In her February 1999 feature, “Sim-Factory,” contributing editor Caren Potter concluded that software for simulating production processes may eventually—like CAD—become a tool no manufacturing company can compete without. Well, that prediction may come to pass sooner than expected, if the number of factory-simulation product introductions by vendors at the recent Computer Technology Solutions (CTS) exhibition, formerly known as Autofact, is any indication.
In her February 1999 feature, "Sim-Factory," contributing editor Caren Potter concluded that software for simulating production processes may eventually--like CAD--become a tool no manufacturing company can compete without. Well, that prediction may come to pass sooner than expected, if the number of factory-simulation product introductions by vendors at the recent Computer Technology Solutions (CTS) exhibition, formerly known as Autofact, is any indication.
Perhaps the most sweeping announcement came from Engineering Animation Inc. (EAI). Long known for high-end visualization and, more recently, its innovative VisFactory plant-design program, EAI launched Open Virtual Factory, a framework containing modules for simulating a company`s entire manufacturing operation. Similarly, rival Tecnomatix, with roots in manufacturing engineering, added 3D programs for designing work cells, machine operations, and assembly lines to its all-encompassing Digital Factory environment.
Other factory-simulation vendors introduced upgrades, as well. Lanner enhanced the visualization features of Witness, its discrete-event analysis software, to automatically transform 2D simulations into 3D VR-like animations. And Adept Technology followed suit with Production Pilot, an interactive 3D virtual-factory package. Beyond these announcements, CAD/CAM vendors also weighed in with 3D visualization tools for manufacturing. A case in point is Unigraphics Solutions, which incorporated a new 3D press-line simulation module into its Unigraphics Version 16 release.
Why the sudden burst of virtual-manufacturing offerings at a show that has historically focused more on CAD than CAM? One reason is that vendors recognize CAM as the new frontier. "Some design engineers are moving from 2D to 3D CAD, and others are moving from high-end Unix to mid-range NT CAD, but everyone is fighting each other for these customers," says Kenneth Versprille, CAD/CAM market analyst at D.H. Brown Associates. CAM, on the other hand, is the "developing competitive battlefield," he contends. "It`s at a point now where solid modeling was 15 years ago, but it has the potential to be as big as, if not bigger than, the product-design market."
Of course, for this kind of growth to occur, the supply of manufacturing tools must be matched by a demand for them. So far, few manufacturers have made the leap toward creating computer simulations of their whole operations. This is understandable, given that the systems for doing so are new and that the challenges of adapting them to a company`s particular methods are huge. Thus, the best strategy is to start by modeling pieces of the process and to pick projects that are more forgiving in terms of scheduling, says Patrice Romzick, manager of market research at CIMdata. Small successes, she says, can then be propagated throughout the organization. In fact, vendors point to a number of early adopters who have achieved big production-cycle reductions by focusing on self-contained pilot projects and technology demonstrations.
The other challenge--for users and vendors, alike--will be to link these tools back to CAD systems so product designers can be sure that manufacturing will be able to efficiently build in the unique features they create. After all, the ultimate goal is not simply to reduce time to market. Rather, it`s to get there first with innovative products.