Designing For Better collaboration

April 18, 2001
The Internet makes outsourcing through supply chains a more viable option. And that makes collaboration a must.

Streaming technology in ConceptStation from RealityWave Inc., Cambridge, Mass., delivers large, detailed models through modest modems in reasonably short order. Viewers can turn the model, cut through it, see every nut and bolt, and then attach notes for others in the development team. The software provides one example of online technologies that promise to take significant chunks out of development cycles

The exhaust or extraction fan for an enclosure has not performed up to snuff so engineers using Alventive's online meeting software are suggesting ways to resolve the problem. provides an online interactive bill of material that's intended to eliminate the usually outdated ones that circulate through shops as projects near completion. Clicking on the spring-pen tip for example, takes users to more data and a model of the part.

The spring image is a 3D model that can be rotated, panned, and zoomed for a better look.

The portal holds several engineering functions including online FEA and a recently developed service called eReview. FEA comes through developer SRAC, Los Angeles, and requires a brief client download. EReview is for online meetings in which participants share, view, and annotate multiple documents and drawings in more than 150 file formats.

Reading the business press gives one the impression the Web has finally made it possible for engineers to collaborate. The truth is, the Internet just made outsourcing more practical. Outsourcing, however, is chaotic and counterproductive without proper communication, hence the new interest in collaboration.

Traditional CAD developers are pushing software technology with functions that easily publish models and drawings on the Web. It's not hard to see that soon, almost any engineering project will start when its manager kicks off the project Web site.

There are lots of ways to collaborate, and they are evolving fast as developers add user-requested features.

ActiveProject lets customers, partners, and suppliers communicate, manage projects, and adjust business processes, says developer Framework Technologies (
Centric software ( delivers what they call collaborative product-innovation solutions so manufacturers and suppliers can work more closely together developing products. The system incorporates supply-chain knowledge at a project's onset and brings together product information from disparate systems such as CAD, CAM, analysis, and PDM. is an open e-marketplace, say its developers. It supports transactions between buyers and suppliers across multiple markets.
eReview, from Web4engineers, says it provides a simple way for companies to hold online meetings with multiple participants, documents, and models. says it's a framework for exchanging engineering, manufacturing, and other technical information. It is in the form of an intellectual-property vault where global partners place and share confidential data. helps purchasers and suppliers of highvolume engineered parts find each other. This may be done through contact with other members of its global tradeliaison network or directly from suppliers. The company also lets participants electronically transmit RFQs to prequalified suppliers. (build to order) holds a list of best practices and advice. It was formerly
Rapidteam from is said to let manufacturers integrate material suppliers into their product-development and sourcing processes. Separate functions manage and track projects, and set up a secure, central repository for project records. Other functions create, track, and maintain communications pertinent to a project. provides my SmartMeeting. It lets customers and supply-chain partners work together in real time on product developments by providing a secure, online meeting space. People go there to view, annotate, and comment on drawings, bills of material, presentations, engineering change orders, and other critical product development information. provides cut-rate office supplies. says it's the place to find equipment and services. They say they have posted over $1 billion in equipment for sale, and have access to 6,000 services.
WebLook 2000 lets users view and markup drawings and images over the Web. The real drawings never leave the safety of their servers. View a demo at ( provides online 3D-model viewing, sectioning, and markup.
WebView integrates with browsers to let users view, compare, convert, and print multiple file formats. The software ( can accurately measure distances and markup modes, and assemble 3D images into new images.

Geoffrey Moore
, an industry consultant and chairman of the Chasm Group, San Mateo, Calif., suggests that companies outsource everything that isn't a core activity — tasks they don't specialize in. These could be stress analyses, manufacturing operations, or writing operator manuals. If a task is not a core competency, in consultant speak, let some other company do it where the task is their specialty.

Moore and others point out that buying and selling online alone is a zero-sum game — participants just whittle away their profit margins. Outsourcing, on the other hand, lets companies take advantage of the expertise at other firms.

There is a payoff for those who outsource the right way. One early estimate suggests it's possible to take up to 50% out of traditional project schedules. Another perspective says the time a contract manufacturer takes to understand incoming drawings, models, and what's expected of it, can drop from two weeks to two days.

Outside the CAD environment, software developers are responding to the need for better communication tools. For example, basic viewing software allows simple free-form or ad hoc sessions for a few engineers. These include viewers for digital drawings along with redline and markup features. More advanced Webbased project sites handle large structured sessions that channel workflow through prescribed routes. Meanwhile, recording features save all drawings and comments for playback, and that becomes the project's history. A dozen engineers and designers, which is on the high side for most projects, can come to the project site to pick up information whenever they need it.

To sample the available technology, try the demos on most developers' Web sites. We've selected a few to highlight for comparisons.

Level one
The good news is there are dozens of collaboration formats to choose from. If you just want to share drawings, for example, there are several viewers available. SpinFire from Actify Inc., ( San Francisco, translates just about any CAD drawing into its own format for e-mail delivery to others. Users rotate models, take measurements from them, type comments on models, and send them back to the originators. An advantage of this system, say developers, is that users don't change the drawing or model, and the systems are simple enough to learn in minutes.

Another viewer, ConceptStation, from RealityWave, ( Cambridge, Mass., lets users put large models online, with all their detail, but without excessive download penalties. For instance, a designer would load a model from most any CAD system and then notify another person or two to join him online. The others would click on a URL in their e-mail and the model would download using a proprietary streaming process. It shows only what you would be seeing if holding the physical object. Turning the model tells the software to recalculate the view in a rough, tessellated version for quick action. When the motion stops, the software refines the model with more detail.

In a demo, the outside surfaces of a 50-Mbyte handheld saw took only a few seconds to download. The system works acceptably well even over 28.8-bps modems, says developer Arron Freeman. Viewers can mark up the saw with comments, make measurements, and read previous comments. Passing a cutting plane though the saw showed every gear, wire, and bolt.

Although these viewers do not let users change drawings or models, others do. OneSpace from CoCreate Inc. ( Ft. Collins, Colo., for example, is a bit more involved in that you rent space on a OneSpace server while a small version (a client) runs on the computers of the engineers who must review each others work. The server turns an uploaded CAD model into a STEP file and displays it for each online attendee. The model is a 3D solid that viewers can manipulate and change. And whatever one engineer does, the others see. Voice communication is by phone, as it is for most other systems.

Another online CAD setup comes from Alibre Inc., ( Richardson, Texas. This system started as an online ACIS-based solid-modeling system that engineers could rent on a monthly basis. Two or more engineers could watch as a leader sections models, changes dimensions, and adds components, just as if they were huddled around a single CAD system. The system also provides an online database for storing and managing a project's parts.

The company recently announced that a large OEM in power generation will use the online CAD system to send STEP files to manufacturing facilities. The models are detailed enough for measurements and manufacturing operations.

For an unusual twist to collaborating online, take a look at the demo from ( It's not a PDM or CAD system, but an online billof-material. In job shops, BOMs are often spreadsheets, many of which are out-ofdate versions that circulate as projects near completion. This service may do away with the hassle of duplicate BOMs.

The whole enchilada
Collaboration-software developers who are trying to place the most detailed operations online are providing the broadest range of capability. These span ways to conduct quick and simple meetings all the way to elaborate workflow plans and databases. For example, Alventive Inc., ( Los Angeles, delivers programs for tasks as simple as online meetings and range up to large structured and formal projects. The focus is on bringing the intellectual capital of an entire supply chain into the design process, says Gary Stoll, spokesman for Alventive. But diverse members of a supply chain include quality control experts, purchasing agents, customers, and people unfamiliar with complex CAD systems. Stoll points out that for more people to get involved in online projects, the barrier or technical complexity of a system must be relatively low. Team members can get a good idea of what is going on in Alventive's system just by visiting the project Web site from time to time. The site is easy to use and team members receive notification when passing milestones and other significant events.

Costs for the services mentioned here reflect the complexity of the software. For instance, may charge $50 to $100/month for the bill-of-material manager. A single license of RealityWave's software runs about $300/yr/project, and viewer licenses are dispersed at $30/month. And one full-service company says it offers starter kits that get 25 users going for about $25,000. That includes server technology and licenses. This allows any combination of sessions or people to gain access to a project site. Project initiators usually foot the bill to host online projects. But it doesn't take an accountant to see that avoiding one plane trip or a day out of the office could easily repay the cost of the software.

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