Product Design

Get Lean with Automated 3D Data Transformation

22 Apr, 2009 By: Paul Perreault

With tough economic times forcing manufacturers to trim expenses, companies can find help from tools such as Anark Core.

We are living in extraordinary and challenging times, with the economic climate affecting most industries and companies on a global scale. This is leaving many without jobs, and companies are seeking new ways to cut costs while retaining or improving their competitive edge.

Manufacturers are focused on finding ways to increase the efficiency of their operations, and many are seeking new and innovative solutions to solve age-old issues of how to work leaner, faster, and smarter. They are refocusing their energies, taking a hard look at their operations, and seeking out solutions that can solve multiple problems across their organizations and supply chain. For many manufacturers these problems involve CAD interoperability as a key component. These companies seek new and innovative ways to share their product design data in less time and at a lower cost to enhance their product designs, accelerate product development, and communicate and collaborate more efficiently, both internally and externally.

CAD Interoperability
Sharing product design data with internal or external organizations is a multidimensional challenge. CAD data interoperability, intellectual property protection, Designers and engineers must find a way to exchange CAD data with others so they can read it, view it, and use it successfully for their particular needs. Few issues present a larger impediment to manufacturers, and even fewer issues waste more time and money.

If you're sharing CAD files with suppliers, partners, or other groups, or if you rely on CAD data supplied to you from an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), the right software can solve any interoperability problems and increase not only the efficiency of your CAD file-sharing process but also your overall operational success.

An Example Case
Two of the largest sources of waste in engineering are time spent fixing CAD data problems that result from poor translation and time spent interpreting CAD data created by someone else. Poor CAD interoperability and nonstandard methodology prevent effective collaboration and data reuse. Lack of collaboration can stymie efficiency, extend delivery timelines, and cause budget overruns. To avoid these issues, engineers and designers typically prepare different CAD models for specific uses. CAD preparation may involve fixing cracks or gaps in surfaces, removing irrelevant or unnecessary details, or deleting sensitive design data before sharing with an external vendor.

Engineers who are responsible for preparing supply-chain CAD data can spend several tedious hours removing extraneous parts or surrounding assemblies, collapsing assemblies into multibody parts, and preparing the data for their own or for their partners' CAD systems.

OEMs that depend on suppliers located around the globe may be concerned with how to reliably protect trade secrets and intellectual property. There is a very real danger that if too much information is given to an unscrupulous supplier, an entire product design could be compromised. With that in mind, OEMs are best served by providing suppliers only the CAD data required to fulfill the order.

This same situation arises in another form during mechanical simulation. Engineers who perform simulation often require the redefinition of relationships within the product structure. Flat assembly structures become deeper and naming conventions change. Engineers who perform CAE analysis on parts or assemblies can spend hours removing unwanted part details that complicate the calculations or make them too expensive to perform.

The "Dumb" Way
The proliferation of CAD design tools has given designers an array of powerful options to choose from. However, each 3D CAD system is based on unique proprietary formats that don't share common methods for describing product geometry and associated metadata. The lack of a common geometry language makes translation between CAD packages difficult because a designer's intent can be described in many different ways.

One consequence of this is that manufacturers, suppliers, and other groups that need to share and access CAD data end up wrestling with a multitude of different file formats. Managers solve this problem by purchasing translators and seats of CAD design software for these non-design-related tasks. And because CAD tools are often quite complex, these end users need to be trained to use the software, adding even more expense and limiting the number of people who can participate in this process.

To tackle this issue manufacturing OEMs have to work in stages. They first attempt to exchange files with a chosen supplier using native formats. If that doesn't work, they try to use an exchange format such as STEP or IGES. If that proves to be inadequate, they test third-party interoperability software that provides varying levels of translation capabilities.

When Designs Change
The natural process of design revision can have an expensive and time-consuming impact as well. Design churn carries a long tail for any process that depends on a translation or some special treatment of the CAD model. Unfortunately, and all too typically, this entire manual, labor-intensive process needs to be repeated when a design changes.

Manufacturers need to seek out solutions that focus on cutting time and money -- solutions that are easy to use and require little to no official training and can be used by engineers and nonengineers alike, effectively lowering the total cost to produce derivative CAD data. These solutions also need to automate the process when dealing with frequent design change, removing much of the repetitive manual labor typically associated with conventional tools and translators.

Hidden Costs
A recent industry survey conducted by Longview Advisors reported that a substantial number of manufacturers send out more than 10,000 files per month.

OEMs reported that engineers spend an average of 1-2 hours each week preparing data for transmission, translating, and cleaning CAD data. Furthermore, engineers at supplier companies who receive the data spend 3-10 hours each per week on the same problems. These astounding statistics leave engineers little time to focus on their actual projects.

Using data from this survey, we can estimate a total cost incurred:

  • 5,000 CAD files sent per month
  • 20 hours per file per month for translation and preparation time
  • $100/hour cost to the company (salary, software maintenance, training, etc.)


Here's the calculation:

  • 5,000 files/month x 20 hours per file/month = 100,000 hours/month
  • 100,000 hours/month x 12 months = 1.2 million, hours
  • 1.2 million hours x $100/hour = $120 million lost per year

And remember, this number is based only on the information respondents submitted for the survey!

The key problem isn't that CAD data needs to be fixed or prepared prior to sharing; the problem is that CAD data preparation is largely a manual process. The lack of automation for CAD data preparation is something that engineers have had to work around for so long that it seems a normal part of the process. Moreover, manual processes are often prone to error, which can have cascading effects up and down the supply chain.

A New Idea
Engineers are spending significant time preparing CAD models, performing tasks that in aggregate may best be described by the concept of transformation. CAD transformation encapsulates the entire process of translating to different file formats, restructuring the assembly hierarchy, attenuating unnecessary detail, all for the explicit goal of producing use-case-specific geometric derivatives of original CAD designs for each role in the extended manufacturing enterprise.

One product that is designed to assist with these tasks is Anark Core, a CAD preparation tool and optional server product that can perform translation, healing, attenuation, restructuring, and defeaturing in an automated environment.

The software uniquely fingerprints each face within the CAD file, allowing designers to change design geometry without breaking automation. By recording CAD transformation actions into a recipe, organizations can capture and leverage the business knowledge required to prepare CAD files for suppliers and partners. CAD preparation processes can be automated, saving countless hours of manual labor, especially when designs change. This entire process is repeatable, which removes the human factor as a potential source of error. Automated CAD transformation makes sharing product design data easier, more cost-effective, and shows immediate results.

Proof Positive
A recent engagement involved converting complex Pro/ENGINEER assemblies for use within an online catalog featuring lightweight 3D models. Prior to working with Anark’s solutions, the conversion process could take 4-12 hours per assembly and required a highly skilled 3D modeler to manually rebuild portions of the assembly that couldn't be simplified enough to meet the requirements of the catalog application. Time spent converting heavy CAD data into lightweight mesh models was a hidden yet significant cost for the company and carried “long tail” implications, ultimately delaying timely delivery of the catalog and prevented regular updates and maintenance.

Anark Core benchmark test results for creating transformation recipes to relieve this bottleneck demonstrate significant cost savings and can eliminate the "long tail" business impact:

  • Import 80 MB Pro/Engineer model into Anark Core Workstation
  • Default tessellation produces 524,000 polygons resulting in a 31 MB file
  • Delete small parts, hidden geometry, and other B-rep faces; optimize tessellation
  • Create DWG layer groups by restructuring assembly hierarchy
  • DWG file exported from Anark Core results in 40,000 polygons in a 1.5MB file
  • Total time to transform model: 15 minutes, resulting in a 20x reduction in file size
  • Automated processing when designs change via Anark Core Server: 30 seconds

Anark Core is not a design tool, but rather a CAD data transformation tool that is designed to be easy to learn and use. It is suitable for, but not limited to, engineers as well as technical software users who have limited expertise with CAD systems.

Success today depends on operational excellence and efficiency. Developing a business process that integrates customers, suppliers, and partners into cooperative product development and manufacturing processes is the key to success in this struggling economy. Automated CAD data transformation increases efficiency while helping manufacturers develop a process for effective data sharing and collaboration that is measured in whole numbers, not in percentages.