Tools of Innovation

Dec. 21, 2004
Increasingly accessible technology drives advances in new-product design.

Those involved in the conception, design, and manufacture of new products know that it takes more than a good idea to create truly innovative products that fulfill the demands of increasingly finicky users. Today, just as important as innovative ideas is the use of high-tech design tools that enable a small to midsized company to take an idea and create a high-quality product that will outperform those of competitors and beat them to market. Tools at the cutting edge of product design include 3-D solid-modeling software, rapid-prototyping technology, virtual-reality-based design tools, and collaboration tools that utilize the power of the Internet and the Web to help companies design products better and faster. Many of these are high-tech weapons that even the smallest of companies can use to take aim at their competitors and streamline their product-development process. Solid Modeling While many engineers and product designers are still working in 2-D, the trend is toward 3-D solid-modeling technology. David Prawel, vice president of Business Development at Spatial Inc., the Boulder, Colo.-based developer of the ACIS 3D modeling kernel, estimates that the number of solid-modeling seats has more than doubled from 1998 to 1999, and he expects that number to double again this year. Designing a part as a solid rather than a 2-D representation enables engineers and nontechnical personnel to better understand what the part will look like. This allows everyone involved in the development of a new product -- marketing/sales staff, shop-floor personnel, logistics and support staff, and customers -- to add their input when changes can be made quickly and easily. Many manufacturers are now taking this concept a step farther, using rendered solid models to do early concept testing of pro-ducts that exist solely in the computers of their engineers. A solid model describes both the exterior and interior of an individual part or assembly in three dimensions. Parts represented as solids have volume, and if given a density can have a weight and mass as well. The computer can calculate many physical properties of these parts, such as center of gravity and moments of inertia. The additional information derived from a solid representation of a part enables personnel involved in downstream applications such as analysis, testing, or numerical-control (NC) programming to get their hands on parts long before the design has been finalized, when changes can be done quickly and at less cost. The bottom line is that solid-modeling techniques allow engineers to create higher-quality products faster than conventional 2-D methods. Such 3-D modeling has helped thousands of companies innovate faster through improved visualization and design communication. Other benefits include improved accuracy and design quality via earlier analysis of design errors and alternatives, in addition to faster response to engineering change orders, which translates to shorter cycle times and faster delivery to market. All of these factors combine to make a solid model or a solid assembly of several parts an important component of a company's intellectual property. Complementary technologies such as product data management and engineering document management make it increasingly easier for companies to manage this data and keep it safe yet accessible to those within the company (via intranets) and outside the company (via the Internet) who need to be kept abreast of a product's status and whose input is vital to the process. Virtual Design Having made its way out of video arcades, virtual reality (VR) has nearly completed its journey to the desktops of product designers. VR-based tools are being put to work today at many leading-edge companies. These firms -- such as Boeing Co., Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., and Deere & Co. -- have significantly cut cycle time using various VR tools by reducing their dependence on physical prototypes, facilitating design collaboration, and enabling engineers to design products more intuitively. A VR system -- though configurations vary depending upon the application -- basically consists of some form of stereoscopic eye wear that is tracked by the computer, a 3-D input device such as a data glove, specialized software, and a fairly powerful computer. Depending upon their configuration, virtual-design environments can provide users with a some sense of immersion into the 3-D computer-generated world, enabling them to interact with computer models in a manner that resembles real life. Companies are using VR-based tools to analyze and test parts or complete assemblies of models that exist solely in the digital world, often referred to as virtual prototyping. Among other things, virtual prototyping has enabled companies to perform ergonomic evaluations; verify that components do not interfere with each other or violate packaging constraints; analyze aerodynamic flows using virtual wind tunnels; and study the accessibility of various interior components. By conducting these types of tests using digital data, companies can lessen their dependence on physical prototypes and, thus, shorten their time to market as well as reduce development costs. Jim Angelillo, vice president of strategic relations at Fakespace Systems Inc., a Kitchener, Ont.-based provider of visualization systems, believes that smaller companies can justify the high upfront costs associated with implementing VR into their design process by comparing them to the cost of building and testing physical prototypes. "When you are building physical prototypes, whatever business you are in, there is an expense factor and a time factor," says Angelillo. "To build a prototype of a car can take eight to 12 weeks and can cost $150,000 to $800,000, depending upon what prototype stage they are at. If you can do that virtually, you can reduce your prototypes by 60% to 70% or more. Changes in the computer take minutes, while changes to a physical prototype can take days." GM has been using VR and other computer-aided engineering (CAE) tools to speed new vehicle development. "We are moving rapidly toward the concept of a virtual vehicle -- where we can assemble, view, and simulate the performance of a vehicle and the manufacturing process without having to build a physical prototype," says Jay Wetzel, vice president and general manager, GM Technical Centers. GM engineers are using advanced software tools, including VR, to simulate vehicle structures, crashworthiness, and occupant protection, and to evaluate vehicle control systems and the performance of components, subsystems, and the total vehicle. Rapid Prototyping Rapid prototyping (RP) systems are used for applications ranging from the creation of models for exploring and testing new design concepts to the limited production of finished manufactured parts. Traditional RP systems deploy a range of technologies including stereolithography (SL), selective laser sintering (SLS), and fused deposition modeling (FDM). Most users agree that SL works the best for producing parts with a high-quality finish. While these parts do not perform as well for functional testing due to the epoxy resin material used, they work very well for evaluating form and fit. SLS and FDM parts are very durable, making them ideal for demanding fit and function applications. SLS materials include polyamide and glass-filled polyamide, while FDM parts are made from a strong plastic. The cost of RP systems has traditionally prevented most manufacturers from bringing such technology in-house; instead they use outside RP service bureaus. Today, however, prices for RP systems are coming down while productivity yields are increasing. "Prices for systems capable of producing a 10-in. part have been reduced from $250,000 in 1990 to under $80,000 today," says Scott Crump, president of Stratasys Inc., an Eden Prairie, Minn., provider of RP systems. "And," he notes, "part build times are 10 times faster." While even that lower price may keep most companies from adopting RP in-house, a new generation of affordable systems is moving into the mainstream. Referred to as concept modelers, 3-D modelers, or 3-D printers, these office-friendly machines fit nicely alongside engineers' computers. The introduction of fast-concept modeling -- without the need for excessive training, a specialized environment, and toxic materials -- has contributed to the number of modelers being introduced to the market. Marina Hatsopoulos, president of Z Corp., a Burlington, Mass.-based RP company that makes the Z402 concept modeler, says the Internet will make 3-D faxing a reality. "Companies will purchase multiple 3-D printers in different locations to allow for more effective communication between designers, engineers, marketers, and manufacturing. Everyone will be able to discuss a design that they are holding in their own hands." RP industry analyst Terry Wohlers believes that migration from centralized systems at RP service bureaus to departmental and personal systems will continue. Wohlers notes that in the future RP will be used to manufacture production parts where part size is relatively small and quantities are fewer than 1,000. "RP will mean 'rapid production,' and this will help accelerate the idea of mass customization." Collaborative Design In the next decade, the Internet and the Web will play an increasingly important role in product design as industry shifts to more design outsourcing and a more unified value chain. Today the ability to collaborate with other members of the design team, as well as with external suppliers and partners, is crucial. Specialized collaboration software is being used by companies not only for collaboration among internal personnel but also for communication with suppliers and OEMs. "Collaboration tools," says Ronald G. Schmitz, vice president, Metaphase strategic marketing, Structural Dynamics Research Corp., a Milford, Ohio-based engineering software provider, "provide engineers with the ability to manage the upfront portions of the design life cycle -- the 5% of the product life cycle where 85% of all cost and quality decisions are made." Joseph B. Costello, chairman and CEO of think3, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based developer of thinkdesign 3-D design software, agrees that the Internet will be the key technology that will enable companies to cut time to market while still meeting consumer demands. "This will become the only path for winning companies to get to market at warp speeds with high-quality and innovative, aesthetically appealing products," Costello notes, "and it's the only way they'll be agile enough to respond quickly to consumer demand for customized products." The increase in competition brought on by the accelerated use of the Web has created a buyer's market in which customers no longer accept mass-produced products that only partially address their needs. Knowing that numerous alternatives exist, customers expect products tailored to their specific requirements. "Customizing products and getting them to market faster is extremely challenging today because creating and delivering products requires collaboration among many supply-chain participants," says Stacey Lawson, vice president of marketing at Parametric Technology Corp., a Waltham, Mass.-based provider of design-through-manufacturing software. "Suppliers and partners contribute as much as 40% to 70% of the finished product. To compete in the future, manufacturers must create an environment in which both customers and partners can collaborate in the innovation process, and where new products can be delivered dynamically as customer demands require." Companies such as Engineering Animation Inc. (EAI), Ames, Iowa, and CoCreate Software Inc., Fort Collins, Colo., have introduced software to the market that enables design teams to collaborate in real time on designs over the Internet. CoCreate's OneSpace enables engineers and other users to collaborate on CAD models -- regardless of what system they were created with -- alongside co-workers or suppliers located across the globe. EAI's VisConcept, which was developed in close collaboration with GM, also allows geographically dispersed teams to collaborate with 1:1-scale virtual prototypes. "VisConcept allows users to reduce the number of physical prototypes by at least 50% and view life-size prototypes within minutes -- far faster than the 40 to 50 days it takes to build a physical prototype," says Ken Pimental, director of immersive solutions at EAI. "Ultimately, manufacturers can save hundreds of thousands of dollars and dramatically reduce time to market for each and every design."

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