Viewpoint -- Now You're Speaking My Language

New standards and technology offer hope for data translation between CAD systems.

In the June 11 issue (The Costs of CAD Incompatibility) of IndustryWeek I detailed the problem suppliers to the automotive industry face when it comes to product design. The problem: Each automaker has specified vendors that must design in the CAD system of the automaker's choice, and each of the major automakers specify different CAD systems. Vendors -- bowing to the demands of the all-powerful automakers -- must equip, staff, and operate in all three CAD systems to cover the industry, which is costly, at least. But even that doesn't address the problems that automakers bring upon themselves when they, for instance, acquire foreign automakers who operate on different CAD systems. They then have a compatibility issue in their own house. But what if the three CAD systems could somehow talk to each other, read each other's data? What if there were some kind of universal language they could all communicate in, would that solve the problem? Certainly this is not a new idea. In fact, a universal translation "language" was proposed years ago by the International Standards Organization (ISO) in the form of STEP standards. This neutral CAD format is a data output option on virtually all CAD systems, and serves as an intermediary language that virtually all CAD systems can likewise understand. However, this neutral output of CAD data only reflects the end result of all the design engineering that went into a 3-D CAD design model. It doesn't give any information as to how the designer arrived at his part, component, or assembly. It's like learning the facts at school, but not learning the great masters' thought processes, how they discovered the truths. This makes it difficult, even impossible for anyone receiving the CAD file to modify it. Why? Because designers don't just make drawings in the air when they design. They assign features with parameters. A hole is not a circle; it may be a cylinder carved out of the body of a part. Or the hole may have some relationships or restraints tied to other features of the design. In the business this is called design history or design intent and the receiver of a stripped down STEP file must try to recreate these relationships if he has any hope of doing any significant design iteration. In fact, he might as well start from scratch, which is often what happens. Even as the industry struggles, there are some new standards and translation technologies surfacing that could address the translation problem. To wit:

  • According to industry sources, a new STEP standard data format that will allow passage of the elusive "design intent" could be available as early as year end.
  • In the area of technology, new approaches to translation are surfacing that are directed at the design intent target. Just in the last few months, Translation Technologies Inc. (TTI), Spokane, Wash., has started offering translation service for CATIA (the CAD system used by Chrysler) to Pro/Engineer (a system used by several automakers for specialized sheet metal design), and back. This software is being tested at Johnson Controls Inc., Milwaukee. Translation software for Milford, Ohio-based SDRC's I-DEAS (the Ford CAD system of choice) and Unigraphics (that of GM) could be available later this year from TTI.
  • Ford Motor Co., an SDRC shop, is in pilot with translation technology from Proficiency Inc., Needham, Mass., to help them exchange data with Volvo AB, Stockholm, Sweden, a recent acquisition that operates its design and engineering on CATIA. In the Proficiency approach, design intelligence is extracted from a model and represented in a way that can be read by different CAD systems and other downstream applications. Initial results are encouraging, suggests Dan Snedecor, CAD/CAE/CAM global release and supplier systems manager, Ford, Dearborn, Mich. More robust trials are scheduled this summer. At the same time Ford is working with both CAD software vendors to write a proprietary direct translator for the two systems.
  • In a NIST-funded study in the aerospace industry, GE Aircraft Engines, Parker Hannifin Corp., and BFGoodrich Aerospace are participating in a pilot to exchange data among their three different CAD systems, supported by technology from the Transcendata division of International TechneGroup Inc., Cincinnati. This interfacing technology leapfrogs translation and provides a direct interface between the CAD systems and other downstream applications such as tooling design or finite element analysis. Tim Stevens is an IW senior editor. He is based in Cleveland.
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