Searchable databases do away engineers’ need to recreate CAD files. As for importing models, CAD translators keep costs down.
Jean Thilmany, Senior Editor
Engineers spend nearly two hours each day searching for or recreating parts that already exist, according to a survey done by Cadenas PartSolutions, a Cincinnati maker of parts management software. That number represents a significant loss of time engineers could otherwise be spending on more valuable projects.
By doing away with the need to search or recreate, engineers could get back those 1.8 hours each day: an obvious financial win. The key is to give engineers an easy way to find already-existing CAD models that can be dropped into assemblies. That way, they don’t have to recreate the wheel each time they design. If a company can standardize and reuse simple parts like fasteners, it can save a huge number of engineering hours.
But part reuse can be difficult if locating designs is a problem to begin with. How can engineers know if the CAD design for a part already exists if they don’t know where, or how, to begin looking?
The answer is a searchable database. In the past, these types of parts libraries were the purview of large companies with many decentralized parts databases that sprawled across divisions. But within the past decade or so, the search technology has increasingly become available to companies of all sizes.
In 2013, IBM implemented what it called a strategy for the reuse of assets.
“Developing an orchestrated process to maximize the reuse of assets across the product lifecycle increases design efficiencies and tames product complexity,” according to the 2014 IBM article “Strategic reuse and product line engineering” authored by Eran Gery, IBM distinguished engineer, and Joanne Scouler, IBM curriculum architect.
Companies that make products like vehicles, medical devices, and consumer electronics make multiple products that share common elements, which results in “product lines” or “product families.” Reuse of assets across a product line or family is a major efficiency improvement for easing product design pressures, the authors say.
In the article, they outline the reuse system IBM has put into place, which is built upon the company’s IBM Rational systems and software engineering platform.
The company found that without a part-reuse system, companies:
• Waste time and money developing components that already exist in other company products.
• Needlessly change and recreate assets that already exist.
• Compromise product quality by following an error-prone manual process.
• Make needless changes to existing assets.
While IBM was able to implement its program on its own software engineering platform, other companies don’t have a home-grown platform in place. They can, however, use third-party applications to create searchable parts libraries that help do away with needless part recreation.
For example, Parker-Hannifin, the maker of motion and control systems, recently implemented Cadenas Part Strategic Part Management software to streamline the reuse of 3D parts across several of the company’s divisions. The software is comprised of a searchable, centralized database of 3D parts and data that engineers use to find the component they need. They can search based on part geometry, topology, text, sketch, or dimensions.
The project’s payoff is the capability to reuse internal components across all Parker divisions and in the reduction in time spent finding parts, says Tim Thomas, Cadenas PARTsolutions chief executive officer.
All Parker-Hannifin’s divisions were brought onto the common parts management system, which included an enterprise part-numbering strategy, he adds.
Going Up? Coming Together
When a company grows by acquiring other companies, it often must fold in different IT and CAD environments along with the purchases. Because those systems don’t “talk” to one another, they prevent engineers from finding all parts that exist in the company’s CAD systems. This is another way a centralized database hastens CAD file reuse.
Take the example of The Wittur Group, a German company that makes a range of elevator components that include gearless drives, slings, safety gears, cars, and braking systems. Customers are global elevator installers including Kone, Otis, Schindler, and Hitachi as well as smaller, independent installers.
Through the years, as Wittur grew to become an international company, it brought newly acquired businesses’ IT systems onboard as well. It also maintained the acquired company’s CAD files of existing parts, says Markus Aichinger, corporate CAD manager at Wittur.
Soon, the company’s diverse CAD environments prevented engineers from easily finding those parts, he adds. Data was stored in different legacy databases, each with its own material codes, norms, and structure, which had to be sifted through individually, he says.
Not surprisingly, the process of discovering whether a CAD part already existed or needed to be redesigned took a lot of time.
In addition to making the search process easier, Wittur also wanted to reduce the number of duplicate parts to avoid confusion, Aichinger says. “Our engineers were having difficulty finding existing parts for new projects, so they preferred redesigning them, even though, in many cases, a similar part existed. The continuous duplication of parts also required additional storage space.”
In addition to time spent designing a new part, engineers also spent time prototyping and testing the part, adding further costs, he adds.
Wittur officials at the company knew what they needed: a searchable system that linked company databases and eliminated duplicate parts.
“This system would help us find existing parts for reuse in new projects and provide global users with a single point of entry to find up-to-date production drawing information,” Aichinger says.
To search 3-D CAD geometry, Wittur implemented the Exalead OnePart application from Dassault Systèmes. The system includes a shape-search feature, which locates parts that match the original shape and also displays close-matches in the search results. The tool identifies master parts for reuse to ensure engineers select the preferred part without recreating a part that already exists in the design library, says Gian Paolo Bassi, chief executive officer at Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks.
To find 2-D drawings, the elevator-parts supplier created a drawing information system that runs on the Exalead platform.
“We’re not only able to find the 2-D drawings themselves, but all the metadata—part tolerances, material information, and where drawings are used— associated with each drawing. We can also display a component’s design history and show the latest revisions,” Aichinger says. “Before we had this, our engineers would have to search for this information in different sources.”
Bassi calls Exalead OnePart a “borderline artificially intelligent product” because it recognizes and flags part similarities, he says.
When an engineer finds a particular part within the CADSeek Polaris system, they also find other information associated with the part, including cost, supplier names, manufacturing information, and analysis results, says Rick Mihelic, a former engineering systems manager at Peterbilt Motors, which stores searchable part information on the CADSeek Polaris platform from iSeek of Ames, Iowa.
The tool locates existing parts and assemblies using shape alone, text-based attributes alone, or a combination of the two. It also identifies duplicate parts, which allows for cost savings through parts consolidation, standardization, and part-number reduction, Mihelic says.
Typically, CAD models are only classified based on text-based attributes, which are rarely complete or uniformly applied. But even if attributes could be complete and uniform, two items labeled as “valves” can be so different that applying analytics is a waste of time. With the CADSeek system, each time an engineer searches a dataset, such as valves, they can apply similarity thresholds. For instance, an engineer might ask the system to show all models with at least 91% or greater similarity to the valve used for the search, says Abir Qamhiyah, iSeek Corp’s chief executive officer.
But engineers aren’t company employees that reuse CAD parts. For other personnel, who aren’t always at their desktops, iSeek recently introduced CADSeek Mobile, that lets users take 2-D photos of parts on their Android, IOS or Windows mobile device and to use those images to automatically search their company’s 3-D CAD databases for the piece pictures or for a similarly shaped part.
Manufacturers like Moen and Embraer use iSeek’s original shape-based search application, CADSeek Polaris. At those companies, designers and supply chain personnel use the application to find CAD data for part reuse, to standardization opportunities, for vendor price analysis, should-cost estimation, automated quotations, mergers and acquisitions, and for data cleanup and consolidation, Qamhiyah says.
Small parts in particular often lose their identifying numbers, no matter whether that inventory is housed in an assembly plant, distribution center or out in the field. When those vital identifying numbers disappear and parts can’t be easily reordered, perfectly good parts are scrapped or time is wasted, he adds.
Getting the Design Inside
Now let’s take the opposite problem: how to best bring a CAD design into a system so that it can be used to create a part.
The additive manufacturing industry needs to get manufacturing data into their systems. It’s traditionally used stereolithography files, though they can be error prone, says Gavin Bridgeman, CTO at TechSoft 3D, which makes CAD translation software. By directly reading both native and standard CAD file formats, products can increase their ease-of-use and ultimately their print quality.
Techsoft 3D’s Hoops Exchange toolkit does this for engineering-specific applications including many in the 3D printing market, he says. “We’ve seen a lot of growth recently related to people creating new software to solve problems in engineering data markets that didn’t exist a few years ago, like additive manufacturing service bureaus,” Bridgeman says.
The bureaus import 3-D CAD data from creators, use HOOPS Exchange to translate those files, and then print from them.
“People can put more manufacturing information into their 3-D files, but they also know how they want something to look visually,” Bridgeman says. “Service bureaus have to meet both manufacturing and visual needs.”
Whether an engineer wants to find a CAD model within a huge system or needs to import a model to create a 3-D printed part, search and translate technologies step in to slash engineering costs.