Sharing and Collaborating with Your Team (MCAD Modeling Column)31 Oct, 2007 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
Software lets you share your designs throughout your company — and beyond.
We've all heard the saying, "No man is an island." Well, there is another, somewhat less-known version that goes, "No one designs in a vacuum." Whether we like it or not, we all belong to a team. That team has higher-profile members, to be sure, but everyone has something they must contribute if the project is to see the light of day. What sets a team apart from an individual is that each member has expertise, and everyone has to work together. A team is all about cooperation. As they say, there's no I in teamwork.
Who Needs It?
Nowadays, collaboration is something of a buzzword (in fact, almost a cliché), but its importance is steadily increasing. With the pendulum of outsourcing swinging back out, we have a much wider range of people working on our projects. Outside engineering firms pick up a lot of the work we can't handle. They either must invest in the same tools we have or find a workable way to translate our data into what they have (figure 1) and back again.
Figure 1. Getting your data to flow seamlessly across the digital void can be a challenge, but it's getting more reliable all the time.
Likewise, analysis firms are users of our models (figure 2). Our own marketing departments are making much more use of our models for their job (whatever that is — just joking!). Sales departments are creating catalogs concurrently with the manufacturing process because those folks have access to virtual assemblies earlier than ever before (figure 3). They don't have to wait for photographs of physical models anymore. They can generate very realistic, high-resolution graphics that can look even better than the actual product.
Figure 2. Data sharing might be absolutely vital to your design process. Getting important data to those who need it should be easy and straightforward.
Manufacturing uses our data for all sorts of things. They use the data to cut steel for tooling as well as generating assembly manuals. One of the surprising departments (for me, anyway) using engineering data is purchasing. These days, purchasing folks can review the assemblies of our designs and cull from them the type and amount of materials to order, the number of screws and their size, and all sorts of other stuff they used to have to rely on us to tell them.
Figure 3. You'd be surprised at who needs your engineering data.
Even process planners are jumping onto the proverbial bandwagon. Armed with our design assembly, process planners can design workstations in which the actual products will be made. Based on engineering data, they can tell exactly how long a product will take to assemble, how many people it'll take to produce it, and even how much square footage the factory will have to devote to it. People are even posting rotatable models on the Internet so customers can look at, measure, and order the product. How are they doing all this?
Companies are coming out of the woodwork to help you share your data with others. You can find all sorts of products that claim to make your professional life easier. Some do; others try. Not all are as good as they should be, but most are really powerful.
Product lifecycle management (PLM) software is the current important buy for most companies. It seeks to manage your product from concept to retirement (the product's, not yours). A lot of vendors make this kind of software.
File translators bridge the sometimes-wide gap between engineering and the rest of the world. And there are many kinds of programs available. If you need to generate stereolithography or other rapid prototypes, you need to have a good stereolithography apparatus (SLA) translator. Most modeling programs come with this capability built in. If yours doesn't, you might consider investing in a more modern package. Even staying within the engineering community, you have to translate data to stay compatible with everyone on your team. Nowadays, thanks to corporate buyouts and takeovers, you can have different locations within the same company that operate with different software packages but work on the same projects.
Some 2D translators, such as computer graphics metafiles (CGM), are vector based. You can take geometry from your 3D modeling program right into the most popular graphics programs, including Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW. I do this all the time for labeling images in manuals. You also can save bitmap images — JPEGs or TIFFs — into paint programs such as Photoshop. From there, you can bring static images into Microsoft Word and Excel, different kinds of databases, and even Internet sites.
You can translate 3D files in any number of ways. Old standbys like IGES and DXF are still available, but these days, STEP is very popular. Some formats allow for more than just geometry transfer. These are the newer, more exciting ones. Of course, there is VRML, but what you get with that is just a faceted representation of the model. You can't measure it accurately. Formats such as JT are much more accurate (figure 4).
Figure 4. You can output model files to many different formats to make them available to anyone.
SolidWorks' eDrawings lets you see a very accurate depiction of your model, and it has a lot of really great functionality. I was sold on this program the first time I saw it years ago. A newcomer in this arena is Adobe Acrobat 3D. Yes, the de facto standard document transfer program now does 3D! It's pretty slick, too. You can save a PDF (portable document format, for the uninitiated) that includes fully rotatable models with all sorts of metadata, including materials and tolerances. You can enable measurement and exploded views (figure 5). You even can attach other files (Word or Excel) to pass on the information you want recipients to see. You can password-protect it as well. I think this kind of functionality will build the future, and I am quite excited about it.
Figure 5. I can't think of a better way to explain a repair than to show an animation of it being done. Products such as Adobe Acrobat 3D will usher in a new era of do-it-yourself confidence. Imagine the possibilities!
Share and Share Alike
When it comes to sharing your data and collaborating with the rest of your diverse design team, it's never been easier. Today's products make it a snap. And for the most part, they are easy to use, powerful, and secure. What more could you ask for? Direct transfer of one file format to another without losing anything in the process? Well, you'll have to keep waiting for that one, I'm afraid. But with the kinds of tools at your disposal right now, you can work with a speed and an efficiency that beat anything you had just a few years ago. And that shows we're making progress.
Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an industrial designer, artist, and author based in St. Louis, Missouri.