Ready to harvest: making the most of design data

Paul Boughton

Design data could yield rich returns says Colin Watson. But data has to be carefully managed. It has to be held securely, but easy to access.

They call it the third stage. First, design moved from the drawing board to the desktop PC where drafting was automated using AutoCAD or similar software.

Then, 2D design became 3D solid modelling. This was brought to the mass market by easy-to-use, intuitive products such as Autodesk Inventor Series, which enabled the use of both 2D and 3D within the same project. Although there will always be 2D-only stalwarts, Inventor now has over 500 000 users and this number is still growing at a phenomenal rate.

But now, design processes are evolving a further step. Designers are beginning to recognise the importance of the data behind the 3D model. This information is not only freely available as part of the model-development process, but it is always current and accurate.

When a change is made on a virtual model, the technology updates all associated 2D and 3D drawings and related documentation automatically. Which means the data has integrity; it is accurate and contains all the right, up-to-date intelligence. This in turn makes it a valuable commodity which can be used, not just by the design team, but by the rest of the company from the production team to sales and marketing.

But for this to happen, data has to be carefully managed. It has to be held securely, but easy to access. There also has to be ways to transfer information from the design office into enterprise wise applications such as ERP, MRP or SCM systems.

Highly recyclable

In conversation with different design teams we’ve learnt that anywhere from 60–90 per cent of product designs are used again. It has also been estimated that more than 10 people use the data that each design generates and that the design of a product determines as much as 75 per cent of a product’s cost over its lifetime.

At the same time, with the introduction of powerful 3D modelling software, teams of designers working on whole assemblies have become more commonplace. Also the software allows users to create large and complex designs.

Small teams carry out projects with tens of thousands of parts and thousands of assemblies and several designers can work on different sectors, possibly even working in several shifts

As a result, the number of files and the amount of data has expanded significantly.

Also, increasingly, work is distributed over computer networks with collaboration between designers who are not necessarily in the same room, building or even, in some cases, country.

This leaves much potential for chaos. If someone inadvertently overwrites a current version or distributes the wrong revision, mistakes can be perpetuated throughout calculations and specifications.

These may be human errors, but the repercussions for business can be huge. Inaccuracies lead to wasted time or, at worst, a faulty product and loss of competitive advantage.

However, despite this it’s said that around two-thirds of all design teams have yet to implement a data management solution, relying instead on Windows Explorer or other similar tools. So why is this – and what is really going on in the real world?

Incremental solutions

Until recently, the implementation of a product lifecycle or data management system would have been out of the hands of the design office. Often systems are expensive enough to require board-level decisions, consultants to advise on changes in business processes and general upheaval throughout deployment.

They are often also too broad in scope and scale for mainstream manufacturers and may not take design processes and design data usage into account.

Some CAD vendors have provided their own solutions, but until now these have concentrated on the high-end, larger manufacturers. However, the latest solutions are incremental, offering a modular approach which can begin very simply in the design office and then gradually build to include the whole enterprise.

For example, Imass Design Solutions has recently been working with Miller UK Ltd, a company which designs and manufactures attachments for the construction industry, working with major OEMs such as Caterpillar Inc, JCB, Komatsu, Hitachi and Volvo. The company has been growing steadily since it was founded 25 years ago, but has seen a particularly rapid growth over the past few years.

As Gary Thomson, Miller UK technical manager, explains: “Inevitably, the amount of design data we need to manage and re-use has grown with it. The growth of the company highlighted the need for design data to be carefully stored and managed from the very beginning of the design, in order to save time and resources further downstream.”

His solution was to invest in four seats of Inventor together with Autodesk Productstream, the new incremental data management solution. He now looks forward to an enhanced ability to share and re-use data, better version control and audit paths and the ability to transfer bill of materials (BOM) data directly into his company’s MRP system.

He reports that transfer of BOM data alone will bring considerable time savings – even reducing a day’s work down to minutes, by eliminating the need to recreate and manually re-enter data into the system.

Low hanging fruit

In the North East of England, most manufacturing operations have been streamlined or have been migrated offshore. However, in many cases, UK design teams have been retained and have since evolved to become centres of excellence holding extensive intellectual property.

UK manufacturing’s best opportunity is to ensure these pockets of innovation work as efficiently as possible. But looking at the industry it can appear that there is nothing left to pare down or make more effective, even for those businesses that do have production facilities in the UK.

A while ago, implementing supply chain systems or ERP brought the promise of being ahead of the game, but now it just means you are up with the rest.

In other words, business process automation has become a ‘must have’ rather than a strategy for competitive advantage. And, while it can reduce operating expenses, it does nothing to help generate revenue. This takes innovation – the role of the designer.

Data management is still low hanging fruit – and now it’s available for all sizes of company. But it means that designers need to come out of their bunkers. In fact, every department needs to communicate their experience of the project and there must be some line of connection between all the different isolated islands of information.

The best thing about introducing a practical data management solution such as Autodesk Productstream is that, by increasing its reach incrementally, the investment can be planned and staged and huge budgetary requirements avoided. Even better is the fact that it places the design team where it belongs – at the heart of the production process.

Colin Watson is business development director, Imass Design Solutions Ltd.

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