September 2009 MCAD Dispatches

After a somewhat quiet summer, in September, a number of interesting things start happening in the MCAD arena as the real work for the coming year commences. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss some of the good things I experienced in the month of September.

PLM Road Map 2009

An interesting conference that I’ve attended the past few years was again held in Plymouth, Michigan. Produced by Collaborative Product Development Associates (CPDA), PLM Road Map 2009 – “Transforming PLM Into a Dynamic Infrastructure for Business Decisions” was especially interesting this time around because of the location (the Detroit area), the presenters (many from the automotive industry), and the content and insight of the presentations (provocative, compelling, yet sobering). Given the state of the local economy, the event was well attended and was well worth it.

A couple of the presentations I found most intriguing the future of the North American auto industry; and the challenges surrounding mechatronics issues for supporting collaboration across mechanical, electrical, and software development teams.

The presentation entitled, “Outlook for the North American Automotive Industry – The automotive Crisis: How We Got Here, Where We Are Headed, and What We Can Learn” proposed that only by understanding the historical roots of the current challenges can a future be built for the automotive industry that does not fall back into the boom-and-bust cycles of the past. The presenter, Glenn Mercer, said that the current sad state of the North American auto industry is not just about loss of market share and profits, but the excessive amount of debt carried by these companies, as two out of the three of the Big 3 have filed for bankruptcy. Ford avoided bankruptcy, but primarily by mortgaging itself in 2006. He showed GM’s crushing debt and compared it to Toyota, which has virtually no debt. Mercer’s Business School 101 solution to the current problems: “Companies facing cyclical markets should not carry a large burden of debt, in order to survive downturns.”

For the future, Mercer forecast that demand for vehicles will return to normal, but it will take time; The Detroit Big 3 will move to a Big 6 with the “Europeanization” of the North American automotive manufacturers; GM is probably OK unless it backslides, Ford is likely to gain market share thanks to its product development offensive, and Chrysler’s fate hangs on Fiat. His final thought was that if there is one lesson from the fall of the North American auto makers, it might be that it is time to abandon management by slogan in favor of management by facts.

The presentations on mechatronics tended to focus more on the electrical/electronic (E/E) side of the equation for design and modeling process improvement. One of the biggest challenges for collaborative mechatronics groups is the ability to support, reconcile, and integrate the roles and efforts of all parties. I got a new appreciation of dealing with the complexities of mechatronics designs that involve requirements, feature architecture, functional architecture, software architecture, and embedded software. I also learned about different types of data management. For example, object-level data management manages objects individually, whereas configuration management employs “containers” that are the key for sharing and reusing objects. The containers don’t really contain anything, but are anchor points linked to the objects they contain, and are the key to managing systems of systems. Overall, efforts for developing mechatronics systems are getting more complex, but processes and tools are evolving that ensure the validity and integrity of the systems. The challenges facing mechatronics development processes are just now being properly understood and addressed, and will ultimately be viewed as part of bigger business processes.

This was a thought-provoking conference with a high quality of presentations and presenters discussing important topics directly and peripherally impacting the evolution of product lifecycle management.

For more information on next year’s event:

Wohlers Report 2009

With the advent of online resources, there is no shortage of technical and practical information available for just about any technology imaginable. However, just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, accurate and objective information on technologies available for product design and manufacturing are increasingly vital.

A technology area that continues to grow and evolve, rapid prototyping/manufacturing (RP/RM) is comprehensively covered in what I consider the best resource for this information – The Wohlers Report 2009 – State of the Industry. Now in its 14th edition, Wohlers Report 2009 provides a global overview and detailed analysis of the technologies and applications of additive manufacturing (AM).

AM technology is used for modeling, prototyping, tooling, and short-run production applications. Additive manufacturing refers to a diverse group of technologies used for builing physical prototypes, patterns, tooling components, and production parts – all from 3D CAD data, 3D scanning systems, medical scanners, or video games. Unlike machining processes, which are subtractive, AM systems join together liquid, powder, or sheet materials to form objects. AM can produce parts that may be difficult or impossible to fabricate by any other method; and can produce plastic, ceramic, composite, or metal parts.

A broad range of industry experts assist Terry Wohlers in producing the book. Wohlers Associates, Inc. is an independent consulting firm that works with manufacturing organizations to identify the best approaches to rapid product development. As the company's principal consultant, Terry Wohlers constantly tracks new methods and technologies to determine a strategic direction that gives companies an edge. His views and opinions come from years of collecting and analyzing market data, coupled with work as an advisor to major organizations in the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa.

I've known Terry Wohlers for several years and his annual Wohlers Report is a well-researched and continually updated "bible" of the rapid prototyping/tooling/manufacturing industry, or simply, additive manufacturing. I've also contributed to the book in the past, respect Terry for the ongoing improvement of the annually updated book, and highly recommend it for the information it presents on the technology, analysis, and business case aspects of additive manufacturing. There’s also an excellent section in the book devoted specifically to the state and direction of MCAD technologies.

For more information on Wohlers Report 2009:

Design & Manufacturing Midwest

The Design & Manufacturing Midwest Exposition and Conference was held in Rosemont, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. It’s sort of a one-stop shopping event because it has several industries co-located with their own respective vendors and attendees, such Electronics Expo, Quality Expo, and Green Expo. The show promoter was expecting as many as 2,000 exhibitors and 40,000 attendees, although I’m pretty sure the numbers were lower than that.

Although I spent the vast majority of my time on the exhibit floor, at the Medical Design and Manufacturing track, Richard Runnells, Autodesk Industry Solutions Manager, made a presentation on the topic of “ The Dramatic Impact of 3D Design Software on Medical Technology: The Cochlear Sound Experience.”

Medical technology may not be strongly associated with CAD technology, but Cochlear, a Swiss-based developer of hearing restoration solutions, discovered that 3D modeling could be an enormous help in creating a digital prototype to master all the tiny details necessary for its hearing implants before their manufacture. Cochlear – which has 55,000 users worldwide - found that 3D design tools were well-suited for managing the small tolerances involved in hearing implant development, and for working with parts in hundred’s and thousandth’s of a millimeter. While Cochlear engineers had found it a challenge to view these parts with software programs they had used previously, in 3D it worked much better.

In his presentation, Runnells described Autodesk’s role in helping Cochlear engineers design the next generation of implantable bone conduction hearing devices. He examined the unique challenges involved for Cochlear to create products that not only enhanced hearing restoration, but also created sound processors that were pleasing to the eye and easy to wear. He discussed how the Cochlear motto “Hear now and always” factored into the Autodesk collaboration, underscoring the fact that sound processors connected to implants are a lifelong commitment to those who wear them, meaning that equipment on all models must be fully maintained and supported.

Shows like Design & Manufacturing Midwest are becoming rarer these days, but there is nothing like pressing the flesh and meeting vendors and customers face to face.

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