11/1/2010 | 6 MINUTE READ

PLM Behind The Scenes

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Must product life-cycle management (PLM) systems be up front and center? No. But by being there it can add assistance for collaboration and design.


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Data Sharing with Smarts

SolidWorks Corp. (solidworks.com) is quite candid about its new SolidWorks Connect, which should become available in early 2011: It's not a PLM system. It's not a product data management (PDM) system. It's a subscription-based data sharing service. Subscribers transfer files among themselves by uploading and downloading files to and from a central, hosted server. There is no information technology (IT) setup. No servers to buy. No software other than an add-on to install in the SolidWorks CAD system. The web browser is the user interface. SolidWorks, the corporation, is responsible for hosting the file server. The add-on is responsible for managing files for upload or download. These are full CAD files—not lightweight model files. (They can also be non-CAD files, such as Microsoft Word documents.) In the background is Enovia PLM from Dassault Systèmes (3ds.com). Enovia is resident on the hosted site and it organizes and stores the data and provides functions such as word and file searches.

At first glance, this data sharing is hardly different than emailing files as attachments or posting files on some file transfer protocol (FTP) site. But email can choke on large files, like CAD models. And email tends to "push" files to users, sometimes inconveniently. FTP lets recipients "pull" down files at their convenience, once they know about the file's availability by email, telephone, or happenstance. But FTP is dumb; it's "just" a file transfer system.

So SolidWorks Connect offers two features beyond email and FTP. First, the add-on "understands" SolidWorks, specifically its file structure and the relationships between files. This added intelligence from within SolidWorks ensures that all related part and assembly files get properly uploaded to the hosted server. Likewise, at the other end of the transfer, the add-on maintains the relationships in the downloaded files once the recipient starts working on those files from within SolidWorks. Second, and this is where the service acts like a low-cost, entry-level PDM system, SolidWorks Connect performs version control. The add-on creates new versions of files that have been changed, while maintaining the relationships between parts and assemblies. This way, designers and engineers can always go back to a previous version of the shared file they're working on.

Alas, SolidWorks Connect does not have workflow capabilities, but it does have bidirectional messaging so subscribers can leave messages for other subscribers. More important, it does a job so needed by small- and many medium-sized companies. (Point of information: The typical SolidWorks customer has five seats or fewer.) Says Kurt Lundstedt, Product Manager, PDM Solutions for SolidWorks, "SolidWorks Connect offers some type of file management and collaboration for customers and people that don't have the IT staff to set up servers and install a full-blown PDM system, let alone PLM system."


PLM Iintegration Gets a Version Boost

OpenPDM from ProStep, Inc. (prostep.com) is a "cross-domain" integration platform. Namely, it's middleware for connecting multiple PDM/PLM together and with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. The middleware consists of standard connectors that let PDM information, such as part and document master data, product and model structures, configuration information, and release statuses, be exchanged or otherwise made accessible. OpenPDM supports file-based data exchange between different systems and online access to data in other systems.

The newest version of OpenPDM, version 7.0, introduces data linking. This form of integration complements the data replication used in previous versions. It links, rather than replicates, data and processes from various computer-based domains, such as PDM, requirements management, software development, and ERP. "We no longer transport data from one system to another," explains Manfred Fink, sales consultant for ProStep. "The link engine leaves the data where they are while working in the user's business process." This approach eliminates the need for a company to spend money on the hardware and software for duplicate systems. Plus it eliminates users needing to know two software programs that perform the same function.

The data link imposes data traceability, a systems engineering feature not easily performed with data replication. (In fact, data replication can easily lead to different versions of the same data. Which can lead to errors.) Having traceability leads to a number of new PDM/PLM features in requirements management. For instance, "where used" searches can find what products use a particular software version; impact analysis can identify what affects changing a requirement has on products or, conversely, what materials or software modules are affected by a change in requirements; consistency checks can ensure that a test case exists for every requirement, a requirement exists for every material, and a requirement and test exists for every specified software function. This version of OpenPDM also supports the auditing of mechatronic design by dynamically generating reports showing object interdependencies and interrelationships for SPICE/CMMI (simulation program with integrated circuit emphasis/capability maturity model integration). All of these features lead companies toward better control of their product development processes, avoiding errors, and satisfying customer and legal traceability requirements.


Designing is Just Easier, Faster

No PLM system is an island. Case in point: the new body-in-white (BIW) design capabilities in Catia V6R2011 from Dassault Systèmes (www.3ds.com/). For a while now, Catia's functional modeling capability let designers focus on "what" they were designing (design and functional intent) rather than "how" they were designing (geometry and the sequence of modeling). This decreases design complexity, especially when changes had to be made, and it directly associated behaviors with design features. V6R2011 applies functional shape modeling to surfacing, a critical aspect of BIW designing.

A new functional shape design (FSE) workbench sits on top of generative shape design (GSD, which is available on V5; FSE is available on V6). Says Cliff McCullough, technical sales engineer for Catia Americas Pre-Sales, "FSE provides high-level functional management of intrinsic parameters" such as of fillets and drafts. It also puts BIW designing on par with other goal-oriented design processes. This process begins with some baseline geometry, which can be any external geometry (solid or surface) coming from GSD, part design, or even CATIA Live Shape; wireframe and sketches provide inputs for other BIW-oriented functions. Designers can directly add and manipulate external geometry, relimit or not, create an extrude or an offset from another surface, and so on. BIW-specific features are available through right-click context menus, including the making of holes, stamps, stiffeners, bosses, and flanges. Thicknesses, drafts, and limit dimensions can be set up beforehand for a sheet metal part. These setups, contained in standards management and parametric tables, or design tables, can be managed at the project level.

"Once you've established a configuration for a functional feature, it's a simple matter of dragging and dropping to get the topology updated," explains McCullough. He add that the workbench will "compute the topology without somebody having to actually figure out how to build fillets, drafts, and those sorts of things." For instance, dragging and dropping a bead to a new location creates a new bead. To extend the bead, just drag-and-drop a portion of the bead onto the end of the existing bead. By the way, modifications to the topology remain generative, so final detailed design can be made in the GSD workbench.

Behind the scenes is PLM. It acts like a part/assembly/product data warehouse, while the 3D model acts like a user interface to get at the information in the data warehouse. Because PLM creates a single, integrated information environment, changes in one engineering/design domain propagate to all users—Catia and otherwise. No longer are people searching through documents or text to find information about the part or assembly they're working on. People can "design-in-context" and can immediately, seamlessly access information for display, analysis, context-sensitive searching, collaborative sessions, chats, and buddy lists. Ultimately, costly design and manufacturing errors are eliminated. 


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