3D digital modelling drives design innovation

October 6, 2008   by Luigi Benetton

Use of 3D digital models represents the future of manufacturing product lifecycle management. This TMT Observatory Corp. graphic shows a 3D model of the 30-metre telescope enclosure, telescope and support facility superimposed on a photo of the Cerro Armazones summit in Chile.
Photo: TMT Observatory

Theme park executives and ride designers watch as their newest rollercoaster crests the first hill. The drop that follows thrusts the coaster through the loops, turns and other thrills that will lure thousands of adrenaline seekers a year or two from now.

Full disclosure: nobody rode the coaster. It doesn’t physically exist. The entire “ride” took place on the servers of Port Coquitlan, BC-based Empire Dynamic Structures Ltd.

What the “riders” watched was nothing new to fans of today’s video gaming consoles. The remarkable aspect of this visualization is the process used to develop it—an emerging design-build-automate paradigm that has already made waves in industrial design ponds.

“For an amusement ride, we can make an animated model that shows what it looks like from the outside when you stand on the platform watching it go by, or what you see when you’re sitting in the vehicle,” explains Craig Breckenridge, Empire’s drawing office squad leader.
Use of digital models goes well beyond product demos. Cutting-edge use of advanced digital design tools (in this case, Autodesk Inc.’s Inventor), represents the widely acknowledged future of manufacturing product lifecycle management (PLM).

According to Dick Slansky, senior analyst and PLM research director of the ARC Advisory Group based in Boston, PLM includes every step in the existence of a given product, from concept and design through manufacturing, commissioning, rollout and support, right to obsolescence.
To build a full, working prototype of a rollercoaster prior to the final product would be prohibitively expensive. But in a perfect world, rollercoasters should only throw twists at the people who ride them, not the people who design and build them. That’s why manufacturers increasingly rely on the latest PLM technologies.

To make today’s PLM tools work, manufacturers and suppliers shift their focus away from drawings to parameters. Industrial designers, engineers, shop floor manufacturers, purchasers and even customers contribute information to a central model and track how the work of others affects their own.

Consider the radical changes aircraft manufacturer Boeing went through. Boeing’s case is one of many examples Anthony Williams documented in Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, which he co-authored with Don Tapscott.

Boeing realized it could not, on its own, take entire aircraft from idea to market quickly enough to stay competitive, so it became a “prime assembler,” largely by divesting itself of non-core operations.

Suppliers were asked to design major portions of its 787 Dreamliner aircraft, an acknowledgement by Boeing that the suppliers knew specific systems better than it did.

Radical software and collaboration methods don’t just help the technology professionals. “Our sales guys are not engineers,” acknowledged Matko Papic, manager, engineering and product development for Evans Consoles Corp. So leveraging the parts commonality and logic that Evans adheres to when it designs control consoles, the Calgary-based manufacturer created user-friendly Snap software to help sales representatives create designs when they meet with customers.

“It contains all the product management controls that we want,” says Papic.

Snap itself is an interface that ties to systems such as Autodesk Inventor and Microsoft Axapta, the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system Evans uses. These “back-end” systems check inventory for parts and perform other preparatory tasks. Meanwhile “whoever deals with the customer can instantly generate a full proposal package—all drawings, price quotes, pro forma invoice, renderings and so on,” says Papic.

In the next phase, the tie-in to the ERP will allow Evans to bypass both the project management and design group for proposals that don’t require extra customization. “We can send these solutions directly to the shop floor.” This set of innovations pares the cycle time from initial sales visit to shipment of the final product to two weeks from a pre-Snap four weeks.

Slansky is bullish on virtual commissioning, particularly for the automotive industry that, he opines, must create new products for niche markets more quickly than ever and in smaller quantities, and therefore must more quickly commission changed production lines as well as the new products they create.

“It used to take months for groups of engineers to physically commission stuff and make it work,” he says. “Now all that is gone.”
Empire’s design and engineering groups rely on Inventor to track key parameters for them, enabling individual parties to raise issues at the moment they appear in the digital model.

For his part, Breckenridge is thankful he no longer has to count parts. “It’s easier to purchase 500,000 bolts in time for production when you know you need 500,000 bolts, and what size you need, months in advance,” he says.

Yet despite all the intellectually appealing underpinnings of digital prototyping, promise still exceeds reality.

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