the Aberdeen study.

That's what Exmark Manufacturing Co. Inc., a Bloomington, Minn., maker of lawnmowers, hopes to achieve. Exmark is launching Windchilll from Parametric Technology Corp. (PTC) next year to replace a homegrown PLM system and manage files created in Pro/ENGINEER, PTC’s flagship CAD platform. Currently, Exmark's legacy document-management system, EMC Documentum, is not good at managing those files, according to Brian York, Exmark's engineering process improvement specialist. The company also maintains an SAP-based extranet where suppliers can view CAD drawings and other product information.

Exmark also wants to use Windchill to improve process plans and work instructions. A Windchilll module called MPMLink can build work instructions from a CAD bill of materials (BOM).

“If the CAD data changes, you’ll have to change that or the data will update for you,” York said.

A previously planned network upgrade, including new server replication, is well timed for Windchill. “It’s important that you do have a good WAN,” he said.

Seeing PLM in 3D

PLM platforms contain visualization technology but don’t always use it in ways that optimize collaborative decision making, according to the IDC report. For example, all PLM platforms come with image viewers, the most popular of which is Adobe’s 3D PDF, a format that allows embedding of dynamic, live designs, Barkai said. But it is read-only, which makes it less useful for collaboration than it could be.

To be useful in decision making, a PLM package should provide the full range of dimensionality -- 2D, so-called 2-1/2D, and fully immersive 3D -- along with the data richness and interactivity needed to tailor context-sensitive views of product information for different users, according to the report. A quality-control manager, for example, could ask the supply chain for a part that complies better with heat-resistance specifications. Design engineers could then use that information to improve their designs. The heat dissipation problems of the old part might have been discovered in a 3D simulation that was shared among the three departments.

But tailoring the views requires some finesse. Barkai said that one manufacturer whose simulations of ergonomic stresses looked unconvincingly cartoonish to inexperienced observers still persuaded engineers who understood the complex algorithms behind the pictures.

Also, manufacturers that are good at sharing visual information often do so not in PLM software but over generic collaboration platforms.

“We are seeing more and more manufacturing companies using [Microsoft] SharePoint as their collaboration platform,” Barkai said.

SharePoint also helps control access rights to intellectual property and makes it easy to start and record discussions. Siemens PLM Software’s TeamCenter and PTC's SharePoint-like ProductView have comparable features, he said.

Faster product development -- for a price

For Voll Corn, product manager for services at Dell Inc., deploying Windchill to approximately 250 mechanical engineers helped unify fragmented images and product data, ease internal and external collaboration, and streamline product development. Corn said the greater efficiency allowed Dell to reduce its engineering workforce.

Previously, engineers would meet in rooms equipped with two computers and a whiteboard, then endure long conferences over Microsoft PowerPoint slides with remote suppliers in Asia. “It really kind of is out of the dark ages,” he said.

Three of Dell’s top-tier suppliers, including MiTAC, a motherboard maker in Taiwan, had already deployed the software to tens of thousands of workers. Dell engineers were already using Pro/ENGINEER. When the decision came to add Windchill, the sentiment among engineers was, “This is going to … help us get out of this PowerPoint engineering hell we’re in,” said Corn, who served as the implementation’s project manager.

Usability testers can now provide feedback on new designs earlier in the development process, and technical writers get a quicker start on manuals. Windchill has also made it easier for Dell to offload more of its design work, including drafting, to offshore partners, according to Corn.

“Once all the offshore manufacturers had visibility into our designs and we had all the products in the system, it was pretty obvious they could accomplish most of what we did in PowerPoint,” he said. Each supplier can view the information Dell wants it to see but can’t see what other suppliers are doing.

Bandwidth was the one big hitch in the project, as the company saw its networks choke on large graphic files.

“It took minutes,” Corn said. “A lot of the engineers weren’t happy with the slowdown. Even in some of our Round Rock facilities, the bandwidth was horrible,” he said, referring to Dell’s headquarters. One part of the network had to be completely reconfigured, the company installed network switches, and server load balancing was added in every geographic region. “We just didn’t ever think that we should test the networks for latency.”

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