Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 1 (January 2000)

Group Efforts

The concept of collaborative engineering has evolved as rapidly as the tools that have made this powerful team approach to product design possible. In the 1980s, the process was known as concurrent engineering, and it meant that different people within a company could work on different aspects of a new product simultaneously. But as we enter the new millennium, the emergence of the Internet has made it possible for several users, even at remote locations, to work on the same problem at the same time.

While many vendors provide programs that enable advanced engineering collaboration, the users profiled here have implemented systems that helped them overcome some of the most daunting, yet universal obstacles facing product manufacturers today. Boeing Rocketdyne employed collaboration tools to allow experts with strict time constraints to produce a radically new design. Fischer Controls put the technology to work to break language barriers and tap resources spanning two continents. And Pratt and Whitney used a system to ensure that its products were designed and built to precise specifications.

Figuring out how to contain costs while building state-of-the-art rocket engines for the government has been the job of Boeing Rocketdyne's program manager Bob Carman for the past 15 years. But this responsibility was taken to the extreme when Rocketdyne, along with Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, won a contract to design an entirely new and radically simplified rocket engine in record time. Carman knew from the start that to create such an advanced design while cutting costs and maintaining a tight schedule would require a paradigm shift in every aspect of the project.

"First, you have to build a team that is essentially world class, which means finding the best designer, CAD modeler, stress engineer, and so on," says Carman. You also have to be prepared to go outside the company to find the people you need. Indeed, Boeing was using Pro/Engineer at the time and had "some users who were proficient with it," he says, "but a little research and networking told us that the best Pro/E user for the job worked somewhere else." In the end, Carman picked an operator from Texas Instruments because of his experience with the materials the team would be using.
Boeing Rocketdyne used IpTeam to enable experts at different locations to view and annotate assembly-design images.

Carman's final team comprised some 20 experts, including a variety of engineers, as well as top people in cost tracking, casting, machining, and combustion analysis. But as the group was coming together, another problem arose. "I just couldn't walk into a corporation like Texas Instruments, a company we had never worked with, and say 'we need to use your best Pro/E guy, and, oh yeah, we need him most of time.' The only way I could get these outside experts to be part of the team," he recalls, "was to require less than 10% of their time per week."

This led to yet another hurdle. The project would require at least one meeting a week, which could easily take all of the time available. In fact, because the group was scattered all over North America, travel time alone probably would have wasted all of the precious few hours team members could spare. "We decided that the meeting time had to be the work time," explains Carman.

This is where IpTeam software from NexPrise came into the picture. This collaboration tool originated from proprietary code developed by the team members, who had broken away from Lockheed to found NexPrise and commercialize the software. Carman says the program allowed the group to collaborate so smoothly that "when someone was putting a sketch together, the Pro/E operator would be modeling it, while others would be giving that operator data on possible stress and heat concentrations or manufacturing problems."

The software also proved to be highly flexible. For instance, Carman recalls when two team members were stuck in traffic in the back of a cab at the time the meeting was about to start. They used one cell phone to connect a laptop via its 28.8K modem into the virtual collaborative session and another phone to talk. Noting this success, another member did the same thing a few weeks later from a beach chair in Hawaii.

Still, a number of unexpected issues had to be dealt with. During the startup phase, the team had to develop a protocol system to control who talked and when. They also had to define a common "dictionary" because terms as simple as "design review" have different meanings in different organizations.

Another "cultural" issue was that this work-while-you-meet style of collaboration was new to the team members. "Engineers are used to getting a problem and then going off on their own until it is solved," Carman explains. In another instance, team leaders were wondering why they were getting no feedback from one member, a young Asian engineer. They finally realized that he felt it was disrespectful to correct his elders, so they had to "move" him into a private virtual room to hear his ideas.

Though the means were hampered by such difficulties, the end results were impressive. The team developed a novel kerosene-fueled engine that would cost one-twentieth the amount required to build a conventional model, and they completed their work in just nine months-as opposed to the typical two-year cycle for less sophisticated designs. Even more remarkable, the company estimates that a new hydrogen engine now being developed by the same process will cost 100 times less to complete-$180,000 versus $18 million-than a traditional engine. The design team has also reduced the number of unique parts found in a typical engine from 1600 to six.

Boeing Rocketdyne has taken collaborative engineering to a new level, says Carmen. "In 20 years, I think we will all be working this way."
Using OneSpace, team members at Fisher Controls fixed a valve-design flaw by jointly comparing and inspecting their models.

Language differences have always presented problems for design, engineering, and manufacturing teams at Fisher Controls, a global producer of mechanical parts with offices in the US, France, Singapore, and Indonesia. One all-too-common example occurred about eight months ago, when a communication breakdown between a designer in France and a structural engineer in Iowa was holding up the production of a critical valve component. "They were going back and forth for more than two weeks with phone calls, emails, faxes, and overnight mailings, trying to figure out a way to strengthen the piece, says Bob Christenson, a product data management project leader at Fisher Controls in Marshalltown, Iowa. But they had reached an impasse. "Our next step was to put the engineer on a plane to France, and have the two of them sit down with a bilingual translator."

Before taking that drastic step, Christenson and his colleagues figured that they would try using OneSpace from CoCreate, because of its ability to import various CAD formats into a virtual design space and allow users to make suggestions using notes that everyone could view. The software not only allowed the designer in France to upload her part for 3D viewing by the engineer in Iowa, but it also helped eliminate the language barrier by using pointers and short text notes. As Christenson explains, "language problems dissolve when all you are doing is using a pointer and writing simple queries like 'surface finish?' or 'draft angle?'"

The engineer was able to take the model into Ansys software to perform the necessary finite-element analysis and make changes. He was then able to drag this new model back into the OneSpace session and demonstrate his changes visually, rather than try to describe them verbally. "After more than two weeks of going no where, the problem was solved in two 30-minute collaborative sessions," Chris tenson says. "And this was our first experience with the software."

Since that first time, the engineers and designers at Fisher have continued to use OneSpace, even where language barriers do not exist. "We have used it to fix assembly problems and to do virtual design reviews," says Christenson. "With OneSpace, traveling is not a factor, so it is easier to get the team members together," he says, "and the meetings progress more smoothly now that 3D models can be studied."
Using Valisys to simulate part-measurement paths, Pratt and Whitney engineers ensure the parts they design can be properly inspected.

Even with sophisticated CAD/CAM systems that allow users to specify the geometric tolerances of a particular part, problems can still occur. For instance, errors in specifying tolerances can lead to parts that cannot be inspected, parts that cost too much, or even manufacturing problems, resulting in wasted time and money. This is why in 1998, Pratt and Whitney, a manufacturer of jet engines, decided to implement a computerized product definition (CPD) policy.

One of the first objectives was to set up product teams that incorporated people from many departments, including product definition, quality assurance, and manufacturing, as well as the suppliers in some cases. To ensure proper communication between these diverse team members, Pratt and Whitney chose Valisys from Tecnomatix, which enabled product teams to collaborate in determining where problems were occurring during the manufacturing process and make changes before any steel was cut.

Early in the design phase, designers must use dimensioning callouts on drawings to specify manufacturing tolerances, explains Larry Wolosky, Tecnomatix/Valisys team leader at Pratt and Whitney. But if these are not correctly defined, they are open to misinterpretation by the part-inspection and manufacturing teams, who must then spend time making modifications to the process. Valisys helps the designers by ensuring that the part can be inspected.

Valisys also allows designers to visualize how a part will be manufactured. "During a collaboration session, if changes must be made to the model because of manufacturing constraints, the designers can decide whether or not they can live with these deviations," explains Wolosky. If they can, then changes to the model are possible while it is still in the development cycle. Alternately, he says "the designer can study the recommended changes and say 'no, I need to have it this way. What can you change for me in the manufacturing process?'"

Another program, Valisys Assembly, is used to analyze the tolerances applied to each of the features that Valisys creates. "If you have 10 different mating features, and you begin to assemble the 10 items, each one may have 50 features with tolerances on them. Valisys Assembly will identify which of those mating features in the 10 parts will have the greatest chance of interference or over-constraints." During a collaboration session, the software allowed team members to see which tolerances could be increased or "opened up." By loosening tolerances, while staying within the product definition, the team was able to realize significant cost savings.

These examples illustrate how collaborative-engineering software can help solve problems by shedding new light on the way design projects are approached, managed, and communicated. As this technology proves its worth, new challenges will certainly arise, which in turn should lead to even more robust solutions.

Joe Greco, a freelance writer specializing in CAD, is based in Chandler, Arizona. He can be reached at

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