Collaborative Computing: All Together Now

A manufacturing manager in New York City looksat a manufacturing model on his computer screen. At the same time, a supplier in California sees the same model on her screen. Meanwhile in Europe, engineers tap their keyboards to make the model rotate and change shape. The supplier sees gaps in the design, determines what's needed to fill them, and lets the rest of the group know if she can create the parts required for the final product. All told, the design process happens simultaneously, saving valuable design time and--in the final analysis--money.

If this scenario sounds revolutionary, it is. But the revolution isn't coming--it's here. According to industry experts, collaborative product development--the process of sharing information in the design and creation of products to greatly speed manufacturing--is here in very real-time.

Collaborative development "is truly an electronic revolution," says Ken J. Versprille, program manager and senior analyst at D.H. Brown & Associates Inc., an IT research firm and consultancy in Port Chester, N.Y.

Those are bold words, but they're not without credence. The prospect of simultaneous product collaboration, across geographies, time zones and corporate boundaries, has only been possible for the last couple of years as more companies and vendors take advantage of the lightning capabilities of the Internet, says Alex Cooper, president of The Management Roundtable in Waltham, Mass., an organization that advises businesses on streamlining product development. "The evolution of the Internet has facilitated a lot of collaborative product development," he adds.

One company that has already joined the collaboration revolution is General Electric Industrial Systems, a GE business unit that makes electrical equipment, such as fuses and transformers, and provides related services. Engineers at the company have created Web City, the company's intranet, which was originally created for collaboration within the sourcing and technology group. In Web City, projects can be broken down into tasks and tracked. Web City stores updates in virtual folders that other team members can see, and also allows the company to capture best practices and repetitive tasks to apply to new projects.

"Our business is very diverse globally, with more than 100 plants and 20 design centers, and the most efficient way to tie folks together is via the Web," says Eric Reed, leader of engineering systems at GE Industrial Systems. "What we can do for the first time is get global teams working together on the same projects in Asia, Europe, South America and the United States."

Large multinationals aren't the only converts to collaborative tools. Lightolier, a Fall River, Mass.-based manufacturer of residential and industrial lighting, uses a suite of software from CoCreate Software, a Hewlett-Packard company that makes two- and three-dimensional design tools, to create its products, says Gary Marn, director of IT for Lightolier. For contractors seeking products, Lightolier supplies them with a CD specifier--a disc that allows them to view a product line onscreen and make specific requests for design modifications, Marn says.

"Contractors can get into a virtual room and configure any type of lighting," Marn says. "Let's say you're a Japanese developer, and you see a fixture you want, but the flange is too large. You can see it, and actually rotate it, and then my designer will take it on his 3-D CAD, change the specs and make it work for the contractor."

Of course, this evolution isn't without challenges, chief among which are data security and interoperability of collaborative tools. Yet, despite these hurdles, manufacturers realize that they have to make the leap to electronic collaboration to compete in the ever-accelerating product cycle race.

Sharing designs, specifications and other information crucial to timely manufacturing can only be done by sharing that information throughout the whole process, from engineering down to suppliers, Versprille says.

Cooper agrees that collaborative product development is the next giant step in technology, but, he adds, "a lot of it is evolutionary, not necessarily revolutionary."

The idea of collaborative product development came about in the early 1980s, evolving from department automation to CAD people "doing 10 times the number of drawings they could do before, but it didn't speed product development," says Cooper. The process morphed into concurrent engineering, which formalized the concept of bringing manufacturing people into the design process early. That development coincided with the total quality management movement. Then, with the reengineering movement and downsizing of organizations in the mid-'90s, the process of developing products became more streamlined, all in the interest of saving time and money, Cooper says.

"Now the next generation has to deal with companies outsourcing what they don't do well, and it means more partnerships and sharing of data," he says.

Using the automotive sector as an example, Versprille estimates that up to 60 percent of vehicles are designed outside the Big Three's corporate walls. "It's happening more and more, and the level of expertise needed to do individual tasks--to design grills, engines, interiors--has gotten fairly sophisticated," he says. The end result is that a lot more collaborative product development and design needs to occur between the automotive makers and their legions of suppliers.

Seeing a product as it is designed is key to quickly streamlining its creation, Versprille says. He notes that one of the latest developments in the field--visualization software--takes complicated geometric CAD models and presents them graphically in a format that is simpler than older CAD technology. In doing that, visualization vendors have been able to take exact geometric data from a variety of systems and combine it into a visualization environment. For example, a Big Three automaker can get a body design from Germany and an engine design from Japan and combine the two in real-time for review by engineers in a Detroit conference room.

In the electronic age, simultaneous collaboration is the next big thing, and many companies are poised to provide these services. Alibre, an application service provider based in Richardson, Texas, offers Alibre Design 1.0, a subscription-based service that can connect engineers and designers within and beyond a company's firewall. Alibre Vice President of Marketing Greg Milliken says the program's key features include Web-enabled collaboration in real-time, and enhanced SSL security to protect customer data.

Also leaping into the collaborative market is Structural Dynamics Research Corp. (SDRC), a Cincinnati-based company, which last spring announced a three-pronged strategy for e-business collaboration and innovation: product knowledge management (PKM), which includes SDRC's product-data management tool; collaborative product commerce (CPC), which includes Accelis, a tool that centers on nonproprietary, standards-based technologies; and e-design automation.

In June, SolidWorks, a manufacturer of 3-D CAD software for the mainstream market, announced the release of its 3-D Meeting, an add-on to SolidWorks software that enables users to view and share mechanical designs in real-time over the Internet. 3-D Meeting aims to enhance design communication by enabling vendors, manufacturers and customers to participate in live, online meetings to review SolidWorks models.

Despite the streamlined proces-ses promised by tool vendors, many potential users are nevertheless concerned with security issues. With more and more information being zapped across a company's firewall, the issue of protecting that information--and making sure it's viewed only by the eyes that are supposed to see it--naturally arises.

"There are definitely some tools coming into place that make it easier" to maintain security, Cooper says. "But it also comes down to a lot of trust issues. And how can you digitally enforce trust?"

Security in collaborative product development and the sharing of any information falls into two realms, according to Evan Yares, president of the CAD Society, an industry trade association based in Bethesda, Md. "One realm is knowing your data is safe and won't be lost, and that's a hardware-related issue, using an infrastructure with backups made on a regular basis," says Yares, who is also president of OpenDWG Alliance, an association of CAD customers and vendors that promote AutoCAD's Autodesk as an open, industry-standard format for the exchange of CAD drawings. "That's probably a given, but I've seen people lose data because they don't have that policy in effect," he says.

"The other issue is data security, critical data that is out of your control. If you're designing the next new big thing and it's served up over the Internet or a corporate extranet, you have legitimate concerns regarding the issue of good practices," Yares says. "If the company has good practices, you make sure you apply all security patches to the system on a regular basis, and you have an infrastructure that supports normal-level security."

A good policy notwithstanding, is there still a fear that a company product or design might be seen by the wrong eyes, and the design could end up elsewhere as the next big thing before the original company has a chance to create it?

"Of course that's a fear; your ideas are out there for all to see," Yares says. "But we live within the legal system. We have patent and copyright protection. The truth is, we're a nation of laws. Collaboration tools don't change the formula [for protection] at all."

Laws or no laws, Yares says companies can take other steps to protect their critical data. Industrial espionage used to consist of spies going through a company's trash, making paper shredding a standard security practice. Now industrial spies sift through bits, making it a necessity that companies perform the electronic equivalent of paper shredding--data encryption.

Of course, there's always simple honesty and cooperation. The CAD Society has created Interoperability Guidelines (IG), the first step in an industrywide code of ethics to which vendors and users may subscribe on a free, voluntary basis (more information is available at www.cadsociety.org).

"The IG simply puts a stake in the ground and allows vendors that promote collaboration to publicly show it, but also brings those vendors that have policies that frustrate collaboration out in the open," he says. "These are simply policy guidelines, they bring things out to the light of day."

For companies that currently use collaborative development tools, security is often more than a voluntary effort. At GE Industrial Systems, security is of utmost importance, says Larry Sollecito, general manager of e-commerce. "There's a large effort at the GE corporate level--and with us--to ensure security. When we talk about collaboration with customers, we have EliteNet, the customer's way of interfacing with us over the Internet," he says. "It's very secure, with three levels of personalization. And under that, we put collaboration tools in interfaces in Web City. It's a very secure system outside the firewall for customers to interact with us."

Some companies, instead of outsourcing collaborative product development, are creating their own computer architecture to do the job.

At GE Industrial Systems, Web City engineers designed the system's architecture but capitalized on some off-the-shelf tools as components of it, according to Sollecito. The system supports about 500 projects with 700 users in 300 teams, he says, and consists of GE's internally built applications on top of an Oracle database. GE also uses EliteNet as a collaborative tool for customers to interface with GE over the Internet, he says.

But while many manufacturers are jumping on the collaborative product-development bandwagon, it's still new enough to make some shy. "The adoption rate into some of these manufacturers will take some time. They can't just drop the way they do things to switch over," Versprille says.

For one thing, the risk of a software glitch, which can shut down manufacturing operations, still exists. Many companies are evaluating visualization technology before taking the plunge. In addition, many companies are set in their established ways. Introducing collaborative technology that promises to change how teams currently operate is a daunting prospect.

"Most companies with collaborative technologies will set up trial runs on the side and feel very comfortable with that before moving more into production," Versprille says.

Some companies adhere to collaborating the old-fashioned way: by sharing information among a small, in-house group of creators. Such is the case at Sonic Innovations of Salt Lake City, a maker of customized hearing aids. Ross Ryding, vice president of operations and CIO, says the company doesn't use "fancy new tools" for collaboration because 99 percent of the design work is done internally at the Utah facility and "we have only five engineers, not thousands."

When it comes to collaboration, Ryding says, "nothing is better than good discipline among engineers sharing data."

Still, he won't discount ever using outside collaboration tools. "It's something we're looking at, but we hold most of our key technology as proprietary," he says.

But for many companies, the Internet will be the driving force that will make collaborative product development a necessity. "The Internet is really, really accelerating it," says GE Industrial Systems' Sollecito. "Historically, people were able to do this sort of activity in their work environment only, but now with the Web they can weave their lifestyles into it better. Instead of conferencing at 8 p.m. in the office, they can do it at home on the Internet."

As more tools come to the market that enable companies to collaborate in real-time more effectively--in ways that save both time and money--product design and development will never be the same.

Paul Kandarian is a freelance writer based in Taunton, Mass. He can be reached at pkandarian@aol.com.

The CAD Society Interoperability Guidelines are a contract between CAD vendors and their customers. By subscribing to these guidelines, CAD vendors make a statement that they support interoperability between different CAD programs and will establish their business policies accordingly. CAD users, by subscribing to the guidelines, make a statement that they support interoperability and will purchase CAD software only from vendors that have a similar policy.

Although the guidelines are drafted specifically with respect to CAD software, they are equally applicable to other engineering software, including but not limited to, computer-aided manufacturing, computer-aided engineering, product data management and engineering data management.

According to Evan Yares, president of the CAD Society, the guidelines form a framework that says, "We won't get in the way of others trying to build software that works with ours--even if they are our competitors."

HERE ARE THE GUIDELINES: The data belongs to the customer. CAD users invest tremendous amounts of money and resources developing CAD data. The CAD vendor shall do nothing to prevent customers from using their data in any manner or form they desire.

Data encryption has its place but must be controlled by thecustomer. Yares says certain CAD vendors have encrypted the data produced by their programs to prevent their competitors from building software to read those data files.

Interoperability is impossible if companies won't cooperate.By adhering to this guideline, CAD vendors agree to license their software--at prevailing rates--to others for the purpose of developing interoperability software.

The Internet is the backbone of CAD interoperability. The CAD vendor agrees to license its software for use in data translation on Internet-connected servers at prevailing rates no greater than those charged to preferred customers. -P. Kandarian Collaboration is big business. According to a study by Collaborative Strategies, a San Francisco-based management services company, real-time collaboration tools (also known as data-conferencing tools) constituted a US$500 million market in 1999, which was more than double (111 percent) the 1998 market. Collaborative Strategies predicts an annual growth rate for this market of 64 percent per year through 2002. In comparison, the individual teleconferencing and videoconferencing markets, while much more mature and larger in dollar volume, are expected to have annual growth rates of just 19 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

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