Data-Exchange Tools Can Save Time, Money, and Headache

10 Mar, 2009

Understand why you need a multi-CAD interoperability solution and how to select the right one for your office.

Anyone involved in product design and development understands that interoperability is a major issue for today's manufacturers. Just consider the various CAD systems, manufacturing software applications, and file formats that are linked into many supply chains. Software companies are creating new products and new 3D file formats on a regular basis, hoping to find a silver bullet that will be the next "universal file format" -- .UFF? The IGES and STEP formats were once thought to be universal, but their many drawbacks often overshadow their benefits as data translation formats. Nearly every company has toiled over the "IGES file from hell" with missing surfaces that take a week or more to get into a usable state. It is clear that the need for 3D file translation and compatibility will become more complex along with the need to read and write to new file formats.

Interoperability Costs and Challenges

The costs of product data interoperability issues is difficult to quantify, but is generally regarded as significant. In 1999, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published a study of the U.S. automotive industry, which claimed data-exchange costs were $1 billion per year, and that study involved only the automotive industry. Imagine what that is now! The study accounted for tangible costs such as rework or outsourced translation but didn't include issues related to longer development times or inefficient reuse of files. In a 2007 CADCAMNet Interoperability Survey, 100% of OEMs indicated that they exchanged 3D CAD data with outsourced engineers but received CAD data in their preferred format only 34% of the time.

With some 66% of 3D CAD files being delivered in a format other than the preferred one, most manufacturing companies are faced with the daunting task of transferring files between dissimilar systems. Many issues affect CAD data exchange and present common challenges.

Here are some of them:

  • manufacturing companies spending a significant amount of time trying to transfer files between different CAD/CAM/CAE programs for analysis, simulation, machining, tooling, fixture design and many more applications
  • fundamental data-exchange barriers between most 3D software packages, for example, different levels of accuracy, which increase the complexity and difficulty of data exchange
  • 3D software products that output poor quality IGES and STEP files with missing surfaces and edges
  • valuable human resources consumed to manually redraw important models for use in specific software programs
  • time wasted on poor-quality translated files that impact delivery schedules and reduce profits
  • costly mistakes made when manual re-creation in the new system does not accurately replicate the original design
  • introduction of new proprietary 3D file formats
  • large companies with several different internal systems that can not communicate with each other without first redrawing CAD models
  • migrating whole libraries of CAD parts and assemblies
  • the inability to read specific file types causing lost business opportunities
  • maintaining multiple CAD systems, which can be cost prohibitive and does not necessarily solve the problem

Stumbling Blocks to Interoperability

To combat data-exchange issues, many organizations have tried to enforce the use of a single CAD system throughout the enterprise. This approach frequently results in using tools that are less than qualified to complete specialized tasks. On the other hand, great costs are incurred when suppliers have to purchase, maintain, and become skilled on multiple systems in order to maintain business relationships with multiple clients. And data-exchange issues can be significant even between different versions of the same CAD software.

Adoption of a single, universal, 3D file format may be a remote possibility within the next decade. However, forces within the industry are working against that outcome. While IGES and STEP are well supported formats, the implementation of these "standards" is subject to a broad interpretation leading to mediocre results. Some software vendors are more interested in a check mark on a specification sheet than in providing true interoperability. Quality solid models exported as IGES files often yield poor results when they are imported into other applications and may be uneditable. In the process of writing IGES files, CAD systems can lose data resulting in missing surfaces or holes that prevent using the data as a solid model.

Although forcing a single CAD solution or universal file format may work for some organizations, the vast majority find those options lack the flexibility to achieve optimal productivity.

Implementing an Interoperability Solution

The December 2006 “Multi-CAD Design Chain Benchmark Report" by Aberdeen Group reported that top-performing manufacturers are 10 times more likely to leverage third-party translation applications than are lagging competitors. A plastics company reported that using a data-exchange software solution reduced 3D CAD translation costs by some 80% and cut the average product turnaround time from 2.5 days to 30 minutes. Maybe that gives us a clue!

But many companies still do not realize that CAD data-exchange products, which address interoperability issues, are available today and can quickly save suppliers thousands of dollars in outsourcing translation costs or hundreds of man-hours in manual labor on a single project. The return on investment for a company using CAD data translation software can be as short as a few months.

However, you should do you homework to help ensure that the CAD data translation tools you're considering will meet your needs. When evaluating your options, take into consideration the following points:

  • Start with good data. Files that are corrupt or otherwise poor quality will lead to translated files that are also of poor quality.
  • Evaluate file translation quality. Can the tool create accurate solid models?
  • Automated geometry repair. This technology can improve model quality and increase productivity. End users need the ability to increase model tolerances so solid designs are usable as solid models in their target system.
A problematic IGES file is shown before and after repair.

Multi-CAD/CAM format support. In today's competitive market, companies need to read and write a variety of 3D file formats to complete the manufacturing cycle.

  • Visualization capabilities. Powerful communication tools help avoid errors, save time, and cut costs. A picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Ease of use. Data translation software utilities should be intuitive and quick to master. Companies today need solutions with short learning curves and quick implementation.
  • Missing-surface replacement. An imported model with a missing surface means that it will not be an editable solid. In many CAD systems, the model must be solid to be usable. Being able to replace a surface quickly can make the difference between winning and losing business.
  • Unattended batch-file translation. To save time and avoid tying up company resources during working hours, look for a file-translation product that lets you run jobs overnight in batch mode.
  • Job-quoting tools. Many companies rely on quick access to customer models from different sources to win new business, even though they do not share the same CAD software as their customers.
  • CAD license requirements. Keep in mind that some data-exchange products require CAD licenses to complete the job, while others are stand-alone solutions that do not require additional CAD/CAM software licenses.

Implementing a data-exchange software product will help alleviate some of the challenges, but the software may not solve all problems 100% of the time and might even present some drawbacks under certain circumstances.

Growth of Data-Exchange Capabilities

As manufacturers and CAD products continue to evolve, it will become commonplace for companies to include all the data required for manufacturing a product in a single CAD file. CAD data-exchange products will have to lead the way to support many types of data. With continued software development and technology advancements, most solutions will include these features:

  • web interfaces that will make easy-to-use file translation available to every department in a global organization
  • direct support for all major CAD file formats in one simple product interface
  • enhanced support for product manufacturing information (PMI) including GD&T materials, color, and other manufacturing meta data
  • increased speed and ease of use
  • smart automated processes that reduce the need for user intervention
  • conversion of design history
  • autorecognition of model features

The efforts of many companies working to solve the interoperability issues facing the design and manufacturing industries are showing dividends, but as the global manufacturing market continues to expand and diversify, data-exchange costs, delays, and inefficiencies will continue to rise. While we wait for true interoperability, some excellent cost-effective solutions are available today from companies that specialize in CAD/CAM/CAE interoperability products. These products create opportunities for innovative companies to reduce manufacturing costs and improve competitiveness.