The Web Could Be Your Most Versatile Design Tool

Oct. 19, 2000
New ideas on the Web let you rent an analyst, bid on design tasks, and best of all, just work more closely with those you know and trust.

In a team session using the solid-modeling system from Alibre, Richardson, Tex., a participant to a design review has typed in a question regarding the strength of the upper clevis in the back-hoe assembly. Passing the baton or control of the screen to the prime contractor lets him possibly pull up the stress analysis for an examination. Alibre also says it has granted permission for several universities to use the software at no cost. Engineering students with a valid e-mail (an .edu extension) can use the software for classes and projects.

Team-management functions in Alibre let contractors set access and notification policies for participants.

The housing is modeled in GS-Design from Collabware Inc. to show some of the detail possible with the software which is in its second release. The inset box shows a few of the graphic options.

Collabware's Prodeveloper Web site provides a virtual consulting office in which engineers with specializations and companies who need them can find each other.

Autodesk's Point A portal, aimed at designers, engineers, and architects, provides a Web site that users can customize to deliver preferred information. They do so by checking boxes after they register for the type of news, information, and other Web sites they'd like to access. For example, the site links to more than 75 discussion groups and hundreds of industry organizations. Those with Autodesk software can download AutoCAD 2000 iX for access when using the developer's products. Others need only Internet Explorer or Netscape.

A page from MSC.Software's Engineering Exchange shows where analysts might look to apply their skills.


A table from SRAC's FEA Express shows what engineers might fill in before submitting a model to the analysis service.

Exa Corp., Lexington, Mass., specializes in fluid-flow analyses with their Web site e-CFD. Users now have to prepare models with PowerFlow software on their own computers and upload it to run on Exa's machines. Soon engineer's without our software will be able to download a small program that lets them prepare models, says Michael Kayat, a spokesman for the company. Because CFD problems are easily parallelized, they are solved using all available processors. So problems that would take days on a single-processor computer solve in a few hours on ours, says Kayat. Users pay by the CPU-hour. Company plans are to include other software company's CFD software and additional types of analyses. has activity zones for simulation, material, consulting, and events. The service is a pay-peruse option of unlimited use for single model geometry. A license fee of $349.95 (through credit card) will let users perform unlimited analysis on a single model.

The analysis was conducted by Part Advisor from Moldflow Pty Ltd., Lexington, Mass., and available through

Over the next few years, many engineers will stop buying software and rent it when needed from somewhere over the Web. Doing so may be tough for those convinced they must own the software they use. But the advantages of paying-asyou-go are too good to ignore.

The so-called e-businesses would like to start a trend that encourages your company to out-source almost everything: CAD software maintenance, updates, training, and data management just to name a few. The businesses make convincing arguments, and if they are right, your travel budget and the time spent out of the office in meetings could take a welcome hit. Their arguments go like this: Renting design software on a monthly basis (there are several payment schemes) lets a department say good-bye to initial high costs for design software, which ranges from $4,000 for one seat of a midpriced modeler to over $15,000 for others. Online costs amount to about $30 to $100 for renting a low to midpriced program for about a month. When you need another seat, just download it in a few minutes and get to work.

Another plus is that training becomes the responsibility of the developer. They have a few introductory lessons online now and plan to make more available soon. And upgrades to the software have been coming at frequent intervals to let customers know the developers are reading user wish lists.

Renting software also brings along collaboration features so the model can be shared and discussed with partners and consultants who are probably located off site. What's more, engineering-data management can be done online and analysis can be farmed out to one of several FEA companies that are handling that operation with the promise to return results in no more than two days.

The following descriptions briefly cover only design, analysis, and consulting functions available online. But these services are growing fast and seem limited only by developers' imaginations.

Developers of Web-based design software, such as Alibre Inc., Richardson, Tex., and Collabware Inc., Idaho Falls, Idaho, are ready to give your design procedures a new twist with solid-modeling systems rented by the month, collaboration features that let a dispersed team of several engineers create, edit, rotate, and examine the same model at the same time, and soon, access to analysis and manufacturing operations.

The software from both companies uses a three-tier system that starts with a 2-Mbyte compressed file or client that users download to their computer. The other components are a compute server and a secure vault for storing and managing designs. The so-called client software downloads over a 56k-baud modem in about 15 min and provide the interface and commands which are sent to the server. The server stores the model, does the calculations that shape it, and provides storage and data-management functions. This setup, say the developers, makes it easier to share models with others.

"Already we've released two upgrades to the design software in response to customer requests," says Paul Grayson, president of Alibre. "And we're getting Version 2 of the solid modeler ready for a fall release." Grayson says the company has proven that the Webbased software and services is a viable business model and is pressing ahead with further developments, although he won't tip his hand on details.

To demonstrate the current capability, however, two engineers with Alibre played the roles of supplier and contractor working on the design for a hydraulic automobile jack. Each took turns manipulating the model and saving changes while several other participants from around the U.S. watched and commented on the event.

"We have dozens of customers with whom we could use this technology," said one of the designers with a firm in Austin, Tex. "But would each of them have to spend $100 per month for a license to collaborate for 15 min?" Fortunately, no. The client is available at no cost, and it is possible for a company with at least two subscriptions to loan a copy to other companies that may not wish to subscribe.

Although these systems seem best adapted by small to medium-sized companies with fewer resources, Alibre's Grayson says the system is receiving favorable response from large companies as well because their suppliers and customers are spread worldwide. "A company that needs tighter security and more frequent use can optimize the system by purchasing and running it on an intranet," he says. Engineers can participate in weekly demonstrations ( at 2 p.m. CST to sample Alibre's concept.

Collabware differentiates themselves by letting engineers work online several ways. For instance, users might rent the modeling system developed by Lockheed called GS-Design and licensed by Collab-ware, or purchase one called Solid Master from their Web site, or download or rent a thin-client version similar to GS-Design. Solid Master is a solid-modeling system with parametric features originally developed by Cadmax Inc., Baltimore, Md. "The plan is to offer a range of tools and services for the product-development community," says Scott Cullins, a spokesman for the Idaho Fallsbased company. From the developer's Web site,, engineers can rent software that encourages working as design teams and invites members to join a collaboration session.

The company will also soon roll out the Virtual Consulting service. "With a free Prodeveloper account, users can post their resume into the room for others to examine and call on when needed. That means we are functioning as a temporary staffer," says Cullins. "When companies need a designer with particular qualifications, they can search the consulting room based on industry, discipline, salary, years of experience, FEA experience, or what have you."

Should they find suitable candidates, the searching company could issue an RFQ with their top choices. "The concept is to let all engineers market themselves to a global audience," says Cullins. Those who hire from the room will also be able to post their comments regarding the work performed by a particular applicant.

In another phase, the company has developed tools that let users tap into a site called Pragmatic Vision. "This site posts resumes from 6,000 or 7,000 top international scientists and engineers," says Cullins. "So if a design firm has a part that it would like to build from a composite material, for example, but doesn't have the expertise, these Webbased tools let the company search the world for consultants who do have answers. Companies might ask: 'How do I apply this material to this part, or what manufacturing method might trim 5% off its cost?' And for a fee, someone will tell you exactly what must be done." This lets small companies without a staff of experts get answers to big problems. In fact, it opens doors that might not be available otherwise.

Computer-based training is just coming online. "This is important because it will address people who are ready to move into the 3D market for the first time," says Cullins. "So far only about 20% of designers and engineers who might make use of solid modeling are doing so, probably because of high cost and because the systems are not as easy to use as they might be."

Readers curious how the various systems work can dial into either company's Web site and test the software and services, usually for about 30 days at no cost. For that period, users get the client software to run on their computer, about 100-Mbytes storage space on the developers servers, and access to the tutorials.

Most companies with analysts on board keep those people busy with a steady stream of simulations. As the work loads increase, two alternatives become obvious: hire more talent or offload the excess jobs.

Web-based analysis is intended for the latter and several companies have responded with different ways for handling the overload. For example, SRAC in Los Angeles has been providing 48-hr turnarounds on models sent in for analysis. Neighbor MSC.Software has made MSC.Nastran available online along with consulting services. And MoldFlow, Lexington, Mass., has placed their expertise in injection-molding analysis on-line. More are certain to follow.

SRAC's setup, called Cosmos/ FEA Express ( will analyze parts and assemblies for as little as $500, and companies need not purchase FEA from SRAC. Clients send models in several formats to the developers' consulting division. One from a team of 25 engineering analysts will then mesh, load, and analyze the model for the company's required conditions, says Yosiho Muki, manager of consulting services. A template on the Web site helps users supply the information needed to complete that analysis.

MSC.Software has launched two Web-based services that promise to ease the growing burden of simulation tasks. The Simulation Center provides analysis services to anyone. It's more like renting an additional copy of MSC.Nastran. "Users submit models over the Internet in one of several formats, and working in our computers, assign boundary conditions, mesh the model, and submit it for analysis," says John DiLullo, vice president of e-commerce with MSC.Software, Costa Mesa, Calif. "They get about 1 Gbyte of server space for models and results. Since the site is running MSC.Nastran, there is no limitation to the types of analyses they can run," he adds.

Engineers are notified by e-mail when their jobs finish." Online tutorials can get users started. "The service is aimed at smaller companies without a support staff and larger ones with many large models," says DiLullo. "It's on a subscription basis at $395 per month for the simulation. For another $50, users can generate models using an online copy of the Iron-CAD solid-modeling system. So for less than $500 a month, a company can have access to a solid modeler and unlimited analysis time from any location and at anytime, all through a browser," he says.

DiLullo says not all users so far have been professional analysts. "But you must know what you are looking at, and previous analysis experience certainly helps," he says. The advantage of the setup is that it frees the user's computer so that person can pursue other tasks. "Some jobs solve in 20 min and others in several hours," says DiLullo. The advantage of submitting larger models is that they are run on larger and faster compute servers. "Porsche in Germany, for example, has submitted jobs with 2 million degrees of freedom that would take several days if run on their engineering network. Our servers reached a solution in just over 6 hr on one of our low-speed servers," he adds. "And with a little tuning and a faster server, we can do better than that," he says. A onetime 6-hr saving does not sound like a great accomplishment until you consider that most results are examined, models tweaked, and set off on another run.

MSC.Software's second analysis offering is called the Engineering Exchange. The idea is to provide a location for companies to post analysis jobs, and for analysts to post their credentials so job and analyst are more easily linked. "Companies posting analysis tasks are often Tier One or Tier Two to auto and aerospace companies," says Rob Sweedy, a spokesman for MSC.Software. "Proposal work done by smaller companies often involves a simulation to show that the ideas work. To get the proposal done in a timely manner, they might turn to the Exchange to find an available and capable person for the job," he says.

The Exchange also solves the problem of picking one analyst from several. "You could triangulate to the right person or company with three items," says Sweedy. "One is a snapshot of the consultant and that person's company with their specialty and areas of expertise — what tools they use, their history, and experience." A second perspective is an evaluation of each person or company submitted by previous employers or clients. "This will be an unfiltered reference," says Sweedy. "When a proposal finishes, the hiring company fills in a form with remarks regarding the analysts' performance." And a third item will be what the candidate proposes doing to solve the problem. "This should give an idea of whether or not that person understood the problem."

For analyzing the manufacturability of plastic parts, designers can turn to The site provides an online version of Part Adviser, software that simulates the flow of plastic into a mold. Users can purchase a license to run an analysis on a specific solid model directly on the user's computer. This avoids sending large proprietary data files over the Web. Users instead download an executable file to their desk-top, open the model, choose material and gate location, then go back to the to pay and receive online authorization to begin the analysis. This lets the simulation work on a particular model for an unlimited number of runs.

The Web site includes zones for simulation, material selection, consulting, and events. The Materials Zone provides a materials calculator that lets users determine optimal polymers for parts and lets users order testing services on new materials from the developer. The Consulting Zone provides services for troubleshooting, performance of more challenging analyses, and other types of plastic injection-molding projects.

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