Maximizing the Design Process
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 1 (Jan. 2008)

Maximizing the Design Process

This part one of a two-part series examines the complex nature of what the industry has been grappling with for years, managing and communicating with CAD data throughout the product life cycle, and what types of solutions are available to companies.

For many years, creating 3D images with CAD software was limited to an elite few—predominantly those who created the designs and those who studied the engineering and mechanics and tested the physics and durability of that design.

Today, thanks to a shift in market dynamics that has made 3D more accessible and affordable, the adoption of 3D CAD has accelerated. In response to these changing market trends, more 3D images are being created, and the acceptance of 3D is no longer a question in the industry. As a result, a wider range of people within corporate management understands the value of these images and the data locked inside them.

It has become paramount for a company to be able to quickly communicate and exchange its 3D data, as it is integral to an organization’s overall value chain. For a manufacturing company, the concept of optimizing the value chain is critical.

Caterpillar now uses UGS’s JT format for file interoperability and translation throughout the company.

Supply Chain Redesign defines the value chain as the connected series of organizations, resources, and knowledge streams involved in the creation and delivery of value to end customers. Value systems integrate supply-chain activities, from the determination of customer needs through product/service development, production/operations, and distribution, including (as appropriate) first-, second-, and third-tier suppliers.

This definition fits perfectly with the CAD industry at the moment. The key to making CAD and product life cycle management (PLM) work effectively has more to do with efficiencies of processes and technology than anything else. Competing at a global level means companies need to be able to quickly communicate their ideas across a broad group of disciplines. Extend that to a larger manufacturing infrastructure with designers in multiple locations and suddenly the issue of seamless collaboration and interoperability among CAD files becomes a considerable component of a company’s overall success.

Interoperability vs. Collaboration
So how does this concept of value chain pertain to the interoperability and collaboration of CAD data? While the lines between interoperability and collaboration blur to some degree on an ideological level, there seems to be some distinction between the two.

“Interoperability is the ability to share data specifically between the original CAD files, such as those created in SolidWorks and [Dassault’s] Catia. It is not a lightweight format of the file, and it needs to have direct translation for exchange within the design community,” explains Hilde Sevens, senior product manager at Autodesk’s Extended Design Group. “Collaboration, on the other hand, is the use of the more lightweight file formats for sharing data with other internal departments, customers, and external suppliers.”

Rak Bhalla, Adobe’s senior marketing manager for Acrobat 3D, further defines the differences between these two concepts. “Interoperability is the ability to exchange CAD data between systems and still maintain all the intelligence of the original design. Collaboration is the method for bringing other people into the design process; it is a work in progress,” he says. “Interoperability can be part of collaboration, and there are certainly many stages of interoperability.”

As 3D becomes more accessible, the use of the imagery and its inherent information - such as that contained in the images above, created using UGS’s JT format - are being passed along the supply chain, from the designers and engineers to marketing and other divisions.

A recently released report, “2007 Interoperability Survey,” co-authored by Longview Advisors and CADCAMNet, provides a current snapshot of how manufacturing companies are addressing their interoperability requirements. When it comes to choosing file exchange and delivery, manufacturers are somewhat divided in their preference: 43 percent prefer their files in a neutral, industry-standard format such as STEP, IGES, or DWG; 30 percent accept CAD files in any format and then translate them into their own CAD system; and 27 percent require their suppliers to provide the files in a specific CAD format.

Interestingly, the report shows that a large majority of manufacturers, more than 70 percent, used two or more CAD systems on a monthly basis. At the same time, only 33 percent of the study’s participants felt as though the CAD data that was shared internally was always in their preferred format. Additionally, CAD data that was distributed externally was received in a preferred format 13 percent of the time. Yet, only 38 percent of manufacturers currently use any type of third-party translation-software interoperability products. This shows there is still reluctance by suppliers to invest in interoperability solutions, even though there are significant advantages to doing so.

“The survey shows that OEMs prefer to share data in a neutral format, such as STEP or IGES. This should be good news for the data-exchange software vendors that make a business out of helping companies translate their CAD data through STEP,” notes David Prawel of Longview Advisors. “This should send a reminder and warning to the CAD vendors that OEMs continue to expect support for standard formats from their CAD tools and participation in the standards organizations.” If the premise of maintaining one’s competitive advantage is to deliver and communicate the manufacturing process as concisely and accurately as possible, it shows there is a definite need for solutions that bridge the interoperability and collaboration functions.

There are a number of companies with their own solutions and ideas about how to best collaborate and exchange CAD data. Obviously there are the larger solution vendors that include UGS, Autodesk, PTC, Dassault, and Adobe. Then there are a wide range of smaller, more specialized companies, such as Right Hemisphere, Okino Computer Graphics, Seemage (recently acquired by Dassault), Lattice Technology, Informative Graphics, and Actify, to name a few.

UGS is one company that has been extremely active in promoting the idea of interoperability and collaboration with its JT file format. Some may remember the origins of the JT format. First created by Engineering Animation, Inc. (EAI), it was part of the DirectModel file format. Recognizing the value of EAI’s technology, UGS acquired the company, and the format, in 2000, and DirectModel became known as JT.

Originally created for the automotive and aerospace industries, the JT format takes advantage of large-scale assembly and interactive modeling, such as digital mock-up. It is able to retain a large amount of information regarding the original CAD file, such as geometry, hierarchy trees, product manufacturing information (PMI), and important metadata. There is also a free viewer known as JT2Go that supports the JT file format, enabling JT files to be embedded directly into Microsoft Office documents such as those created in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

The governing group around JT is called JT Open, and it debuted in late 2003 to give vendor members access to the JT Open Toolkit and direct dialog with other members concerning its development. Nevertheless, the IP pertaining to JT, as well as all the development and implementation of the format, is owned by UGS.

Caterpillar, a manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, engines, and industrial turbines, implemented JT initially as an interoperability solution. Eventually it expanded JT and today uses it across the company for multiteam collaboration. “JT initially was implemented to provide a means to perform design reviews in a 3D environment, prior to production release,” explains Tom Robinson, director of product development processes. “Caterpillar now utilizes JT for supplier collaboration, manufacturing process planning, publications, and service material development, as well as for general communication of design information to non-engineering personnel.”

Autodesk has been intimate with file formats for years; the company launched its DWG format for 2D AutoCAD drawings in the early 1980s. In 1995, Autodesk’s DWF (Design Web Format)—first released as part of Autodesk’s plug-in WHIP—was originally developed for Netscape Navigator.

Today, Autodesk is focused on the idea of a “paperless manufacturing workflow.” To this end, the company recently announced the latest version of ADR, or Autodesk Design Review 2008. Design Review allows the user to send design files in Inventor or AutoCAD format with built-in, compressed DWF file security.

Autodesk, which has been focused on file format translation for some time with its DWF offering, most recently introduced Design Review 2008.

“Design Review is enhancing new workflows for our customers,” notes Jennifer Toton, senior product marketing manager for Autodesk’s Extended Design Group. “For example, Voith Paper, one of the largest multinational companies in the paper equipment industry, is using ADR right on the design floor. Our customers are looking more and more to move to a paperless workflow for their manufacturing needs.”

Last November, Autodesk and Micro­soft announced plans to integrate DWF technology directly into Windows Vista through Microsoft’s XML Paper Specification, or XPS. The new format, called DWFx, supports Vista natively, which negates having to install an additional program. “Many customers just don’t want to install extra software, and with DWFx, they don’t have to,” says Sevens. “DWFx is the next-generation DWF format. Right now we are in a transitional period with both formats, but eventually everything will be DWFx.”

The alliance between Autodesk and Microsoft stems from the companies’ announcement back in 2005 when they acknowledged they were expanding the nature of their relationship. Without question, this is a strategic move by both firms, and many will be watching to see how it plays out. Of particular interest will be Microsoft’s future support for FBX, Autodesk’s newest format, enabling the transfer of not only 3D images, but also full animation files. FBX became part of Autodesk’s expanding product line following its acquisition of Alias and MotionBuilder in 2006.

Another new addition to the Web-based viewing process is Project Freewheel. Because Freewheel is a strictly Autodesk product, it supports both 2D and 3D DWF viewing on any platform that has an Internet browser, thus allowing it to work on cell phones and Blackberries.

Right Hemisphere
Right Hemisphere has been in the 3D tools market for nearly a decade, and has spent a great deal of time focused specifically on the issues of interoperability and collaboration within the CAD community. Yet, the company is positioned slightly differently than the other vendors in this article. The Right Hemisphere 5 platform includes the entire suite of tools used for translation, authoring, and publishing functions.

“People need to realize that PLM is a strategy, not an application. It really is a workflow management issue,” explains Michael Lynch, CEO of Right Hemisphere. “More and more people need to touch this data in different formats.”

Right Hemisphere views PLM as a strategy,and offers an entire suite of tools for translating,authoring, and publishing data.

The company’s Deep Exploration—CAD Edition is a client-based application that imports and translates more than 110 file formats and allows users to export to more than 40 formats. The Deep Server product is the company’s scalable server-based solution that does more than translates; it automates various processes within a collaborative environment and can be used by multiple users in multiple locations. “We need to look at the best way for connecting all the CAD data out there, from JT to 3DXML and DWF,” Lynch points out.

Joy Mining Machinery, one of the largest manufacturers of underground mining equipment, has been building enormous mining equipment for 80-plus years. Yet, as mature as the mining industry is, Joy is investing in new processes to help automate and facilitate its in-house training and the publication of its manuals.

According to Dan Armour, director of technical publications at Joy Mining, reassessing the processes for training became critical. He saw that an investment in Right Hemisphere’s Deep Server solution would greatly help his ROI in three specific areas: in-house training, company publications and training manuals, and sales and marketing activities. “When choosing a solution, one priority was that the engineers not be additionally burdened by the process. We needed a system that was independent from the engineers,” he says.

For example, whenever Joy Mining had to train miners on new equipment, the company had to bring a training panel along to the training sessions. “It became a logistical nightmare because a training panel weighs close to a ton,” says Armour. “By having digital access to the machinery designs, we are creating a virtual training panel that multiple miners can use right from their laptops.”

One of the newer members to enter the CAD fray is Adobe, which, by its own admission, has only gotten serious about the space within the last two to three years with its Adobe Acrobat 3D. The company is, of course, in a unique position simply due to the ubiquity of Acrobat. In the last two years alone there have been more than 525 million Acrobat readers distributed for viewing the more than 200 million PDF documents that the company claims are available on the Web alone.

Adobe, though, has taken a different approach than Autodesk. As Bhalla explains, “We are looking at the downstream workflow for everything, from machining and stress analysis to marketing and training manuals. Acrobat 3D is not so much for CAD-to-CAD design work.”

The new player in the translation and interoperability arena is Adobe, with its Acrobat 3D Version 8.

In April 2006, Adobe acquired the small French company Trade Technology France (TTF), which had created a compression format for CAD files called PRC. It is this compression format and technology that can be found in the latest version of Acrobat 3D, Version 8.0, which launched in May. Aside from Adobe’s acquisition of TTF, the company also has a strategic partnership with Right Hemisphere. Adobe is licensing several key pieces of technology from Right Hemisphere specifically for the Acrobat 3D Toolkit and the 3D Viewer. “Companies are saying, the more I can leverage 3D design data within my product life cycle, the faster I can create my manuals, create my designs, and reduce my costs,” notes Bhalla. “We estimate that for every 3D PDF that gets created, there are potentially 50 consumers of that one file.”

Customer Approval
Daimler Chrysler is a great example of the downstream usage of CAD files. The company uses digital images for almost all its marketing and advertising promotions. In the case of Dodge, 100 percent of its catalogs contain digital images, and 80 to 90 percent of the images on the Dodge Web site were created digitally, not from photographs, according to John Willette, CGI director at Armstrong-White, the advertising agency responsible for creating Chrysler’s digital images.

“We have been using Deep Exploration for over four years to view all the CAD files that come in from our clients,” says Willette. “It is one of those intermediate tools we rely on and use everyday. And now with Adobe Acrobat, we are using PDFs even more to collaborate with our clients.”
Caterpillar’s Robinson has a similar reaction. “JT files have demonstrated their ability to greatly shorten the timeline for generating service publications, potentially enabling new products to reach the marketplace faster,” he says. “JT files have opened the door to 3D geometry for non-engineering staff, enabling more effective collaboration during the development cycle. JT files have also demonstrated their ability to greatly shorten the timeline for generating service publications, potentially enabling new products to reach the marketplace faster.”

Next month, Part 2 will examine the offerings of additional key players in this space. 

Wanda Meloni is a market analyst covering the tools and trends in digital media. She can be reached at