Collaboration by Design

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

There's more to the supply chain than meets the eye - at least in industries that produce complex mechanical products. While most people might consider the supply chain to start with the purchasing of parts to feed the manufacturing process, this ignores the question of how those parts were designed in the first place. The many unique parts that will make up the first car, airplane, bulldozer or cell phone in a production run don't magically appear in inventory, ready for assembly. They are the result of a complex, sometimes very 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 used during this process is a computer-aided design (CAD) system that allows a three-dimensional part to be designed from a library of many individual features included in the software. The CAD program, coupled with a companion analysis program, also allows the designer to evaluate the properties of a part, including its mass, center of gravity and structural strength. However, CAD software from different suppliers uses individual proprietary data formats. If different members of a design team use different CAD systems, this incompatibility causes headaches, adding time and cost to the development cycle. This longstanding issue has become a bigger problem as automotive companies increasingly require that suppliers 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 for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Imperfect interoperability imposes at least $1 billion dollars 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, shows the opportunity 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 very diverse base of customers, its native software is not always totally 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); and 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, said, 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, Ford, GKN 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 high-order product design information between users of mechanical CAD systems from different suppliers.


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. In other words, the designers wanted to be able to share data between CAD systems and modify the product once the initial design had been created, and that is what the Collaboration Gateway software offered. 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, he explained. In addition, Gill 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. Ford is also in the process of acquiring the Collaboration Gateway.


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 that they would like 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 commented 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 suggested: 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.


Dr. Ken Versprille, research director of design creation and collaboration for D.H. Brown Associates Inc., called Proficiency's technology disruptive, in that it forces users and suppliers alike to re-look at their overall process of design and how they deploy specific software tools to that process. [Proficiency's] Universal file format has the potential to become a de facto standard in the industry that, in many practical applications, could outpace alternatives for engineering standards, such as STEP [Standard for the Exchange of Product Model Data] and IGES [Initial Graphics Exchange Specification].


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 said 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.