Unifying the Design Process
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 2 (Feb. 2008)

Unifying the Design Process

This Part 2 of a two-part series continues to look at the emerging tools that help design and manage data through a product’s life cycle.
It is innovation and unique design attributes that separate one manufacturer from another. The ability to effectively collaborate and communicate throughout the design process adds exponential value to downstream manufacturing functions. These capabilities also extend a company’s intellectual property by communicating subtle design features. This is true for any number of manufactured goods—automobiles, bicycles, or consumer electronics.

Presently, manufacturers are gaining a competitive edge by using a number of tools to share 3D CAD data. They are achieving this with technologies from a wide range of vendors, including Dassault, Informative Graphics, Lattice Technology, Okino Computer Graphics, Seemage (recently acquired by Dassault), ITEDO (acquired in 2006 by PTC), Actify, and Immersive Graphics. Those are in addition to the relevant tools from UGS, Adobe, Autodesk, and Right Hemisphere, as detailed last month in the first part of this series.
Dassault Systemes is one of the big hitters in the industry. The company partnered with Microsoft in 2004 for the development of 3DXML, an open format based on XML. As Philippe Marecaux, director of Dassault’s PLM Competency Center, points out, 3DXML is a key component of Dassault’s overall strategy, and the company sees 3D as a means to bridge all the sharing of data by its different design communities.
Top view of a SolidWorks model after it was imported into Lattice’s XVL Studio Pro.

Just recently, Dassault made several interesting announcements with the introduction of 3DLive and 3DVia. Both are new solutions that incorporate the collaboration process: 3DLive at the enterprise level, and 3DVia at the consumer level. “3DLive is what we call our collaborate intelligence solution for the entire Dassault product line of Catia, Enovia, and Delmia,” notes Lance Murphy, senior product marketing manager for 3DLive. “Interoperability is important, as it is the cornerstone of a design process. The second there is a need for a different system, the process breaks down. We need to start closing the loop and building more support for this idea of a concurrent design process.”
The model disassembled within the software.

3DVia, meanwhile, is Dassault’s most recent launch, announced this past June. In essence, the product is a viewing mechanism targeted directly at consumers to help them interact with products. 3DVia is based on technology from Virtools, which the company acquired in 2005.

Informative Graphics
Informative Graphics specializes in file translation for collaborative environments. The company is perhaps lesser known than some of the larger vendors in the space but has carved out a market for itself with Myriad Desktop, the firm’s 3D viewer that can read most native file formats. Myraid converts native file formats into the company’s 3DF proprietary format, which secures and compresses the native file. Informative Graphics also offers Brava, a 2D solution that has been very successful in the financial and legal sectors.

Christine Musil, marketing manager at Informative Graphics, contends that aside from realizing cost savings from shipping between locations, there is the much greater issue of fidelity that must be considered when linking into a collaborative environment. Companies across any number of industries want to know their documents are secure yet provide the proper level of detail when necessary. “Aside from CAD, we have companies in the financial, legal, insurance, pharmaceutical, and petrochemical markets. These clients are primarily using our software to collaborate with different locations and different departments. It has shortened their projects from weeks to days,” she says.

For example, Modine Manufacturing, a large thermal manufacturing company that builds heating and air-conditioning solutions for a number of industries, uses Informative Graphics’ solutions across its business—in the manufacturing process with its CAD files, down to the accounts payable department.

Another of Informative Graphics’ clients, Chevron, needed to find a way to work between two locations: its US office in Houston and one in South Korea. According to Mary Kannady, Chevron’s information management specialist, the company has to save every piece of paper someone puts a red pen on. And with 75 to 400 users working on a given project, that is a lot of paper to track. “We needed software that could view and mark up Microsoft Word and Excel documents, PDF files, and CAD drawings,” she says.
Lattice Technology 
Lattice Technology offers a suite of collaboration tools that are XLM-compatible. At the core of the product line is XVL (eXtensible Virtual World Description Language), the company’s file format for file compression and security filters. Originally founded a decade ago in Japan, the company now has offices in California, as well. Thanks to the firm’s initial beginnings in Japan, it has secured many large Japanese manufacturers as clients, including Sony, Sanyo, Casio, and Toyota (an investor in Lattice).

Early on, Lattice scored a significant partnership with Dassault to incorporate its XVL compression technology within Dassault’s 3DXML format. This partnership has helped Lattice pave the way into some large US companies such as Boeing, as well as several large manufacturers in the defense industry.

Given the company’s international position, it has a unique perspective on how different geographic regions tend to use collaboration tools. For instance, in the US, the growth of collaborative 3D seems to be primarily within the manufacturing process, where 3D is replacing 2D and paper, explains Bill Barnes, Lattice’s general manager in the US. Meanwhile, 3D is being used to animate assembly instructions and create detailed bill of materials and designs.
Dassault recently introduced 3DLive, which serves as a collaborative solution for the enterprise level by leveraging the full power of real-time 3D.

“In Europe, there are still a lot of machine builders, and the use of 3D CAD is a little ahead of the US,” Bill Barnes says. “We have seen a lot of growth for 3D in aftermarket parts across Europe. This includes having 3D files in documents that are used for part identification and customer service, as well as in end-user catalogs. Ultimately, our clients have found that 3D provides faster training of shop workers.”

A good example of this is Hitachi Manufacturing. The company has been using Lattice’s tools to convert its paper-based manuals to 3D online manuals that were fully animated. Since the 3D applications didn’t need translation, the animation was used in the same manual for a worldwide audience. Hitachi explains that one of the key benefits of 3D is that factory employees can stop, rotate, zoom in, and examine assembly instruction much more thoroughly. The company estimates that its employees are now learning 20 percent faster by using 3D in their technical illustrations, and they have been able to reduce operation mistakes by 35 percent.
Okino Computer Graphics
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Okino Computer Graphics is truly one of the early pioneers of CAD collaboration, visualization, data translation, and downstream data pipelining solutions. Notes Okino’s CEO and CTO, Robert Lansdale, CAD, DCC, and viz-sim interoperability is not something new to the 3D market, as has often been perceived. “There have been solutions like our PolyTrans around since the late 1980s,” he says.

Whereas CAD interoperability was once expensive and fragmented, Okino’s PolyTrans CAD and PolyTrans Animation products have always provided cost-effective solutions for a wide variety of professional applications. One person who has been using PolyTrans for a number of years is Jim Orcherton, animation and graphics supervisor at Tesco Corporation, a global company providing design and manufacturing expertise to oil-well drilling and the energy industry. “Okino has helped with our CAD conversion software for many years now,” he says. “Over time, our development process has included everything from mainstream graphics to animations and, most recently, to e-learning training with the new Ngrain [export converter] software.”

Orcherton admits that when he was just starting out with the Ngrain development, he had some trouble converting his models from SolidWorks to Ngrain. He then approached Lansdale at Okino, who was able to create a new version of PolyTrans that works with all types of models, including Ngrain.

“I am very outspoken when it comes to the proper use of data translation software and its related human perceptual issues in a PLM workflow pipeline,” notes Lansdale. “I often find that people initially set up their PLM pipeline incorrectly due to common misconceptions. Most combinations of source and destination programs require a different choice of 3D file format. Data-set complexity requires an explicit understanding that downsizing or reduction will be required, or that today’s non-CAD programs simply can’t import and render an entire CAD car model. I want my customers to succeed, and I work with them to choose the correct file format, gain a proper perspective on the issue of data complexity, and understand how the end-to-end process works. This is critical to the proper and efficient use of a PLM pipeline.”
Informative Graphics’ Myriad CAD viewer can read most native file formats and convert them into the company’s 3DF format.

Educating customers about the proper use of data translation in PLM pipelines is critical. “There are several questions someone looking at data translation needs to ask themselves,” continues Lansdale. “What do you want to achieve in your data pipeline, how large are your data sets, and between which two programs are you trying to create a pipeline?”

For example, someone will try to convert a 2gb Honda car model into NewTek’s LightWave or Autodesk’s 3ds Max or Maya, or take it into DirectX, XAML, and so forth, Lansdale points out. And users tend to choose the wrong file format. “It’s all about which file format to use, how much data they are allowed to convert, and how they must approach the workflow pipeline,” he says. “I just can’t emphasize this enough.”

According to Lansdale, discussions about PLM often focus on the process or the availability of specific applications, yet few of these center on the real-world experiences encountered by end users of such PLM pipelines. “What many of these users overlook is the data-complexity factor and the proper way to structure the PLM pipeline,” he adds.
A New Industry
There has been much debate among these vendors themselves over what this nascent industry should be called. Some have referred to it as “3D publishing” and “3D everywhere,” while others have called it “digital design collaboration” and even the “MVP market—mockup, visualization, and publishing.” The reality is that these types of monikers simply don’t provide a strong connotation with a meaningful description of a market. Additionally, it is difficult to quantify the potential growth and market opportunity for collaboration and interoperability in terms of revenue and units.

Indeed, the functionality and capabilities are proving necessary to the manufacturing process across multiple industries. The sticking point is to define measurable parameters for sizing up such a market. It becomes almost as difficult as putting a value on a company’s own competitive advantage.

In today’s view of a global environment, manufacturers simply use a wide range of design software: from CAD and machine tools, to finite-element analysis and visualization tools. Along with the number of tools being used, many manufacturers have not standardized their design process on a specific platform.
In the end, the notion that there can be a definitive discussion on interoperability and collaboration is erroneous. The depth and scope of this market are a bit like a far-off mirage—the horizon keeps shifting, as do the lines in the sand.
Wanda Meloni is a market analyst covering the tools and trends in graphics and digital media. She can be reached at wanda@m2research.com.
Following the Formats
As is evident from the number of varying solutions and formats by these and other companies, there are several approaches one can take to looking at the market. The base technology can either be closed and proprietary, open and standards-based, or third-party supported.
A closed, proprietary format is one that is created and maintained by a specific company for commercialization. The advantage of this type of solution is that there is the highest level of control over the format. For example, even though JT is overseen by the JT Open Consortium, the format is still maintained and controlled by UGS. Similarly, the 3DXML format is maintained by Dassault even if it supports XML at its base.
Alternatively, open formats such as IGES and STEP are overseen by international standardization committees such as the International Standards Organization (ISO). These committees outline and approve the format standard. However the consensus approval process of a file standard can take years, which is unfortunate since having such standards provides open alternatives within the development community.
One newer open standard is X3D, which is the core format overseen by the Web 3D Consortium. Built to support XML, X3D is a ratified ISO format. The goal of the Web 3D Consortium is to provide a 3D interchange format that is royalty-free. The group then looks to third-party developers to help create supporting development tools. Then there are third-party supported formats from companies such as Right Hemisphere, Lattice, and Informative Graphics that provide the translation tools for a long list of CAD, CAM, visualization, and enterprise-based file formats. Generally, these firms also provide back-end server solutions to manage the flow of files and data. Additional vendors of CAD file translation and collaboration products include companies such as Transmagic, Elysium, TranscenData, Actify, and Seemage.
“It’s unfortunate that the open-standard formats don’t tend to be as robust as closed-file formats. It would be great if there were just one format, but that is unlikely in the CAD market,” says Bill Barnes, Lattice’s general manager in the US. “But we see Adobe’s entrance into the CAD space as a benefit to the entire market, not a threat. The more PDFs are used, the better it is for the entire industry.” (For an overview of Adobe’s entry into this market, see “Brave New World,” March 2007.) —WM
Company Format Strategic Partners
Autodesk DWF, DWFx Microsoft
UGS JT JT Open Consortium
Dassault 3DXML Microsoft, Lattice

Right Hemisphere
Right Hemisphere U3D Adobe, Intel
Lattice Technology XVL Dassault
Informative Graphics 3DF Seemage (Dassault)
Web 3D Consortium X3D Khronos
This chart provides an overview of just a few file formats in this industry sector, as well as some of the partnerships.