Product Lifecycle Management

Siemens PLM Connection 2013

13 Jun, 2013 By: Bill Fane

Event Report: The annual user conference previews NX 9, reviews the Curiosity rover project, and promotes product lifecycle management.

Cunning Engineers

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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