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Software trips the light fantastic

March 1, 2000

10 Min Read
Software trips the light fantastic

Free enterprise is a wondrous concept . . . except when it comes to software. One almost wishes that a major player would buy up the other vendors and make them all speak the same language. Blasphemy? OK, the idea is a bit harsh and improbable. But when it comes to sorting out the finer points of new engineering software offerings, many designers are caught between the robust and the newest revision. What you may be searching for, instead of software conflicts and jargon, is a clear explanation.

This quest becomes especially pertinent in light of the countless new packages that have danced their way to market recently. Several are highlighted here, with descriptions of the general class of software to which they belong. (For more details, please check the contact information at the end of this article.) Spanning categories from CAD to collaboration, these virtuoso performers stand out—they’re well worth the time it takes to get to know them.

Pay as You Go
And you thought all the good ideas were already taken. Although free enterprise spurs a confusing variety of software, it also fosters pioneering moves among vendors. A recent example is the emergence of ASPs, or application service providers. Basically, these are software vendors that supply a myriad of pay-as-you-go services, from renting software on a monthly basis to repairing a solid model for a fee, by using the Web as a means of distribution.

One such ASP that offers model translation and healing on a per-use basis is 3Dmodelserver.com from Spatial Technology Inc. Customers need a standard Web browser (Navigator 4 or higher, Internet Explorer 3 or higher) and an Internet connection to access the site. Once there, users click on the option to register, complete the log-in information, and follow the instructions to upload a model in either SAT or IGES format. Users are then prompted to indicate their translation and healing preferences and to submit a 3-D model.

Customers are notified by e-mail when the model has been successfully uploaded, and the progress of each model can be tracked through a status page on the website. When processing is complete, an e-mail notification is sent out, and the customer can log onto the site and download the model. On download of the file, the site provides a comprehensive report of the repair activity and the processes used.

CollabWare is an ASP and software developer that recently announced the availability of GS-Design, a high-end solid-modeling CAD system designed from the ground up for use over the Internet. Originally developed at Lockheed Martin for aerospace programs such as the F-22 Stealth fighter, this package can model ultralarge assemblies with ease.

By renting GS-Design on a monthly basis, designers from separate geographic locations can get together in cyberspace to work concurrently on the same project (can you say "virtual meeting"?). The program manages revisions and configurations, and provides secure central storage of design data. Each user can see the state of the design in real time, making version control problems a thing of the past.

Cyber Meetings
While collabware.com is a site specific to one CAD system, others allow design review meetings using any and all systems. Not unlike high-tech chat rooms, these programs enable OEMs and suppliers to work together without leaving their desks.

One of the front-runners in this new field is Framework Technologies’ ActiveProject 5.0, software that builds and manages project websites, or extranets. Any type of information—documents, CAD files, photos, spreadsheets, project schedules—can be published and maintained on the site. Participants can review, mark up, and add comments directly using a Web browser. An integrated search function makes it easier to navigate, and users can define tabs as needed to mark separate project areas.

According to Framework’s Brian Giuffrida, in its most basic form, a project extranet is a modern-day proxy to the filing cabinet. "But with its basis in the World Wide Web, the project extranet offers several extras that can prove invaluable to projects that span multiple firms, disciplines, and locations," he says.

Unlike the traditional filing cabinet, the project extranet centralizes project information, giving teams the right information at the right time and place and reducing or eliminating costly, time-consuming manual distribution by mail or fax. It also delivers information in electronic form so that it can be manipulated and modified, integrates information in external applications or databases, and permits project documents to be shared with individuals from other firms. Activity is automatically catalogued, and the program manages access rights and security issues.

Designing the Best
In its earliest incarnations, moldfilling simulations were mere ballpark estimates of whether or not a mold would fill given a particular part design. Fast forward to today’s sophisticated packages and you’ll find that a lot has changed. Software vendors now aim for optimizing designs automatically, providing tools that guide designers toward the lowest cycle times and best processing conditions.

Moldflow’s newest offering, MPA 4.0, is the latest in the Plastics Adviser series, and consists of both Part and Mold Adviser packages. Its intent is to raise the bar by taking the guesswork out of part and mold design. Automatic gate location, for example, identifies optimal gate placement based on geometry and filling patterns. Another feature, process condition optimization, lets users automate the selection of these para-meters based on their choice of part geometry, material, and gate location.

In addition to the confidence-of-fill plot available with previous MPA versions, 4.0 adds a quality plot that gives insight into resulting quality of injection molded parts. Automatic runner balancing completes the picture to ensure that each cavity fills at basically the same time and pressure for better part consistency.

Take Two Aspirin
Mold designers often feel the impact of this issue most keenly, but part designers are no strangers to it either. The issue? Repairing imported CAD models, otherwise known as the dreaded interoperability problem.

Here’s the scenario: An OEM designer sends CAD files out to suppliers. The file is sent in an IGES format and then imported into the suppliers’ systems. Often, the originating CAD system and the receiving one are different. When the supplier tries to work on the imported file, its designers find a variety of errors in the 3-D model, from missing and duplicate surfaces to gaps and leaks. Downtime associated with rebuilding these models is a major frustration.

Fortunately, help isn’t hard to find. Cadkey, for example, realized that its mold designer customer base needed tools to overcome model repair problems. In its newest release, Cadkey 99, it has included two interoperability tools that significantly reduce the time spent on model rework.

One, called the solid body healer, fixes missing and duplicate surfaces, bad surface normals, warped and self-intersecting surfaces, and low-tolerance models. This feature can be run manually or in interactive mode. The second tool, a tolerant edge function, selectively loosens tolerances at small leaks in a 3-D model and assigns new properties to these areas. If the tolerance adjustment can close the gap, the model will behave as a closed body and designers can use traditional solid modeling operations on it.

CADfix for Ansys (through a joint collaboration with International TechneGroup—ITI—and Ansys), another new package, specializes in repairing models for finite-element analysis (FEA) within Ansys. Aimed at Catia users initially, this software improves interoperability by automatically repairing models from a wide range of leading CAD systems to get them ready for FEA.

Eric Underwood, product manager for Ansys, explains, "Most CAD models built today cannot be used ‘as-is’ by downstream applications such as engineering simulations. CADfix for Ansys attempts to repair most of these problems in an automated process. If these problems cannot be fixed, then the specific problem areas are displayed in a manner that guides the customer through a manual repair process."

Easing the 3-D Switch
Going from 2-D to 3-D in CAD can upset even the most stable of engineering departments. Two software suppliers are letting you know that the ground doesn’t have to shake when you make the switch.

Unigraphics’ Solid Edge, for example, contains fully integrated 2-D and 3-D design functions, so that users can still create drawings from scratch in the 2-D drafting system while also being able to create 3-D solid models using parametric feature-based techniques. Support for AutoCAD files means that these 2-D models can be imported and exported. Creating 2-D drawing views from solid models can also be done automatically. Finally, demos walk users through the process of using 2-D CAD data to create 3-D solid part models.

Through its Origin program, Unigraphics makes limited function copies of Solid Edge available at no cost to designers interested in trying solid modeling. Since its inception in August 1999, the program has gained 36,000 users, and is now sending out 4000 copies per week.

Unlike some 3-D modelers, Solid Edge was designed with a full 2-D drafting module. Former 2-D users report faster drawing times with this module. One customer is creating drawings for complex parts eight times faster. Other advantages revolve around the 3-D capability—being able to check part fits virtually, avoid errors in an assembly, and export the 3-D file for use in downstream processes.

Microcadam’s new Helix2000 lends a hand to 2-D users with its Helix Capture function, which lets designers create solid models based on 2-D AutoCAD drawings in as little as five minutes. Users can choose between automatic mode or generative design. While in AutoCAD, users define views for Capture’s structure (i.e., first and third angle views), and then click on Capture to load the views automatically. If generative design is preferred, designers can make intelligent feature picks with the cursor.

A dual-hybrid modeler within the program also integrates surfaces with solids, and combines both parametric and topological design change. Major customer Sony, with 1200 seats, has been able to cut design times for new television sets down to four months.

What About the Cost?
Living in a bottom-line world as we all do, designers often face trade-offs between the optimal design and the most cost-efficient one. At times, the decision comes down to the best that can be done at the target cost. In any case, the more information on costs a designer can get in the early stages of product development, the better. Need some assistance in this area?

In its newest version, DFM Concurrent Costing 1.1 (Boothroyd Dewhurst Inc.) has added injection molding to the list of available processes. The software isolates the major cost drivers associated with a wide range of processes, and guides decisions about materials and processes during the concept and detailed design stages. One intent of cost-estimating, according to BDI, is to help engineers consider how individual part features might be modified to reduce manufacturing costs.

If you’re already using solid models, the program now accepts 3-D files from all major CAD systems, using the geometry to calculate estimated manufacturing costs. This feature is supported by the Solid View/Pro 3-D viewer from Solid Concepts.

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