By Joe Greco
Ask a dozen people to define what CAD collaboration software can do, and you're likely to get a dozen different answers. That's mainly because there are so many types of collaboration programs available. Indeed, some allow only simple markups, while others permit full 3D model editing, and still others enable true engineering collaboration. In order to help you better understand which of these approaches might best suit your needs, we have selected four of the most popular programs that represent the spectrum of collaboration tools-from Alibre, CoCreate, ImpactXoft, and 3Ga Corp.-and put each one through its paces.
This program from Alibre was one of the first to offer Web-based MCAD design tools when it premiered at the end of 1999. Currently, the company is focused on helping large manufacturers reduce production costs by making their processes more efficient. Alibre Design does this by allowing manufacturers and suppliers to share product data rather than rely on CAD translators or reverse engineering techniques. Models created in a variety of systems and saved in Alibre's native STEP format can be shared among users.
The software is installed on your local hard disk, after a 22mb download. Each time it is launched, you have the option of connecting to the Alibre Design server or working in standalone mode. From the initial My Projects screen, you choose whether to work on a new or existing project. This page also offers a quick overview of the current projects, teams, collaboration sessions, and any Alibre Design-related mail that has come in. The My Projects page is well thought out and makes you feel that every function is easily accessible, which it is.
|Alibre Design offers a range of collaboration functions, including this freehand markup tool as well as sketching features and 3D modeling capabilities suitable for simple to moderate parts. |
Opening a new or existing project takes you to another portion of the program called the Work Area, where all modeling and editing takes place. Alibre Design has powerful sketching tools, and the 3D modeling tools, while lacking some functions and options, will work for simple to moderate modeling tasks, as long as surfacing and sheet-metal design are not needed.
Alibre Design also offers a variety of markup tools for adding everything from notes to freehand circles. Both text and voice instructions can be sent over the Internet during a collaboration session via chat windows. The key is that everything is easy to use, so even a novice can edit the model, or someone with no CAD experience can add annotations.
For a collaboration session with a support person at Alibre, I copied a 3mb Pro/Engineer file into the Repository area of the program. I could have accessed the file from the remote computer, but working off my own hard disk is faster then network access, hence I found navigating the model to be smooth. At any time, others could have been invited into the collaboration session, and the session leader would decide which parts they could see and manipulate.
Collaboration occurs when one of the session members requests the "baton" from the session leader, which puts him or her in temporary control of the session. Other users can see the annotations, measurements, and edits that the baton holder adds, and their views can be set to automatically follow any view this user specifies. When another user requests the baton, the user holding it passes it over, and any conflicts that may arise are resolved by the session leader. As a rule, moderate changes such as adding a fillet or hole can be done in Alibre Design, however, more complex changes, such as removing a support rib, should be done in the original MCAD software.
|OneSpace lets users view and mark up files-adding notes, section cuts, and hidden parts-and make edits to the model. |
Overall, I found Alibre Design to be an easy-to-use program that allows a high degree of project management and collaboration, combined with a moderate number of editing capabilities. It is designed to work with your existing CAD software, acting as a common collaboration engine for users with different systems; however, for some it could be powerful enough to serve as their primary CAD software.
The goal of OneSpace is to provide a collaborative environment in which you can synchronously view and mark up files and make certain edits to the model. The normal installation of OneSpace is more complex than that of other packages, and CoCreate recommends sending a technician out to the user's site to ensure that everything is in stalled correctly. After the setup, I was able to collaborate in demonstration mode via a CoCreate server. At times I found the software to be sluggish, for example, when rotating or cutting a 3D section through a 3mb CAD model. However, CoCreate representatives claimed this was the result of the program operating over the Internet, as opposed to a local intranet.
OneSpace has an icon-driven user interface that is not that hard to learn, despite the fact that it employs a few non-standard conventions, such as the lack of common Windows icons. The program features three modes called 3D Collab oration, Viewer, and Notes, and it is easy to switch among them. The 3D Collaboration mode features a large work area, with tools to manipulate the view on the top and most of the other commands accessed via menus. The area on the right contains options that relate to the current command.
A collaboration session begins when you import a 3D model, which can exist in any of a multitude of formats including AutoCAD, SolidWorks, I-deas, Pro/E, Catia, and Unigraphics as well as IGES, VRML, and STEP neutral formats. How ever, the software works best with Solid Designer models (also from CoCreate) because model origins and tolerances will automatically match when files are brought in. Features from SolidDesigner models are also maintained, but Co Create can handle other native formats as well. OneSpace can also import models from ECAD programs such as Mentor and Cadence as well as models showing plastic flow analysis from Moldflow. Overall, more than 200 formats, including Microsoft Office files, can be imported.
OneSpace allows for a variety of annotations and 3D markups, and you have a lot of control over how a markup appears, including which color to make the message balloons and how thick to make the arrows. Accurate measurements are also available, and the program makes extensive use of clipping planes in order to help you visualize the interior components of products. When an assembly is imported, OneSpace retains the individual components, and each can have different access privileges. For example, some components may only be viewed while others can be measured and edited. Any component that was brought into the collaboration session can be saved in any other format that is supported by OneSpace.
Speaking of editing, OneSpace is impressive in the extent to which it allows you to make changes, even on neutral files. It is possible to add fillets and chamfers, as well as draft to a face. Boolean operations are also available, as is a command that moves a face, essentially to add material. There are also tools to recognize holes and ribs so they can be parametrically edited. While I didn't try all these commands, I found that the move face command worked well and was simple to use on a SolidDesigner file. On the same model, I also found that the tool for editing existing fillets was straightforward, but only worked on simple rounds.
During a collaboration session, you can temporarily exit a session if you need to make changes beyond the capabilities of OneSpace. You can then bring the new version of the model back into the session for comparison. The off-line work can include everything from a doing a simple mass analysis to having the software compare and highlight where surfaces have changed.
A nice feature of the software is that each collaborator can see the cursors of the others in the session. By default, anyone in a collaboration session can take control of the session at any time, which can result in chaos when there are a lot of users. The session manager, however, can limit the access of any participant and set up the session so that particular users must get permission to take the lead.
|OneSpace displays the access status of individual components. The program also shows and differentiates the cursors of all participants in a collaboration session by assigning each a different color. |
OneSpace is most similar to Alibre Design in its markup and model editing capabilities. For those not used to the program's interface, it may take longer to learn other collaboration tools. Like Alibre Design, it is best suited as an adjunct program to CAD; however, it cannot be used as a primary CAD system.
The philosophy behind IX Speed is to employ a technology called Functional Modeling, which is intended to let you concentrate on functionality rather than geometry. After a 16mb download and an easy installation process, you can decide to use either asynchronous or synchronous collaboration. I chose the former because IX Speed has a unique way of handling this: Asynchronous collaboration means that changes are sent manually; that is, you decide which changes to send and when to send them, while you are connected to the other collaborators. In addition, the software can work in standalone mode, which is handy when no network connection is available.
Once everything was set up, I worked with the software before starting my first collaborative session. I discovered that IX Speed's user interface is a little different from most common feature-based solid modeling applications in the look of its icons and in the way the various "modules" of IX Speed (i.e. Sketching, Solids, Surfaces, etc.) are accessed via tabs that expose the related tools. I did find that most of the tools are easy to use and that all have prompts that are helpful in ensuring that the correct steps are employed.
To test the collaboration capabilities, I worked with a support person at ImpactXoft to develop a fictitious product-a hair dryer. I played the role of the product designer, developing a rough shape and sending it to the support person, who played the role of the electromechanical engineer. Because the software sends only the instructions needed to create the model, rather than the geometry, the data we passed back and forth was usually less than 10k. We were able to send short descriptions with the "modeling instructions" and also use a chat tool to further describe the data we were sending.
At the time of our session, IX Speed was in beta testing, and the sketcher needed more work, but I was im pressed with the modeling capabilities of the software. For instance, it was easy to develop design concepts by using click-and-drag techniques to edit geometry. Moreover, because the software isn't history-based, it removes certain limitations, such as forcing you to adhere to a strict order when creating features.
|Given IX Speed's extensive modeling capabilities, the program could be used as a primary CAD system. Its click-and-drag editing makes it easy to design products such as this hair dryer.|
Other collaboration features of IX Speed were equally impressive. For example, when the "engineer" sent me a few internal components, I was able to place them and then apply the Fitting command, which generated the specified clearance by automatically cutting through the interior ribs that had been added earlier. Later when updated components were sent, the software automatically knew to apply those same clearances.
The letters SPD in IX Speed stand for Simultaneous Product Development, and this is a good description of the product. The software is what a collaborative CAD program should be-easy, fast, and able to model almost anything, thus making it possible to be used as your primary CAD system. This fact, along with the unique way you can choose to send only the changes you desire, differentiate it from Alibre Design and OneSpace.
A new product on the market from 3Ga Corp. called 3G.web.decisions is made up of three programs entitled 3G.central, 3G.access, and 3G.author. I tested the latter, which unlike the other programs described above, focuses on collaborative engineering and analysis as opposed to design collaboration.
Installation from a CD is easy, and it is at this time that you can decide whether the software will run in standalone or collaboration mode, although this can be changed later. Both security and access rights are handled by the 3G.central software, which is loaded on the company's server, along with the 3G.author software. The 3G.access program allows you to view the data created with 3G.author via any Web browser.
The user interface for 3G.author is similar to many of today's popular feature-based mechanical CAD solid modelers. It has a feature browser on the left side and standard Windows icons re siding next to the 3D navigation tools located on the top of the screen. Figuring out how to begin using the program is not obvious, but after the basics are tried once, everything is fairly easy to remember.
|When a collaborator sends modifications to internal components, IX Speed automatically updates areas of the model that are affected by the change and applies specified clearances. |
You begin a 3G.author collaboration session by opening either a SolidWorks or Solid Edge model (other formats will be supported soon). 3G.author features a browser tree on the left side of the screen, and when a model is imported, the features of that part are imported through an API that automatically rebuilds the features as opposed to translating them. Dimensions and relationships between dimensions that were placed on sketches will also be included.
When you right click on the key dimension that drives the part, 3G.author calls up a menu displaying the "Add to Design Table" command. This value can now be altered, and the effect of the changes on the model can be studied in a collaboration session. For example, I took a default value of 8 for a bracket's thickness and set a range of 8 to 12. Then by simply dragging a slider, 3G.author generates different models.
|3G.author allows engineers to collaboratively analyze and refine mechanical CAD models. Specifying key part dimensions in the program's Design Table allows users in a review session to see how changes to those dimensions will affect the model.|
The software also allows constraints to be added. So in the same model, I was able to set up a cost constraint, which was related to the mass of the part, as well as structural constraints. This means that 3G.author will monitor these conditions and make sure they are satisfied. For instance, while the maximum thickness setting of 12 may satisfy stress goals, it may exceed cost limits. 3G.author makes all this information clear, and hence makes engineering decisions easier.
An essential aspect of 3G.author is a function that allows you to assign materials to parts via a Web site called MatWeb. Properties such as mass, elastic and shear modulus, and Poisson's Ratio of any one of more than 24,0000 materials can be automatically copied into the Material Properties window inside 3G.author. With this data, collaborators can study the effects that different materials have on the part, and can share those results in real time.
3G.web.decisions is a useful product for the entire project team. It allows important engineering decisions to be made collaboratively by permitting engineers to do what they do best-analyze and refine designs. In this way, it is different from the other products evaluated here, and for some users it may even provide enough analysis functionality to able to replace their current desktop FEA software.
|Once a key dimension is added to the Design Table, users can specify a range of values and then move a slider at the bottom of the screen to see how the part changes within that range. Models can be analyzed against various design limits, such as material|
It always seems that as a tool develops, the more specialized, and therefore useful it becomes. This is certainly the case in the world of collaboration. The programs reviewed here, along with others on the way, should be fast on their way to becoming the basis of toolkits for designers and engineers.
Joe Greco is a regular contributor to Computer Graphics World who specializes in computer-aided design. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's hard to imagine, but collaborative engineering-once touted as the greatest technological innovation in product manufacturing since 3D CAD-won't become a meaningful reality until the end of this decade. There is natural resistance to changing any time-proven processes, and collaborative engineering technology ultimately promises to effect organization-wide change-so adoption will indeed take that much time.
In fact, it has taken more than 10 years for 3D CAD to capture a significant market share-approximately 20 percent, according to most estimates. During this time, prices have come down, but more important, ease of use has improved, and users' attitudes have changed. Early adopters have helped by driving improvements and showing the world that the technology can lead to real benefits.
Collaborative engineering promises many of the same benefits of 3D CAD-specifically reduced time to market, lower product-development costs, and a lower cost for the tools themselves. Because collaborative engineering affects a much larger part of the organization than did 3D CAD, the benefits will be much larger as well. So, despite the disappointment of what appears to be a slow adoption, the future of collaborative engineering is bright. However, it will take longer to reach that future than most of us would like, and along the way, developers must address several major issues.
Issue 1: Asynchronous vs. Synchronous
Most attention today has been focused on real-time, or synchronous, collaboration tools, namely viewing and markup programs that offer real-time sharing of 2D drawings, 3D models, and other files over the Internet. They are effective for design reviews, enabling geographically distributed teams to mark up and author drawings and 3D models in a real-time virtual environment. Supported by telephone, video conferencing, voice-over IP, and instant messaging, these tools are beginning to replace a significant portion of expensive face-to-face meetings.
But to fully serve the needs of the market, collaboration tools must also accommodate asynchronous communication, which is required for the other 85 percent of the product development cycle. Asynchronous solutions, like e-mail and PDM, along with other enterprise applications like EDM and ERP, are the backbone of the manufacturing business as we know it. But managing these technologies in a collaborative environment of multi-disciplinary users who work in different time zones, cultures, and languages across the supply chain will require the development of new business process integration applications that are sensitive to the needs of a diverse user base. To remain competitive in the next decade, corporations must leverage the expertise of suppliers, customers, and partners around the globe. Thus, it will be common, for example, for a concept developed in the US to be designed in Asia, prototyped in Eastern Europe, and manufactured in Western Europe, all in one 24-hour product-development blitzkrieg.
Issue 2: Smart Viewing and Markup
Viewing and markup technology has delivered an adequate short-term solution, but this technology must continue to improve. In order to eliminate interim files or published views that can become obsolete as fast as they're created, future solutions will need to read and write directly to all types of native file formats. In addition, the integration of change management technologies with the master data set will enable the actual markups to be recorded as part of the original document. Adding checks and balances will ensure that requested changes are evaluated and executed. Thus, when changes are approved during design reviews, discipline-based notifications will automatically alert the responsible parties to make the change. It will not be possible to release documents until all recorded criteria are met.
Issue 3: Security
In 1999, self-service application service providers (ASPs) began to appear that enabled users to sign up online and establish personalized extranets. These allowed virtual teams of suppliers, business partners, and customers to collaborate and share data over the Internet. But the central storage aspect of these offerings required users to transmit sensitive data over insecure networks. This, coupled with the instability of the ASP managing the data and the lack of adequate data redundancy offered, meant that potential customers had no guarantees for the safety of their intellectual property. These issues led to skepticism and low adoption rates.
In response, several solutions have gained popularity-with hosted and self-hosted portals leading the charge. While hosted solutions offer better security along with the advantages of the ASP business model, self-hosted solutions offer the ultimate in control and security, though at a higher price. Either way, by storing the data in a secure environment owned by the customer, a major obstacle will be removed.
Issue 4: Wireless Technology
There is little doubt that wireless technology will play a significant role in collaborative engineering, most specifically in lifecycle support for manufacturing, as well as construction and building maintenance for the AEC industry. Vertical applications need to be developed that allow instant field access of archived build data (for example, assembly drawings, bills of material, and specifications), and procurement and e-commerce capabilities as well. Bandwidth availability in remote areas also needs to improve, most likely with the help of satellite technology. Ultimately, PDAs and other wireless devices will enable field technicians to troubleshoot, identify, check availability, and order replacement parts all in one online session from anywhere in the world.
Issue 5: Improved Interoperability
Perhaps most important, before a mass adoption of collaborative engineering can occur, we must be able to transparently share all types of data-not just CAD, but CAM and CAE as well. Companies need to be able to access product data across the supply chain and use the tools they like best to manage it. This goes beyond interoperability between design and analysis tools. PDM systems must also be able to "talk" to each other. In the end, business partners, customers, and suppliers around the world must have access to the data and be able to use the tools they want.
We are only beginning to realize the potential of collaborative engineering, and it will take many years for this technology to become a meaningful reality. But once it does, its use will be so widespread that the term collaborative engineering most likely will disappear, and this new work style will simply become the way that designers and engineers go about their work every day.
Scott Cullins is vice president of Rev2 Corp., a business management and marketing consultancy for the engineering software industry. His email address is email@example.com.