ROI: Collaboration by Design

Needless, duplicate efforts and systems that can't share data are about to become obsolete for companies that design parts for the manufacturing process.

[From iSource Business, June/July 2002] There's more to the supply chain than meets the eye  at least in industries that produce complex mechanical products. While some people may think the supply chain starts when parts are purchased to feed the manufacturing process, they miss the fact that those parts must first be designed. The many unique parts that will make up the first car, airplane or cell phone in a production run don't magically appear in inventory, ready for assembly. They are the result of a complex, often lengthy development process.

This is the engineering supply chain, and it increasingly entails the need for collaborative work among engineers operating as an extended design team. For example, two companies, a manufacturer and a supplier, often work together to create a part or an assembly that is designed to the specifications of the manufacturer. The computer software that is used during this process is called a computer-aided design (CAD) system, and it allows a three-dimensional part to be designed from a library of individual features included in the software. The CAD program, coupled with a companion analysis program, allows the designer to evaluate the properties of a part, including its mass, center of gravity and structural strength. However, designers admit that CAD software falls short when different suppliers use different individual proprietary data formats, resulting in incompatibility that adds time and cost to the development cycle. This longstanding issue has grown worse as automotive companies increasingly require suppliers to take on more design responsibilities, and as mergers in the automotive and aerospace industries bring together previously unassociated groups of engineers.

According to a 1999 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Imperfect interoperability imposes at least $1 billion per year on members of the U.S. automotive supply chain. This big-picture view of the engineering supply chain, coupled with the fact that product development constitutes at least 70 percent of the cost of bringing a new product to market, leaves little to prove about the need for improved business efficiency.

Imperfect Interoperability

It is under these circumstances that the designers employed by Freudenberg-NOK, a supplier of gaskets, seals, engine mounts and related products to U.S.-based automotive manufacturers, labor.

Freudenberg-NOK is the American partnership of Freudenberg & Co., of Weinheim, Germany; and NOK, of Tokyo, Japan, with annual revenues of nearly $1 billion. In particular, the company designs and manufactures seal and vibration control equipment for automotive and general industry markets. Its native CAD environment is EDS PLM Solutions' Unigraphics software; however, because Freudenberg-NOK strives to serve a diverse base of customers, its native software is not always efficient. For instance, while the Unigraphics software is the system predominately used by General Motors, one of the supplier's customers, another customer, Ford Motor Co., has standardized on EDS PLM Solutions' I-DEAS (formerly SDRC I-DEAS). Additionally, yet another customer, DaimlerChrysler, requires that designs be delivered in the data format of Dassault Systemes' CATIA package. In order to work just as seamlessly with Ford and DaimlerChrysler as it does with GM, Freudenberg-NOK must deliver part designs in the companies' preferred format.

Tom Gill, director of CAE technology and support at Freudenberg-NOK, says, We use three different high-end CAD/CAM [computer-aided manufacturing] systems to meet our customer's product development requirements. Typically, we do most of our work in one core system and manually replicate data to meet customer CAD system requirements. Freudenberg-NOK is a Six Sigma company that highlights its Growtth® program, which encourages employees to work toward increasing efficiencies in the use of time, labor, materials and space. This culture led to the logical desire to find a way to free its designers from having to duplicate efforts.

That's when they began looking at Marlborough, Mass.-based Proficiency, which provides software solutions and services that allow product designs to be shared more readily among engineers using disparate design software. Last year, the company approached several large manufacturer and supplier corporations, like Lockheed Martin, Caterpillar and Freudenberg-NOK, to participate in beta-testing its Collaboration Gateway software product. The Collaboration Gateway is Web-based software that enables the preservation and sharing of product design information between suppliers' disparate CAD systems.

According to Gill, during the beta testing Freudenberg-NOK was specifically looking for the software to enable its designers to create parametric data in one system and modify it using another. With the Collaboration Gateway software, A designer on one system no longer has to request data from a designer on the other system. Collaboration Gateway directly accesses the native databases, Gill explains. In addition, he said Freudenberg-NOK was able to build a case to justify the cost of licensing the software  and that is exactly what it did in September 2001, when Proficiency released its product to market.

The Outcome

While it's premature for any ROI numbers as of yet, Freudenberg-NOK is very pleased with the product and its usefulness in addressing the company's design collaboration problem. It has effectively added capacity to its CAD system throughput and shortened lead-times, since less data has to be recreated. Gill did say they would liked to have run a larger volume of test cases during the beta tests in order to provide more feedback to Proficiency, despite it being a time-consuming process. In the end, however, Gill comments that, The Holy Grail is to support all feature types on all systems. We are pleased with the development direction [of Collaboration Gateway]. The feature set in v1.0 and what is being proposed for the next release shows that they took our input to heart. 

Michael Jannery, vice president of marketing at Proficiency, similarly suggests: It's advisable for potential customers to submit a representative sample of their own designs to the supplier of any CAD interoperability solution prior to purchase and ask the supplier to translate these parts. The more of this kind of testing is done, the more certain both parties can be that the solution will do the job.

Streamlining the product design process has always been important for companies in the manufacturing industries, since it has long been frustrating and economically painful. Gill says Freudenberg-NOK has seen this effort evolve from automating specific functions, such as drafting, to today's focus on automating the process via various collaboration initiatives. Companies focused on the engineering supply chain continue to tighten their processes and the steps being taken by Proficiency and Freudenberg-NOK will further advance this important endeavor.