Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 11 (November 2001)

Getting Smart

By Joe Greco

While the notion of computers that can do our thinking for us will re main in the realm of science fiction for many years to come, the age of intelligent software that can manage and leverage design engineering tasks for us has already arrived. And these programs, known collectively as knowledge-based engineering software, are proving vital for managing and leveraging a company's product data.

Prior to the advent of knowledge-based systems, key information about a part or product was typically locked in the designer's head, scribbled in a notepad, or buried in an Excel spreadsheet or PDF file. Even companies that made a serious effort to record relevant product data and store it with the CAD model or related 2D documents found that accessing and reusing such information was a monumental task, typically because it was stored in a variety of formats and locations.

Moreover, when an engineer left a company, any special knowledge related to the designs that he or she developed was lost. Thus, capturing and sharing expertise while the experts are still with a company has become the key to developing competitive and innovative products.

Knowledge-based systems can be used in a variety of applications. The programs we'll examine here have been tailored for conceptual design and development, manufacturing, and research.

Just about every product begins with a concept that gets refined through a series of design iterations. The following companies have developed software to help de signers, engineers, and other users involved in the product-development cycle work more efficiently.

Heide Corp. Intent Knowledge Station from Heide Corp. captures the rules and relationships regarding product configuration, engineering, and geometry. It allows users to automate repetitive work, such as component design and part configuration, and create CAD models in AutoCAD or Unigraphics. Intent Knowledge Station is an open system, meaning it can pass information to other software. For example, it can share data with financial programs to estimate product cost or with an MRP system to develop a manufacturing plan. It employs a spreadsheet-type user interface, with which most engineers are familiar, along with drag and drop capabilities to assist in the building of rules. Heide Corp. feels that besides aiding engineers, the software is also useful in the field, for example, to help sales people create custom configurations.
Intent Knowledge Station from Heide Corp. captures the engineering, geometry, and rule data about a product, enabling AutoCAD and Unigraphics users to automate component design, part configuration, and other repetitive work.

Design Power Design++ from Design Power is aimed at companies that make engineered-to-order products. It does this by giving users a structure with which to create rules, much the same way Excel provides the structure (cells, functions, etc.) for users to build formulas. The rules can define how standard parts are selected or how custom parts are created. Essentially, the program enables a product ex pert-rather than a programmer-to write simple rules using Design Power's proprietary language, called Design++ Rule Language. This language is easy to use in that the user does not need to worry about the order in which the rules have to be executed, since the order of operations is automatically inferred by the software. These rules al low De sign++ to drive any CAD program to create 3D models, from which renderings and 2D detailed drawings can also be generated.
Design++ from Design Power allows users to write rules that can drive any CAD program to create models, such as this 3D motor. The Design++ Rule Language is easy to use in that designers can list rules in any order, and the software will execute them corr

Knowledge Technologies International KTI offers ICAD, which helps automate a company's design and manufacturing processes by storing the knowledge relating to design intent, functionality, engineering, manufacturing, and standards. It also considers issues such as cost, safety codes, and legal compliance. With all this information captured, ICAD can automatically calculate engineering properties and verify product manufacturability, as well as generate bills of materials, management reports, and manufacturing instructions. It also employs translators from Theorem Solutions to output CAD geometry to neutral formats such as IGES and STEP, as well as the native formats of Cadds5, Catia, Pro/E, and Unigraphics CAD programs. KTI also offers KPM, which stands for Knowledge-based Process Modeler. This program manages all knowledge-based decisions, procedures, and changes, along with the conflicts that arise during process execution. KPM is designed to work with product data management systems, engineering resource planning software, and data repository programs.

ImpactXoft IX Speed from ImpactXoft is the latest program to join this knowledge-based group. Unlike other programs, IX Speed doesn't rely on a database of knowledge to create parts or configure assemblies. It is a full-fledged mechanical CAD system that uses knowledge to intelligently place components. For example, in most MCAD systems, a user can fairly easily create a feature such as a screw boss located on the backplate of a cell phone casing. However, the supporting bosses that the screw would fasten to on the plates would have to be located, sized, and created separately. In IX Speed, all the user has to do is pick a size for the fastener, and the software will create the appropriate bosses on each of the plates. In addition, IX Speed is a collaborative program, which enables a design team to review changes during online sessions.
KTI's ICAD program incorporates knowledge that helps define dimensions (such as for this car's interior and exterior), calculate engineering properties, and verify product manufacturability. The KPM program, also from KTI, manages knowledge-based

Unigraphics Solutions UGS provides several knowledge-based products for the engineering market with a series of "wizards." Recently introduced in version 18 of Unigraphics, the company's flagship CAD/CAM/CAE package, are the Progressive Die Wizard and the Strength Wizard. The former uses both built-in and captured knowledge to help in the design of progressive dies, while the latter enables even non-engineers to use FEA to perform structural analyses. These new wizards complement two others that were released in the previous version of Unigraphics-Mold Wizard, for optimizing mold designs, and Gear Engineering Wizard for optimizing gear designs. Overseeing all wizard functions are so-called Knowledge Checkers, which are programs that track critical performance parameters and check for missing and erroneous data while designs are being created. The Knowledge Checkers can also track changes and provide suggestions on how to fix problems that may occur.
ImpactXoft's IX Speed MCAD software creates parts intelligently. For example, if a designer picks a fastener from a standard parts library and positions it on a cell phone casing (inset), the software will automatically create screw bosses (shown in r

Dassault Systemes Dassault currently offers two Catia-based solutions with knowledge-based capabilities. Catia Generative Knowledge provides ways to generate designs from scripts that automatically enforce best practices, as defined by the company. Catia Knowledge Expert allows knowledge to be managed and shared throughout the product life cycle. It also has the ability to embed knowledge into designs.

KB4 Limited While most knowledge-capture software has been written for high-end systems, KB4 Limited created DriveWorks to run with the popular mid-range program SolidWorks. Drive Works can analyze existing parts and assemblies and create rules about how the model will behave when key dimensions are updated. These rules, as well as other knowledge about the product, are then added into a database in which a customized form is created for capturing customer requirements. DriveWorks then uses the data to create either a variation of an existing product or a new product. The software doesn't require programming. However, the more thought that is put into the original models, the better the users will be able to mass customize products.
Catia Version 5 allows users to write simple formulas that can build intelligent, rule-based models such as this assembly. The software's Generative Knowledge and Knowledge Expert tools aid in creating, managing, and sharing knowledge.

KollabNet This program differs from others in that it requires neither programming nor explicit data entry. KollabNet uses the term "knowledge accounting" to describe its software, which captures virtually all information that currently exists in a design process, including knowledge relating to design requirements, processes, alternatives, and flow. In addition, decision-making process knowledge and common design-practice knowledge can also be captured and reapplied.

KollabNet can capture the data created by an engineer when using typical MCAD, CAE, and even applications such as MS Word and Excel. For example, Excel might be used to calculate the cost of using one material versus another for a certain component. Instead of losing the data calculation on the more expensive, unused material, KollabNet can capture this for possible reuse later on. The software can even monitor the Internet and notify the user if the cost of this material has decreased to a point where it should be reconsidered in the current product or in a future variation of the design. According to the developers, KollabNet creates a symbolic model of the design during the course of the design process. All aspects of the process, from requirements gathering to manufacturing, remain linked, meaning the model becomes more accurate as the process moves forward.

As in design and development, the manufacturing process contains steps that can be automated with knowledge-based software. Several companies provide solutions in this area.

DP Technology Known for its Esprit CAD/CAM program, DP Technology has incorporated knowledge capture into the software through its Knowledge Based Machining (KBM) module. The Esprit software includes a set of built-in manufacturing rules. For example, it contains a database of cutting conditions for all leading Wire-EDM machines. The software is set up so that when the user enters the material type, surface finish, and type of wire, it automatically returns key information such as power settings, offsets, and flushing conditions. The KBM module captures information about machining processes to create a database of expert rules that complement the software's set of built-in manufacturing rules. For example, CNC machine data can be captured to build a database of tool-path rules, which can be reused by dragging and dropping them onto different models.

TekSoft Using a Microsoft Access database that comes with a tooling library and a default set of machining parameters, TekSoft's ProCAM II also features knowledge-based machining technology. Known as TechDB, the program captures machining methodology and applies this information to further automate the NC programming process. Both built-in and captured machining parameters are customizable in ProCAM II. In addition, TekSoft has developed CAMWorks, which employs KBM technology for users of SolidWorks.
Esprit software from DP Technology includes a module that captures knowledge about milling and other machining processes to complement the program's built-in set of manufacturing rules.

Researchers and scientist are also users of knowledge-based software. Below are some solutions available for them.

Invention Machine This company makes a series of programs to help engineers, researchers, and scientists search for accumulated knowledge, on either the Web, an intranet, networked drives, or their own computers. One program, Knowledgist, uses an advanced search engine that understands engineering and scientific concepts, instead of simple keywords. If a user were looking for a way to reduce fan noise, for example, the software would scan files in a variety of formats to find and extract key concepts. Another program, CoBrain, is similar, but it can index more data and make it easier to share the extracted information with the extended enterprise. Once information is located, it still may not solve the engineering problem of the user. This is where a third program, TechOptimizer, comes into play by allowing users to graphically describe a problem by drawing boxes to represent components and arrows to show how the components are linked. The program can suggest solutions, which can be stored for later use. Searchable notes-about why a solution was chosen or rejected, for example-can also be added by the engineer .

Beyond these programs, a variety of other products qualify as knowledge-based engineering software. For example, Planet CAD's PrescientQA program automatically monitors a model's adherence to a firm's design and geometry standards. It reports on everything from CAD layers that fail to follow company standards to CAD geometry that could cause problems for the product development team. It can be purchased as a series of modules that include DesignQA, GeometryQA, DriveQA, and CertifyQA.

Other programs, such as Boothroyd Dewhurst's Design for Manufacture and Assembly software, apply built-in knowledge to help users develop cost-efficient, manufacturable parts. In addition, product lifecycle management (PLM) software, such as Enovia from Dassault Systemes and iMan from UGS (now EDS PLM Solutions), could be considered knowledge-based systems because of their ability to capture and distribute key product data.
The PrescientQA program from PlanetCAD comprises a set of modules that use expert knowledge to automatically check and report on how closely a given designer's CAD models adhere to his or her company's design and geometry standards.

When CAD got started in the 1970s, models were constructed from dumb lines and arcs. In the 1980s, the models became dumb 3D shapes. In the 1990s, they evolved into intelligent feature-based designs. And each development conferred advantages to early adopters. Now we are witnessing the next step to knowledge-based software. And once again, those who first take advantage of the benefits these systems offer will reap the greatest rewards.

Joe Greco is a frequent contributor to Computer Graphics World who specializes in computer aided design and engineering. He can be reached at

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