5/15/2000 | 6 MINUTE READ

True Collaboration Now Possible Through Engineering Portals

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Engineering design portals provide valuable, inexpensive, readily available solid model translation, simulation, and analysis services right to your Web browser—and across your entire supply chain.


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This stuff about the Internet, application service providers (ASP), portals, and e-commerce is getting to the point where (a) hype is matching the idealized reality, (b) the technologies are becoming really useful, and (c) design collaboration across the supply chain is not the disjointed, capital-intensive, and expensive mess it’s been in the past.

These observations became self-evident during a three-day trek in mid-March through National Manufacturing Week in Chicago. AM&Pwound up cooling its heels at the booths of three computer-aided-whatever (CAx) vendors, each with a desktop computer connected through the Internet to the vendor’s latest portal iteration.

Each of these portals are ASP-based marketplaces—essentially the time-sharing operations of yesteryear, but now accessible across the Web. In general, you only need a desktop computer with a Web browser and an Internet connection to run the CAx applications remotely. Plus, you typically need to download a small client application, a Web browser plug-in that acts as the front-end to the ASP-based application.

These portal sites, says Christian Kelley, marketing manager of CAE/Test for SDRC (Milford, OH), can be used for “engineering applications in projects or companies where it was previously not cost effective, or to supplement existing in-house software and hardware infrastructure, or to centralize engineering application support and maintenance infrastructure for the supply chain.”

Granted, there are still costs. But, continues Kelley, the electronic licensing and on-line payments are “much lower” than purchasing a full license and maintenance/services. Equally important, the portals provide “pay-as-you-go” access to engineering applications, online support, a collaboration environment, and best-practices templates.

3Dshare.com (successor to 3Dmodelserver.com), from Spatial Inc. (Boulder, CO), is the very model of a modern major engineering portal. It is also a service within PlanetCAD, which was being fleshed out at the time AM&P saw it.

The 3Dshare.com service is for translating and healing solid model files. It accepts ACIS SAT (v3-6), CATIA (v4.1x and 4.2) , IGES (v1.0-6.0), Pro/ENGINEER (v18-20, input only), and STEP (AP203 CC6, AP214 CC2) solid models. It then attempts to repair or “heal” the models, as well as translates them into CATIA, IGES, SAT, or STEP file formats for easy distribution. (You can select to only translate the files or to translate and heal.)

Behind the scenes, 3Dshare.com removes non-geometric entities, converts the file format to ACIS SAT, identifies and repairs bad topologies, and post processes the model back to its original format for downloading, along with diagnostic log files if desired. Processing time depends on model size and complexity, the Internet connection speed, and the amount of traffic at 3Dshare.com. Concise, clean Web pages prompt you through and document every step in the process.

One user, Woodbridge Group, a major supplier of car seat and energy management foam for vehicles, receives a couple of hundred solid model files a month from its customers. Interoperability of those models has always been troublesome; however, Woodbridge finds that 75% of the models uploaded to 3Dshare.com come back at least 95% healed. Therein lies a reality. “Model translation and healing is as much an art as a science,” points out Michael Hansen, Spatial’s vice president of PlanetCAD Site Production. But the service does save you money by substantially reducing the laborious, time-consuming manual process of repairing 3D models. And if you don’t like the results, 3Dshare.com comes with a 100% money-back guarantee!

Regarding pricing, the minimum fee for healing a model is $5. Fees are based on how much of your model the service can repair. It determines the percent of “good geometry” (including all geometry elements, such as vertices, lines, splines, and surfaces) before and after processing your solid model file. “Good” quality is based on a precision of 10-6 for distances between edges, faces, and so on. The before and after percentages are then multiplied by a price per megabyte. Figure on $20 to $40 per healed megabyte.

PlanetCAD will be rolled out in phases. The first phase includes the 3Dshare.com service; subsequent phases, expected to be live by July, will include:

• 3Dpublish.com provides technical publishing services, producing CGM, GIF, TIFF, and other such 2D and 3D file formats of your 3D models. This is useful for archival, demonstration, documentation, and marketing purposes.

 Bits2Parts.com is a rapid-prototyping service that, for starters, automates the request-for-proposal (RFP) process to locate rapid prototyping suppliers and delivers stereolithography files to those suppliers.

• The Secure Route (code name) service routes and manages product data from your site to internal and external parties throughout your supply chain—across the Internet. The service will eventually provide ANX-level security.

More is on tap for PlanetCAD, including a variety of on-line education forums, directories, job listings, chat and bulletin boards, and RFP/RFQ, sales, and brokerage functions to design and manufacturing engineering subscribers.

CAE at EngineeringOnTap.com


Talking about what’s “on tap,” EngineeringOnTap.com is a portal jointly run by SDRC and Hewlett-Packard (HP). SDRC provides the computer-aided engineering (CAE) applications and, more important, the conduit to partner applications, while HP provides the compute power. The portal is to go live this summer.

In the meantime, the first component is up and running: eFEMAP is a customized version of FEMAP, SDRC’s Windows-native, CAD- and solver-neutral CAE modeling application. eFEMAP is a small client application, about 20 MB downloaded, that acts as your window to the remote solvers on EngineeringOnTap.com. These solvers include SDRC and third-party finite element, computational fluid dynamics (CFD), and thermal simulations. (The local interfaces have been disconnected in eFEMAP so it can only integrate with other CAx solvers on SDRC’s remote web server.)

You use eFEMAP to read in a part’s CAD geometry and choose what solver you want to use. eFEMAP then encrypts the output file and uploads it to EngineeringOnTap.com, which is when you start incurring charges. The job is unencrypted, solved, and the results encrypted and readied for download.

A subscription to the portal costs between $20 and $30 per month. eFEMAP client license costs $300 to $400 per user per month. The cost to use the other solvers depends on the portal’s partners. Currently, these partners are ANSYS, Inc. (Canonsburg, PA) for advanced multi-physics simulations;MAYA Heat Transfer Technologies (Montreal, Canada) for its TMG and ESC thermal simulation applications; and Blue Ridge Numerics (Charlottesville, VA) for its CFDesign package.

Design simulation at Engineering-e.com

Also open to the public is Engineering-e.com, MSC.Software’s site for mechanical engineering. Within this e-commerce environment is SimulationCenter, which currently features e.visualNastran 4D, a design simulation and analysis tool. (Don’t let MSC’s “e.visualNastran” moniker throw you; it’s merely the Internet-, ASP-based versions of MSC’s products, which now all include the marketing-based prefix “visualNastran.”)

Through e.visualNastran 4D, you upload your mechanical CAD files to the SimulationCenter, as well as specify constraints, joints, and assembly loads for motion simulation. The resulting motion simulation automatically builds load cases for stress analysis. The simulator then renders and animates the motion for display on your desktop computer.

The site also features IronCAD, a Windows-based solid modeler fromVisionary Design Systems (Santa Clara, CA). This can be used on a subscription basis through the SimulationCenter or purchased from SoftwareMart, the portal’s on-line store. In time, MSC’s portal will also offer an online database containing material properties that can be used in the simulation models.

Through a partnership with CoCreate Software Inc. (Fort Collins, CO), the site’s CollaborationCenter lets remote project teams work together on product development in real-time. To use this, participants first schedule a time slot on a CoCreate server to execute a collaboration session on design data. Other partnerships are in the works.

Reasonable usage of e-visualNastran 4D costs approximately $400 per month—no CPU/second charges apply, as in traditional timesharing. The fact is, pricing is based on a certain amount of usage (read “computing capacity”). “It’s a case-by-case basis,” says Craig Lozofsky, MSC’s manager of Marketing/Business Development. “We want to offer a reasonable base amount of computing capacity; if you choose to accelerate the analysis, you have the option to buy more.”

Additional applications, such as IronCAD, will also have one monthly fee. More and more, engineering services are becoming like cable television, where you get a bazillion channels for one monthly fee, and then pay-as-you-go for the premium channels.


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