Collaborative Design

Machine Builders Are Becoming Adept at Using Online Tools to Cooperate and Work in Parallel on Projects. Here’s How You Can Join the Discussion

By Jim Montague

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June 2011 CoverCentral location. Big table. Lots of presentations, questions, arguments, negotiations, compromises and agreements.

This is where and how the most important planning and designing for any big machine building project usually happens. And it's why traditionally separate design, mechanical, electrical, controls, software and IT departments at many machine builder and customer companies were replaced in recent years by project-oriented groups with cubicles grouped around a common meeting area.

Of course, traditional communication also has evolved from face-to-face meetings, telephone and conference calls to include emails and instant messaging, ECAD/CAM files accessible by remote users, and video conferencing via WebEx, SharePoint and others. However, raw computing power now allows colleagues to move themselves and their documents from user-located and maintained servers and software out onto Internet-based environments or cloud-based services, and then pop up as needed on PCs, laptops, Skype connections, smartphones and now iPads and other tablet devices. At the same time, these ECAD/CAM documents and tools are more sophisticated, adding 3D and 4D (time) functions, and incorporating more physical-force representations, simulations and real-time data.

Cooperation Builds Confidence

What's fueling all this virtualization? It's the same old, ever-changing, always-urgent demands from customers and end users. For instance, 60-year-old Force Technology in Brøndby, Denmark, inspects and performs non-destructive testing of critical welds and other components in power, nuclear and chemical plants, offshore platforms, pressure and storage tanks, bridges, pipeline systems, ships, wind farms and other facilities, and builds customized equipment to conduct these required inspections, such as 4x5 m manipulators to check turbines. Although some safety checks can be done when plants are running, many require costly shutdowns, and so Force's devices must be thoroughly tested to work properly the first time. Besides these traditional tasks, its customers' systems and inspection requirements are more complex, and this further challenges its staff and equipment.

"We also develop our own robots, and they used to be fairly simple with three axes for doing steel-block inspections in 2D areas," says Christian Brandt Lauritzen, Force's project manager for its Sensor Innovation division. "Over the years, we began to need robots with six degrees of freedom to inspect welds and components in nuclear plants, such as nozzles set in pipe beds and double curves, so we began to move from special-application robots to off-the-shelf robots. We also do five or 10 testing series of a system, and this requires additional and more precise documentation. To help us work together better, agree on which robots to use, and cooperate during assembly, we needed improved 3D modeling that would let us all see a design at the same time, so we could work on a CAD construction without destroying the work of other team members."

Force already had used Dassault Systèmes' CAD drafting, analytics and real-time digital simulation tools for many years to design and help test each unique inspection device before it's built to meet each client's individual application. So, just over 18 months ago, Force adopted Dassault's Catia PLM Express 3D CAD-based product lifecycle management software, as well as its Delmia Cycle Time Performance digital manufacturing and real-time testing software to design and simulate complex inspection conditions before finalizing its designs.

"We do a feasibility study to see how big the device or manipulator should be, how we plan to get it in, and how we'll need to get it out," Lauritzen says. "We receive details on the geometry of the pipe or object to inspect from the customer, and import this data into our virtualized PLM data repository. We then design the inspection apparatus and use our digital manufacturing tool to simulate it in operation via virtual 3D CAD animation (Figure 1). This makes it easier for everyone to see each other's changes, make sure a design is feasible for construction, and feed knowledge back and forth between the shop floor and the designers, which you just can't see from markups on a piece of paper. In the past, we couldn't see as many problems before a machine was built. With our newer digital manufacturing tools, we can predict any real-world problems early, correct the design, and be sure that it will operate error-free when it's built. This saves time and money, but more importantly it gives us more confidence in our equipment and in each other."

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