Software for collaborating with global teams

January 06, 2009

You may not have realized it, but the ubiquitous PDF file can be used for exchanging 3D data to streamline product development and reduce manufacturing costs.

When the 3D interrogation and collaboration tools are enabled in Adobe Reader, multiple reviewers can add comments to PDF files.

Suppliers can extract the CAD data they need from the 3D PDF into their own specialized data formats, such as STEP, IGES, STL, or Parasolid files.

A bid package that includes interactive forms, technical specifications, functional specifications, and 3D images can be contained within a single, searchable PDF.

The heat is on in today’s economic environment. Manufacturers everywhere are trying to complete projects better, faster, and for less, and collaboration is key to achieving these goals. In a recent study of engineers and managers in manufacturing that Harris Interactive Inc. (Rochester, NY) conducted for Adobe Systems Inc. (San Jose, CA), 71% of respondents said that collaboration reduced design flaws for fewer delays and overruns, 69% said that it increased quality, and 63% claimed that it increased productivity (see below for details on the study).

Electronic communication is key to collaboration. It can help remote suppliers, offshore production facilities, and dispersed project teams immediately get on the same page. But when that “page” is a CAD or native file or a paper document, collaboration can be slow. Companies are often reluctant to share CAD files widely because their intellectual property could be stolen. Plus, large CAD and native files can be difficult to transmit. And once the files finally arrive at their destinations, reviewers often need specialized applications to view the files—raising issues such as expensive licensing, support, and implementation.

One of the most telling findings of the Harris Interactive study is that while 70% of respondents work with CAD files, 71% of all respondents were not satisfied with CAD reviews at their companies. Some have even tried going back to paper. Industrial manufacturer Eaton Corp. (Cleveland, OH) tried to give its customer service engineers paper documentation on its backup power supply products, but printed pages couldn’t come close to conveying the complexity of the products. Porkka Finland, a European manufacturer of refrigeration systems, tried reverting to paper-based collaboration, but experienced long delays as project teams printed, copied, managed, and shipped stacks of materials.

No wonder 75% of survey respondents say the ability to share electronic documents is a “must have.” In the search for easy electronic access to complex 2D and 3D information, Porkka tried importing AutoCAD DXF files into Microsoft applications, but the large files were difficult to e-mail and did not reliably display content. Indak Mfg. Corp. (Farmington Hills, MI), a designer and manufacturer of automotive and electronics OEM devices, tried to communicate using 2D bitmaps, but the bitmaps didn’t allow reviewers to interrogate the design data from every angle, which slowed the process. Custom molder and moldmaker Bradrock Industries (Des Plaines, IL) tried distributing 2D designs to its partners, but its engineers then had to spend hours on the phone answering their questions.

“Nothing communicates design intent more clearly than 3D,” comments Nick Butkovich, a project manager at Bradrock. Frustrated by the limitations of other approaches, all these manufacturers—and hundreds of others—now convert 2D and 3D project documents created in multiple applications to platform- and application-independent PDF files (see below for a description of PDF). Three-dimensional PDF files can be as much as 90% smaller than CAD files, yet still capture the 3D details of CAD data. They are easy to distribute and manage and contain precise design geometry, including dimensions and tolerances, directly on the 3D model.

View, understand, interact

In the drive to improve collaboration, engineering teams are looking at the more basic challenge of sharing designs with larger constituencies. In many design/development processes, a typical 3D PDF may have 50 viewers with differing skills, so one of the most significant benefits of easily viewable 3D files is that the information is immediately comprehensible.

For instance, by distributing 3D designs in PDF, contract engineering firm Atrus Inc. (Canton, OH) has accelerated review cycles by as much as 200%. Bradrock has also accelerated review cycles—and measured a 20% reduction in product development times because of clearer communication and fewer errors.

“For our clients, acceleration translates to faster time to market, providing more time to recoup R&D investments and the ability to gain an edge over competitors,” explains Doug Dominick, president of Atrus. “For us, it means lower overhead costs and improved client services—and more design projects.”

Suppliers, customers, and manufacturing and marketing personnel can do more than view the engineering designs. They can interact with them. “Acrobat integrates nicely into engineering change processes,” says Jeff Walker, principal engineer at Atrus. “Multiple reviewers can add comments to PDF files . . . . [It’s] much simpler than dealing with paper and can be incorporated into existing engineering change workflows.”

All constituents participating in Atrus processes can review designs, rotate images, cut cross sections, measure, and zoom in or out using free Adobe Reader software. For in-depth analysis, Adobe 3D Reviewer is included with Acrobat 9 Pro Extended. While less complex than CAD software, this application enables reviewers to merge heterogeneous CAD files, compare and measure precise geometry, move and delete parts, add animations, and create exploded views and bills of material.

Because recipients can view and comment on 3D PDF files using free, ubiquitous client software, everyone in the supply chain can save money on specialized applications to view CAD files. For example, using Acrobat 9 Pro Extended in combination with Adobe Reader, Indak was able to save thousands of dollars that it used to spend on CAD translators.

For many companies, the cost of CAD translators is a barrier to 3D collaboration. “We cannot require our partners—or even other groups within our company—to purchase specialized software,” says Bradrock’s Butkovich. Workarounds ultimately slow progress. For example, Sunbeam Corp. in Australia saved the cost of deploying CAD software on every desktop by having design engineers bring CAD-enabled computers to face-to-face meetings or distribute 2D images when meetings were not possible. However, this resulted in delays because meetings could not be held immediately and 2D images were hard to interpret. Now, Sunbeam’s product designers convert CAD design files to compact PDF files and distribute them electronically and instantly.

The value of integration and security

Manufacturers can reuse the models captured in 3D PDF files both to speed downstream manufacturing processes and to create richer technical documentation. Suppliers, for example, can extract the CAD data they need from the 3D PDF into their own specialized data formats, such as STEP, IGES, STL, or Parasolid files, to use in their machining and manufacturing applications. They don’t need to recreate the data to move it into another format.

At Eaton, technical writers integrate 3D PDF files directly into maintenance manuals. This is faster—and better—than producing traditional documentation. Customer service engineers using these manuals can rotate parts and assemblies to view them from all angles, measure elements, and cut cross sections. If engineers wish to collaborate on a request, they can initiate a Web conference and ensure everyone is looking at the same model. Within a PDF file, manufacturers can share not only their 3D CAD data, but also virtually any type of product data, such as a technical specification created in Microsoft Excel or product specifications in Microsoft Word. This can streamline processes by helping ensure constituents have all the information they need to do their jobs within a single, searchable PDF. For example, a procurement manager can create a bid package that includes interactive forms, technical specifications, functional specifications, and 3D design data to help ensure suppliers have all the data they need to make their bids.

Recall that Harris Interactive survey respondents—around 50% of them—­expressed concern about information control. Here, too, 3D PDF offers an advantage over CAD files: Extensive passwords, encryption features, digital signatures, and advanced security policies prevent unauthorized copying, printing, and forwarding. With 3D PDF files, manufacturers reach the right audiences with the right information while safeguarding intellectual property. Some project team members may need viewing rights only, others may need full comment and markup rights, and some should be allowed to view but not print documents. The author of the file can specify who can print, edit, extract information, and copy the file.

Here’s the breakdown: To make use of all the capabilities mentioned above, in addition to support for interactive on-demand presentations, video, and more traditional forms of data, 3D Acrobat 9 Pro Extended is available for purchase, while those needing only to review and mark up 3D PDF files can download the free Adobe Reader.

A quick look at PDF

PDF, or Portable Document Format, enables universal exchange of documents because it represents them in a manner independent of application software, hardware, and operating system. PDF enables secure visualization, collaboration, CAD data exchange, and data publishing across the entire product life cycle. Each PDF file encapsulates a complete description of a fixed-layout 2D document or embedded 3D documents that includes text, fonts, images, and vector graphics.

With support for industry-leading compression technology, 3D PDF files can contain precise geometry from large, complex CAD assemblies in an archive-quality format, making them useful for sharing 3D product structures, product manufacturing information, and metadata. Many CAD software manufacturers—including SolidWorks, PTC, Lattice, Right Hemisphere, and Actify—now output 3D PDF files directly from their systems.

Rak Bhalla ([email protected]) is a senior marketing manager in the Business Productivity unit at Adobe Systems Inc. He is responsible for developing marketing strategies and driving marketing programs for the company’s desktop and server solutions software in the manufacturing industry.


Lost in translation?

With this study showing a market shift toward an increased reliance on native file formats and a large amount of time being spent on cleaning up data, investing in translation software may help companies edge ahead of the competition.

A survey was conducted for the fourth year by Longview Advisors (Loveland, CO; to determine how professionals in discrete manufacturing environments deal with collaboration and interoperability issues. Questions were aimed at two target audiences—suppliers and OEMs—and the 538 responses came from a variety of job functions and company sizes, with half of the companies indicating that less than 100 people are involved in product design and engineering. More than 70% of respondents were in North America, and the largest industry representation came from the aerospace and defense (17%) and automotive (16.6%) industries.

According to the survey, there’s been a shift in the most often used primary CAD systems, with 27% using SolidWorks, 16.1% using Pro/Engineer, and 15.8% using Catia V5; AutoCAD was the most widely used secondary system. Across all respondents, the majority of new designs reuse between 50% and 74% of existing CAD data, which shows the potential need for older data to continue to be compatible with newer versions of software, and the potential need for interoperability tools to continue to support this.

Of the respondents that reuse CAD data, only 10% felt that the data was always in the required format, with the largest percentage of respondents, 23%, believing that they had the right format data available between 75% and 89% of the time. Up from 54% from last year, 66% of respondents said they have a centralized, corporate team responsible for overseeing processes and technologies for CAD data exchange. There was a drop in the number of respondents that claim to be using CAD translation software from last year, from 38% to 33%; this is partly attributed to the wider reach of this year’s survey (smaller engineering and manufacturing firms participated that do not invest in translation software the way larger firms do).

All respondents said that they exchange data with suppliers, with an increase from 26.7% to 32.4% indicating that they require suppliers to use a specific CAD format. A little more than half said they accept data in any of multiple preferred formats, and only 8.1% said they require CAD data in an industry standard format, such as STEP or IGES—a drastic decrease from 43% last year.
Findings also show that suppliers are less efficient in translating and cleaning CAD data than the average OEM, because OEMs tend to have full-time employees who deal with interoperability, while suppliers have engineers devoting 3-10 hours a week to translating and cleaning CAD data. This suggests that suppliers may benefit from investing in interoperability tools, rather than throwing human resources at it.

Here are two overall trends:

• The interoperability market is shifting toward an increased reliance on native file formats, though STEP remains the most common format for 3D interchange.

• CAD translation software has not increased its market penetration and customer satisfaction in the last year.

David Prawel, founder and president of Longview Advisors, offers some insight on the findings of the survey. He believes that poor interoperability between CAD systems continues to plague innovation and crush productivity. Although more attention is now being given to the problem, it’s usually because some motivated individual has taken it on, and is willing to fight uphill to deal with it. “Most often I hear of indecision—sticking with the status quo,” he observes. “Regardless of the obvious cost and waste caused by interoperability problems, it’s incredibly common to see management delay any decision to do anything about it, often for years.”

Prawel believes that other than the obvious direct costs of time lost in correcting poor data translations and recreating lost data, another major cost is losing the knowledge your experienced designers have built into your product designs. The features, design intent, and manufacturing information that could be included in your product data are valuable assets not usually available to anyone else—even other members of the same CAD department. Often there is a significant difference between the amount of product data actually reused and how much management believes is reused. Designing products multiple times can be very costly. The cost of reusing poor CAD data can be huge, as errors are inevitably introduced each time CAD data is reworked or remastered, creating lower quality that can cause problems downstream.

In the age of lean thinking, Prawel thinks that there is no better example of waste than squandering away valuable engineering resources working on problems that technology is proven to address fairly well. Using data exchange tools would free talented people to innovate more, build better-quality products that customers want, and beat the competition.

A full version of the survey, along with related articles from CAD-related companies that helped sponsor the survey, can be requested on Longview’s website.—Kate Dixon

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