Siemens PLM Connection 201313 Jun, 2013 By: Bill Fane
Event Report: The annual user conference previews NX 9, reviews the Curiosity rover project, and promotes product lifecycle management.
Dallas, Texas, was hot and sunny early this month, with temperatures getting into the 90s. At least, that's what I heard; I wouldn't know for sure because I never left the air-conditioned comfort of the Sheraton Dallas Hotel.
I was in town for the Siemens PLM Connection 2013 Americas User Conference, where 1,750 registrants had their choice of about 400 instructional sessions. Events of this type are usually corporate activities, but Siemens PLM Connection is a user group meeting organized by the independent PLM World organization and sponsored by Siemens PLM Software.
If you are a typical CAD user, you may be unfamiliar with Siemens and PLM. Or you may have heard of Siemens in the context of electrical equipment manufacturing, but that is just a small fraction of the activities of this old, large German company, which also provides products and services for the energy, healthcare, and infrastructure industries.
As for PLM, the acronym stands for product lifecycle management. Exactly what does it mean? Well, you can think of it as a document control system on steroids. PLM software lets you link related documents — such as a warranty claim, lab reports, engineering change requests, drawing revisions, engineering change orders, tooling change documentation, production orders, serial number control, and so on — for the entire life of a product. For example, if you want to know why a particular change was made to a part, PLM lets you trace it back to the original warranty claim. Siemens' PLM offering goes by the name of Teamcenter.
Siemens developers originally created a PLM system for their own internal use, but soon realized that they had a saleable product in its own right. The company also develops a pair of 3D parametric CAD systems: Solid Edge is a mid-range product, going up against Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks and Autodesk Inventor, while NX is a high-end product, competing with Dassault Systèmes CATIA.
NX 9: The Next Generation
Siemens PLM World included a major presentation on NX 9, due to be released later this year, plus some insight into the company's plans for future releases. Four of the new features particularly intrigued me.
First, working backward in the normal workflow, the developers have added some interesting functionality in the creation and editing of 2D working drawings. The item that caught my eye is that you can instantly switch existing dimensions or sets of dimensions back and forth between center-to-center and overall length dimensioning of ovals, and between baseline and chained dimensioning.
Second, the NX developers have added pocket machining. The aerospace industry in particular makes extensive use of parts that are machined out of a solid billet and have one or more pockets. These parts are typically machined using a ball-end milling cutter that leaves a fillet in every corner. Two potential pitfalls emerge here: It can be time-consuming to manually apply all those fillets to your CAD model and this method can produce fillets and blends that are difficult or impossible to machine accurately, even though their exact shape isn't critical, strictly speaking. With NX 9, you can simply specify the size and type of cutter and the software will apply all necessary fillets to the pocket in one hit, and it will be possible to easily and accurately machine them all.
Third, 2D profile sketches now support the company's Synchronous Technology mechanisms. Creating a 3D feature in pretty much any CAD system usually involves creating a 2D profile first. This means that you create a 2D sketch as the basis for a 3D feature. In a parametric CAD system, dimensions and geometric constraints are then added to the profile. In NX 9, however, Synchronous Technology automatically recognizes things such as symmetry, the profile heals itself if segments are removed, radii remain constant when other geometry changes, and so on. The user doesn't specifically have to add traditional constraints.
This also simplifies the reuse of existing 2D geometry from a variety of CAD programs. Just open the file and NX automatically recognizes coincident segments, symmetry, and so on, and turns them into useable profile sketches.
Finally, the developers have switched to a ribbon interface. The good news is that it is fully customizable.
The Scoop on Solid Edge
What's new, you might ask, on the subject of Solid Edge? Watch this web site for updates to come the week of June 24, when Solid Edge University takes place in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Siemens PLM executives reiterated the company's commitment to interoperability, and not just within its own suite of software. Several years back, the company developed the neutral JT file format for exchanging 3D CAD files between different brands of software and had it certified as an ISO standard.
Another example of the company's open-minded attitude is that even though it offers its own tools for analyzing factors such as stress, flow, and thermodynamics, its CAD systems also can interact directly with other brands.
Companies often expand product offerings through acquisition. Not so with Siemens PLM. The executives stated that their strategy is to try to develop all products from the ground up so they have the same look and feel.
Keynote presentations at PLM World usually provide some very interesting stories. This year they came from Bill Allen, senior mechanical engineer for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, better known as JPL. He explained that JPL is owned by NASA but operated by the California Institute of Technology. This works out nicely because if JPL succeeds, NASA takes the credit — but if it fails, Cal Tech takes the blame.
Allen spoke primarily about JPL's latest triumph, the Mars rover called Curiosity, which was developed with the help of NX and Teamcenter. JPL's initial design presentation to NASA included wheel treads with a pattern that would leave the initials "JPL" everywhere that Curiosity went. NASA rejected this. For the final design, JPL engineers added holes in the tread to allow for the escape of any Martian soil that might accumulate inside the rim. When pictures began coming back from Mars, however, someone noticed that the holes in the tread pattern spelled out "JPL" in Morse code in the soil. Touché.
The code-bearing tread pattern is visible in this image of a Curiosity rover wheel. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.
The other surprising thing Allen disclosed was that space vehicles generally do not employ state-of-the-art technology. Yes, they are designed using leading-edge CAD, analysis, and PLM software. But when it comes time to build the hardware, two other factors come into play. First, the Curiosity project took ten years from initial concept to safe landing. Second, when the launch countdown hits zero they can't make a service call ever again, so they only employ proven, mature technology. Much of Curiosity is ten-year-old technology.
Allen told the audience to be careful what you wish for. One of the earliest Mars rovers was intended to last for 90 days, but is still going strong after 10 years; now NASA expects everything to last for 10 years.
He closed by making the case for a good PLM system. Using Teamcenter, he said, helped produce a rover so successful that NASA has decided it wants another one. Because the next rover probably won't be identical to the first, full product-development documentation stored in Teamcenter will ease the search for original design data and change history.
Allen also noted that PLM can come to the rescue during what he calls the Apollo 13 scenario: When — not if — things go wrong during a mission to outer space, being able to find the appropriate documentation in a hurry can spell the difference between failure and success.
No Clouds on the Horizon
At the end of my stay at Siemens PLM Connection, I suddenly realized that, unlike nearly every other industry event I've attended in recent years, this conference had brought virtually no reference to the cloud. When I questioned a Siemens PLM executive about this, he replied, "We're taking a wait-and-see attitude. Indications are that most engineers aren't thrilled with the concept."
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