December 2001

Design Application Feature

Software soothes the angry

Tom Shelley looks at some of the engineering software developments revealed at the recent CIM and Manufacturing Week shows. Particularly those designed to reduce stress and ease and speed the engineering process.

It turns out that complaining customers can be soothed with software rather than making pleasant sounding excuses. It can ensure that problems are dealt with properly and promptly, and keep complainers and management fully informed.

Communications and management of data is key, as always, both tasks which information technology is particularly good at, when organised properly. This is just one of the developments aimed at improving the management of the design and improvement process, by enhancing the tracking and flow of information.

Plenty of software exists to manage the flow of design data; but complaints handling has been somewhat neglected. Complaints handling is, however, vitally important, not only to ensure the smoothing of ruffled feathers among customers, but also to provide feedback on how products are faring in the field.

Complaints need to be processed as quickly and efficiently as possible, in order that problems in pre-production runs are overcome before full production gets underway, allowing improvements in future designs. Customers, for their part, are likely to become much less angry if they can be made aware that their complaints are really being investigated, by whom and what remedial steps are being taken. Excuses and covering up neither fool or help anybody for long.

The only dedicated tool known to us is Protis, described by its German developers, Plato, as an Industrial Improvement Management System. UK vendor, P.U.L. Software, says that it provides a systematic approach to handling mistakes, complaints and failures, including active tracking. Information on occurring faults and implemented measures is stored in a central database and remains there for analysis. If complaints and tasks arising are not dealt with within pre-set times, messages are sent onto management.

The software is web based and can, with the exception of administrative tasks, be operated with a web browser via Intra or Internet. The basic price is 5,499, including licenses for five users. ( )

Halving meeting times

A major reduction in engineer stress levels can be achieved by reducing the time and frequency of meetings. They are vital in collaborative engineering but one firm has developed software to ensure that, by improving communications before and between them, meetings are more productive and less liable to reveal unexpected shocks.

Delcam started using software to assist in company developments nearly four years ago. The software, called PS-Team (now available commercially) uses an SQL database, XML schemas and e-mailing to keep everyone involved in tasks, fully informed as to what is going on.

It is much more bandwidth efficient than conventional e-mail, because attachments are not sent around to everyone on an address list, but retained in the database. Messages are automatically sent to all team members when anything changes and an automatically generated audit trail can be interrogated to discover or refresh memory of the past history of a project. The software enables every person in a project to track exactly who is expected to do any specific task, plus when it is due to be completed and when has actually been finished.

Delcam says that its use has reduced time spent in meetings by 50%, because attendees can work on tasks before they get there, and are unlikely to be stalled by surprise developments. Before its use, the company says it could only manage two releases per year but now had, 18 months after implementation, increased releases to four per year, while maintaining quality. It takes less than a day to learn to use. Look and feel is very much like being a member of a news group, except that it has a readily accessible and searchable database.

Another innovation is that the software is not sold in the conventional way, but made available on a pay-as-you-go basis. Payment is 9p to 50p per SQL database transaction, depending on usage levels. Last year, Delcam says its internal system processed 100,000 transactions by 250 users. ( )

Stress reduction

One source of much stress—data transfer between different CAD systems and different manufacturers—remains.

John Wedrychowski of Theorem Solutions says that his company offers software which can translate feature and history trees. But these are not always what he calls 'silver bullets'. He said that in Greek, there are five different words equivalent to the English word 'love', but a machine translation system could not be expected to choose the right one more than 20% of the time. In CAD systems, the same commands, in different versions of the same software, can give rise to different geometries.

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In such circumstance, Mr. Wedrychowski suggests it may be better to stick to geometry alone. Sending geometry alone to those outside the company might be a good idea in any case in order to protect intellectual property. Theorem Solutions offers the ability to export geometry with or without feature history in its software.

Incidentally, encryption is no guarantee of protection. The company boasts the ability to be able to crack any encryption method apart from top-end, military and government algorithms. It is reasonable to assume that other companies can do the same. Theorem software should therefore be able to open encrypted Pro/Engineer files, although they ask why anyone should want to. Pro/E has always included the ability to export data in neutral file formats which can be made to work with any other company's software if that is what is required.

The free and easy transfer of CAD data is also one major goal of SolidWorks' eDrawings, now available in a 'Professional' version. The original eDrawings viewer is still available free of charge, but anyone receiving a review-enabled version of the new release can determine sizes and distances within the model, and mark it up. The approach is immeasurably better than sending faxes back and forth.

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The recipient is not required to be in possession of SolidWorks or any version of eDrawings, although file sizes are larger if the viewer has to be included with the data files to be viewed. Typical data sizes might be 200 KB without the viewer or 1.6MB as en executable with the viewer included. Originating users can disable the measurement feature if they want to.

The new software includes: streaming graphics; improved print quality; dynamic component translation, so users can move parts in an assembly model to see areas of interest which may otherwise be hidden; and cross sectional views. It is possible to create eDrawings from parts, assemblies and drawings. An eDrawings Manager provides access to data and design interpretation tools such as drawing layout and assembly structure information.

Should recipients have firewalls, which exclude executable files, it is possible to E-mail drawings as HTML files which will pass through most virus filtering systems and automatically download the viewer from the Internet to the recipient's PC. Price is 950. Users can download the pre-release version of the eDrawings viewer and a trial version of eDrawings Professional off the web ( ).

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