CAD innovations spur productivity, savings

Although computer-aided design software has been around for two decades the market has been rejuvenated in the past couple of years by advances in a number of supporting technologies.

On the one hand high-powered affordable desktops have made CAD ubiquitous as vendors such as Autodesk Inc. and Intergraph Corp. have adopted Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT as their primary platform. Therefore organizations are able to put CAD systems into the hands of more users.Meanwhile the concept of design software has taken on added dimensions as Internet technology has enabled new levels of collaborative design while 3-D software has become the foundation for low-cost simulation design techniques.

In one case Defense Department users equipped with virtual reality technology are able to test equipment that has been modeled using CAD software. Not all CAD applications are so exotic but even the more mundane new features are welcomed by federal users who have come to depend on design software.

Craig Kuehn an engineer with the Norfolk (Va.) Naval Shipyard agreed. "CAD is to the engineering world what word processing is to the writing world. We do all of our drawings on CAD " Kuehn said.

Sales of CAD computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) and engineering software will hit $8 billion this year up from $6.8 billion last year according to Bruce Jenkins vice president of Daratech Cambridge Mass.

Growth is less robust in the federal market industry observers said. However users are leveraging the technology as an indispensable productivity tool said Bruce Calkins the executive manager of mechanical marketing for Intergraph Federal.

Windows NT

According to Intergraph the Windows NT platform is playing a big role in the federal CAD market.

Government downsizing favors easy-to-use Windows-based software Calkins said. Engineers no longer have time to learn complex all-in-one products he added. At the same time as tools become more generic and CAD data becomes more commonplace managers and planners as well as engineers want access to it.

Windows NT now widely used provides the underlying technology allowing CAD software to be integrated into mainstream operations and to be used in coordination with office automation products.

Although Unix still dominates the market and exhibits strong growth rates Windows NT sales are growing almost four times faster Daratech predicts that the newer operating system will account for 40 to 70 percent of new CAD/CAM units shipped by 2000.

Collaborative Design

Over the last couple of years one of the most important developments for CAD users on any platform has been the explosive growth in the use of the Internet. The possibility of collaborative design has taken a new meaning with users being able to work together across vast distances.

The Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) in Keyport Wash. used the Internet in designing the weapon control system for the Navy's Advanced Tomahawk cruise missile.

"Hundreds of CAD models of sheet metal parts were sent between the design contractor McDonnell Douglas Corp. and NUWC Keyport fabrication engineers " said Patrick Bergan an NUWC mechanical engineer.

Initially Navy prototype engineers evaluated the 3-D CAD models and suggested changes "to reduce manufacturing and assembly costs " Bergan said. After a design had been finalized a CAD model was used to produce engineering drawings and machine tool programs.

Using the Internet enabled more organized control of design changes lowered the costs of engineering drawings and machine tool programs and "dramatically reduced" the fabrication lead time Bergan explained. "The use of a single part model throughout the process produced fewer mistakes...[and] less rework."

The explosion of Internet/intranet technology also "promises to force a degree of openness on CAD developers " thereby increasing users' ability to share engineering and manufacturing data among disparate systems Daratech's Jenkins said.

World Wide Web formats such as Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) are being used by CAD vendors in "push-button model generation " he said. VRML is a language for creating 3-D objects on the Web. VRML support means that any CAD data format can be output to VRML and published on the Web.

Java can also play a role as Bentley Systems Inc. has recognized with the development of its MicroStation/J CAD software which is expected early next year.

Java is a language developed specifically for writing Internet applications that need to be accessible to users on different computing platforms. Writing applications in Java means that developers need not modify the application program interfaces (APIs) for each potential platform.

"It seems to be a clever way of providing multiplatform support different from the API route " said Eric James the integration manager with the General Services Administration's Public Buildings Service.

The use of Java means that you can write code once and run it anywhere even 25 years from now said Griff Roberts Bentley's director of foundation products.

Autodesk has also adopted the Internet letting users launch browsers from its CAD software and attach Web addresses to CAD documents said Autodesk product manager Mark Sage. Several vendors provide means for transmitting lightweight images rather than full CAD models so users can protect proprietary data.

Cost-Savers

Rapid prototyping and simulation have emerged as new ways to reduce production costs - and save time - by giving end users the opportunity to test designs before going to full-scale models.

Rapid prototyping enables engineers to create quick sketches of design ideas before investing time and energy into a final design drawing.

The Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Ind. for example went through "at least half a dozen iterations on" Intergraph's Engineering Modeling System (EMS) of a design for a Special Forces miniature programmable detonating device before finalizing it said Roger Smith an NSWC engineer.

NSWC made plastic versions of each concept output from EMS to a "concept modeler." Going from each original concept to plastic took a couple of weeks vs. six months to a year for metal prototypes.

With simulation on the other hand engineers can translate their drawings into virtual models before going into production. McDonnell Douglas the contractor on an avionics upgrade to the Air Force's T-38 training aircraft modeled two versions of its design using Division Inc.'s virtual reality software said Dave Kirk a team leader for McDonnell Douglas. In the past McDonnell Douglas has used physical prototypes or modified aircraft. But this time the company was able to model proposed changes and immerse air crews in a virtual environment using CAD data so that they could evaluate the options and express their preferences Kirk said.

Typically a CAD model is fed into Division's interactive product simulation (IPS) environment where users immerse themselves to evaluate a design. If they change the location of an element in the IPS "our software spits out the [data] " which is fed back into the CAD system explained Mark Smith vice president of marketing for United Kingdom-based Division.

It's like flight simulation said Janet Matsuda the manager of emerging markets and technologies for Silicon Graphics Inc. But the "database you're `flying' through is a CAD model instead of a terrain model " she said.

Simulation techniques are also used in architectural CAD. In Bentley MicroStation "you can go in and do a simulation and walk-through" of a facility design said David Horner a civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers' TriService Center for Computer-Automated Drafting and Design and Geographic Information Systems Vicksburg Miss.

Human Simulation

The Navy is also simulating human interaction with CAD models to evaluate the operational usability of equipment. The service for example has examined Polhemus Inc.'s motion-capture software for this capability.

Although software with computer- generated figures already exists it is time-consuming to program and slow in action said Kevin Moak a program manager with naval architects Gibbs & Cox Arlington Va. So the Navy looked at software that promises faster more natural simulation.

A demonstration by Gardy McGrath International Inc. Reston Va. used a CAD model of the control station for a destroyer-based helicopter arrest system which the Navy uses to grab helicopters trying to land on a ship. Operating the control station requires simultaneous hand and foot movement in a confined space Moak said.

The demo involved combining CAD and motion data said Dave Gardy president of Gardy McGrath. The company built a platform on which an actor fitted with sensors simulated the various movements required of the system operator. As the actor moved his hands and feet he could see "himself walking in and out of the computers and consoles and switches...of the CAD construction on the computer " Gardy said.

Data-Capture Challenge

The more that CAD technology develops the more features federal users want vendors said.

One thing users want in architectural CAD is easier integration of ancillary data with CAD models said GSA's James. Models should be usable not only in a building's design phase but throughout the building's life cycle.

Also although innovations are reshaping the use of CAD little has been done to automate front-end data collection.

Assembling and organizing data from disparate perhaps remote sources so that it can be readily accessed by CAD software is possible today but the approach requires customization. Users are still waiting for a standard automated approach.

That may change however if technology developed by Cyra Technologies Inc. Orinda Calif. bears fruit.

Working in collaboration with the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Cyra is producing a 3-D laser modeling system for use in shipboard design Kuehn said. "The problem [with CAD] has always been how to get the data in " he said. The new device which he has seen in prototype "uses a laser to scan a physical space " with up to 1mm accuracy.

The scanning process produces a series of points which the Cyra software turns into a CAD model Kuehn said. The hope is that engineers will be able to create models of a space without having to draw and measure it thereby "significantly reducing costs " he said. The software runs on high-end PCs running Windows NT.

The naval shipyard has used a beta model of the Cyra system to measure an avionics space on an aircraft carrier. The scanner's model compared with an existing CAD model of the space "very favorably" and was "a heck of a lot faster " Kuehn said.

-- Adams is a free-lance writer based in Alexandria Va. * * *

At A Glance

Status: CAD users now benefit from advances such as Internet-based collaboration and virtual reality modeling.

Issues: New technologies can reduce the cost and time needed for CAD but some issues such as data collection remain a challenge.

Outlook: Very good. CAD vendors continue to leverage technology being developed across the computer industry.

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