Technologies Of The Year -- IX SPeeD For Simultaneous Product Development

ImpactXoft Corp.'s software suite allows teams to work concurrently on complex CAD designs.

True simultaneous design and engineering of new products is the promise of IX SPeeD Suite, a CAD and collaboration software package introduced in September by ImpactXoft Corp., San Jose, Calif.

Using this system, new-product developers can create and do production work on the same 3-D CAD model at the same time. Operations and changes by one designer are communicated and made instantaneously over the Internet to the models of all participating in the project.

The software offers potentially big benefits for companies whose growth strategy is dependent on new products. Team members working concurrently can pay off in terms of enhanced innovation, improved quality and speed to market. This is especially true for teams with members in disparate locations, and for those companies that rely heavily on input from their supply chain and other partners in the creation of new products.

"I was really surprised by the ImpactXoft product," says Michael Conroy, president of SurfaceLine Design Inc., Cupertino, Calif., a product development consulting firm and beta tester of the system. "I do a lot of work with product development teams that are widely distributed. Right now we do everything in a serial way. Each of us has to wait until the other is finished with his modeling task. I worked on three projects with the ImpactXoft product. I was shocked to see something that helps you do concurrent engineering. It will help our teams do high-level product development the way I like to, and the way we need to, to cut time to market."

In addition to its innovation and timeliness benefits, the ImpactXoft suite offers the potential for higher quality and lower cost product development.

"Over 80% of engineering changes are coming because a part cannot be manufactured or assembled," says Attilio Rimoldi, CEO and president, ImpactXoft. "Instead of correcting the error, our system lets you avoid the error, because the whole design team is continually engaged in the project. For example, if a designer adds an element that cannot be manufactured and you are in collaboration with the toolmaker, you can work it out on the spot in the working model.

"In particular, it allows you to minimize costly late-stage design revisions. Furthermore, you are assured that you are always working on the most up-to-date model geometry, which can be a problem if you are sending the data back and forth all the time."

In a typical product-development scenario of a complex product or assembly using CAD modeling tools, design team members work on specific areas of design including physical structure, mechanical parts and electronics. While team members focus on their specialties, the decisions of one often affect the design considerations of the other members. While there are CAD products that allow members to jointly view, rotate and even slice or section CAD models in joint sessions, in the final analysis, changes must still be made by a session leader to a master model.

Designers also are limited by bandwidth when trying to send gigantic CAD files back and forth, taking extended periods to complete the communications.

Consequently, most of these projects are completed in a sequential way, with design team members frustrated because they are always waiting for another member to complete tasks before they proceed.

However, in a design session using the ImpactXoft product, everyone can be operating in real-time on the same CAD model simultaneously, if that is how the team desires to work.

"Our product allows people to work in parallel on different aspects of the product without having to wait for the actions of others," says Rimoldi.

IX SPeeD was developed in partnership with Toyota Caelum Inc., Nagoya, Japan, an independent subsidiary of Toyota Motor Corp., which develops software for the automotive giant and its supply-chain members.

The IX SPeeD suite is comprised of a design authoring system -- the CAD part -- and a server that manages the electronic sharing of files to allow simultaneous collaboration. One of the major technical advances achieved was handling huge files, which represent all the data in a 3-D model, allowing these to "fly" back and forth online, instantaneously. Here ImpactXoft developed a technique it calls IX Functional Object Representation, which sends the instructions for the model or its changes in a compact data bundle, rather than the CAD model itself.

This "recipe" has all model intelligence intact, and is light enough to travel quickly online, even over low-bandwidth connections.

To record, synchronize and blend changes together, the system uses another technology created by ImpactXoft called IX Design Intent Merge. It behaves as a traffic cop, automatically reconciling changes and additions to the model definition across collaborative sessions. This function can be turned on or off, so a designer can tinker and send out completed changes at the end of his session.

Likewise, someone receiving changes gets automatic model updates if those changes are accepted. For example, a Taiwanese mold maker need only accept the changes sent from a client designer in California. The geometry of the model is updated without human intervention.

The person who authored the last accepted data resolves changes that create design features that cannot coexist. In fact, each participant in the design team has his own model, sharing information on objects within the model that are common. When each participant has made changes, the changes are uploaded to a central database. The overall project leader assigns roles to each participant, and assigns his capability from simply viewing the model to the ability to make production changes.

While the simultaneous collaboration aspect of the IX SPeeD is receiving the most attention, the design-authoring tool is based on new-to-the-world modeling capability itself. While its unique technology allows simultaneous collaboration in the first place, it's a good modeler even if you don't use that feature.

With IX Functional Modeling, specific model features automatically can be built into a new design via selection of functions such as "create a hinge," "create a joint" or "create a grill." The function "create a shaft," for instance, creates a rotating member of given dimensions, but then leads the designer to create a bearing and a bearing housing.

Once a design begins to take shape, the features exhibit associative relationships with each other, so a change in the dimensions of one automatically drives changes to accommodate related features.

While similar to parametric modeling -- the standard for many 3-D modeling systems -- Functional Modeling is critically different in the way design changes are handled internally in the modeling system itself. Unlike parametric modeling, design results in IX SPeeD are independent of the order of operations to create them. To make significant changes in complex designs in parametric modelers, an engineer must retrace his steps to the point in design history where particular geometry was defined. Not so with IX SPeeD, whose model-building approach is independent of the history of the operations to create a feature. In fact, this is the secret to why all changes can be made in IX SPeeD simultaneously for concurrent engineering. The system doesn't have to unravel a mishmash of history-dependent changes.

Furthermore, because the ImpactXoft modeling approach focuses on function, it is highly intuitive to use. More input can be made into new product design by partners and departments that do not have CAD expertise to participate in design sessions.

"In the past, hard-to-use engineering design software prevented other team members from providing feedback at vital design decision-making moments," says Rimoldi. "But in today's competitive marketplace a product cannot just be defined by the engineering community. Now people in marketing, procurement, service as well as customers and suppliers can add value and participate in design creation."

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