Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 9 (September 2001)

Interoperability: The Key to Collaboration

Tim Hickey

Manufacturing today requires a highly collaborative product creation environment to enable innovative and competitive products to be brought to market rapidly. The need for collaboration, or getting the necessary resources on board to simultaneously plan and complete a project and be the first to market, has caused the mechanical design process to shift. Globalization, the Internet, and ever-increasing competitive pres sures are driving manufacturers to seek and improve collaboration more than ever before-at all levels-be tween engineers, departments, suppliers, and even between companies that com pete one day and collaborate the next.

The challenge today in manufacturing is to create a highly integrated, real-time da ta-sharing product creation en vironment that is cost efficient, easily supportable and scalable, and does not sacrifice information security, data integrity, or user responsiveness. But the primary impediments to implementing collaborative environments are the closed software architectures and proprietary data formats of today's systems.

Indeed, users of product creation technology liken the pursuit of interoperability to that for the Holy Grail. It's typical for a manufacturer today to outsource the design of its products to external firms that use different CAD systems and therefore deliver surface data that cannot be edited by the manufacturer's own system. This means the manufacturer must manually recreate the data, wasting precious time and resources. This delay is incurred for every product revision initiated.

Users of product creation technology have long implored solutions providers to open their systems. It now seems that interoperability is finally starting to win more than lip service from product-creation solution providers, after years of foot-dragging. At the same time, some independent startups appear poised to help users overcome what many view as the vendors' lock on their data.

PTC, UGS, and Spatial all unveiled initiatives this year, suggesting that interoperability, perhaps for the first time, is on the minds of vendors and users in equal measure. Particularly noteworthy was PTC's launch of Granite One, a licensable software development environment built on Pro/Engineer's core geometry, features, graphics, and data-exchange capabilities. What's groundbreaking about Granite One is that it is designed for exchange not just of geometry but also of model intelligence at the feature level-something not provided by traditional merchant modeling kernels. Gran ite One is meant to enable full bidirectional native-file interchange among CAD systems and applications built on Gran ite One, which includes Pro/ Engineer 2001. While initial adopters will principally be developers of Pro/E-complementary applications such as Moldflow Corp., Granite One's first licensee, PTC says it would be willing to license the technology even to direct competitors, providing they reciprocate.

Also striking was an agreement between UGS's Parasolid line of business and Dassault Systemes' Spatial subsidiary to enhance interoperability between UGS's Parasolid and Spatial's ACIS, the two market-leading merchant modeling kernels. UGS Parasolid and Spatial agreed to exchange licenses for their respective modeling technologies and to work to improve interoperability be tween the two kernels. Also, Spatial will provide UGS Parasolid with data translators for standard and proprietary CAD formats including IGES, STEP, and Catia.

The move follows UGS's recent rebranding in which it evolved its corporate identity and product portfolio to better reflect its expanded ability to support collaborative commerce for manufacturers-an expansion punctuated by its acquisition of EAI. Key elements of UGS's interoperability strategy are the Parasolid XT and eXT formats for precise geometry transfer, EAI's visualization and DMU technology and data formats for lightweight Internet-based geometry sharing, and the e-Vis Web collaboration environment. Also part of UGS's rebranding is a strengthened emphasis on open solutions and interoperability as well as partnerships, something the Spatial alliance appears to bear out.

Spatial, for its part, has been chartered by its new owner, Dassault Systemes, to provide best-of-breed 3D software components for all, and to establish an industry standard for 3D data exchange. Indeed, Dassault Systemes' vision is nothing less than to "have 3D everywhere, any time, and for everyone." The partnership between Spatial and UGS's Parasolid unit, historically fierce rivals, is a marked departure for both companies, and could be the harbinger of a new wave of cooperation among leading providers.

Another leading provider, SDRC, has unveiled a new strategy and product suite for collaborative product management called TeamCenter. With TeamCenter, SDRC has taken technologies from its existing product offerings, including Metaphase, Accelis, I-deas, Slate, and the newly acquired Inovie Software, combined them with new tools not yet released, and rearchitected and repositioned them into a collaborative framework based on open standards. TeamCenter has a standards-based, Web-native architecture that allows for extensions and customization. TeamCenter is based on Sun's J2EE architecture and can run on top of standard Internet middleware.

Of course, the acquisition of SDRC by EDS, UGS's parent company, has far-reaching implications and poses more questions than it answers right now. What is clear is that the new company will not keep two high-end CAD systems alive indefinitely and will need to make I-deas and Unigraphics work together until their ultimate product direction is determined. The same can be said for TeamCenter, based heavily on Metaphase and UGS's i-MAN.

At the same time, highly promising new approaches to interoperability are coming from outside the established solution providers. One startup, Proficiency, has introduced a technology that promises users the breakthrough capability of exchanging not only geometry but also feature intelligence among different CAD systems.

Proficiency's success will depend on numerous factors, perhaps the most important being how well it handles the many special cases requiring the interpretation of design intelligence, and what level of effort will be required to continue adding to these special-case handlers. Also important will be how well surface geometry is handled, as precision in surface modeling is difficult to achieve and maintain. However, the company has completed successful pilot projects at Ford, Caterpillar, and Lockheed Martin, all of which are now deepening their involvement with Proficiency and its software. The advent of Proficiency's technology is potentially among the best news users have had in years.

TranscenData, an ITI business, is another provider that appears poised to make an impact. A respected, long-established developer of software technologies for data interchange between systems, the company recently unveiled a new initiative to help customers deploy its tools and begin getting payback much more rapidly. TranscenData built on ITI's software expertise, adding collateral consulting and systems integration services aimed at helping customers quickly implement robust CAD/CAM, CAE, PDM, and supply-chain interoperability solutions throughout their extended enterprise.

These steps to enable interoperability between disparate CAD/CAM/CAE systems offer the best hope yet of removing barriers to true manufacturing collaboration.

Tim Hickey is associate editor at Daratech, a market research and technology assessment firm that specializes in CAD/CAM, CAE, CAPE, PDM/EDM, BOM and ERP integration, plant design/plant management automation, and GIS. For more information, visit