Machine design tools make data friends

Machine Design Used to Mean Reading Selection Guides, Researching And Going Through Manuals, but Toolkit Libraries Make it Easier for Someone to Pick the Right Components Needed for Designs

By Jim Montague

Everyone knows computer-aided design, manufacturing and engineering (CAD/CAM/CAE) software and its support tools are getting more capable as their underlying data processing and network access grows stronger. However, because mainstream awareness usually lags innovation, many potential users still think virtual machine design tools require complex programming for big-ticket applications and deep-pocketed users. Well, this old picture is rapidly changing.

"SolidWorks pioneered including simulation with 3D CAD in the early 2000s, but the challenge has been to make these tools easier for engineers to use and interpret, and most recently to get CAD involved with overall data management," says Aaron Kelly, user experience vice president and product portfolio manager at Dassault Systèmes. "The next phase is integrating all tools, including electronic CAD (eCAD), so electrical engineers don't have to wait for the mechanical engineers to get done, and they can work on the same project at the same time. In fact, our 3D Experience platform provides a common location where multiple design applications are available, including our Solidworks Mechanical Conceptual software as a service that we released in January."

To integrate its own CAD solutions with CAM functions, Autodesk recently acquired HSMWorks and introduced Autodesk Inventor HSM Express software last September, and just launched CAM for Cloud service within Autodesk 360 (A360) platform. "The value of this isn't just cost savings on files that used to be emailed, but it's saving on transaction times," says Anthony Graves, CAM product manager at Autodesk. "A360 is a unique platform that's like Facebook for engineers and stores their projects in the cloud and makes them available anywhere and anytime."

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Randy Holterman, commercial engineering group program manager at Rockwell Automation, adds that, "We're building tools that combine many parts of what's needed to do machine designs. These allow builders to pick their bill of materials, lay their components out with CAD and schematics, integrate logic for control, add operating interfaces and document everything. We estimate these combined tools can reduce by 50 to 75% the labor that it takes to design a new machine."

We're seeing more of a push to verify performance much earlier—in the design cycle—so machine builders don't to do as many physical tests or make as many prototypes.

Holterman adds that Rockwell Automation's combined design tool, Connected Components Accelerator Toolkit, was launched a year and a half ago. "Machine design used to mean reading selection guides, researching on the Web and going through engineering and programming manuals, but our toolkit's library makes it much easier for someone with less experience to pick the right components, sizes and ratings they need for their designs," Holterman explains. "For every product controlled by a PLC, such as a variable-frequency drive, the toolkit will write in and set up its status, communications, HMI display, variables and code interfaces.

For example, we still use ladder logic Workbench for programming, so a user that hasn't done it will only have to write maybe 60 lines of code, while the toolkit will give him or her 500 to 600 of those rungs."

John Zwerlein, electrical sales and support director at Bentley Systems reports his firm's ProjectWise software can serve design files to multiple locations and replicate their metadata, so all users can access their latest updates. "Many users employ all kinds of different CAD applications, so ProjectWise can pull all these files into a comprehensive, overall model."     
More combining and communicating of machine designs is enabled by ePlan’s Electric P8 CAE software, which allows users to include PLCs in their designs and integrate data between them, according to Michael Schomas, ePlan's vice president of technology and professional services. "Machine builders use design software, but this data can be sent right to P8 and vice versa, which means it can also help create wiring diagrams automatically," says Schomas. "In fact, P8 V2.3 was released last September, and its Preplan tool automates designs, while its Engineering Center tool communicates with other systems. These tools enable users to move from sequential machine design procedures to parallel and even simultaneous design processes, which also allow production planning, purchasing and sales to participate, and can shorten design cycles from months to days."

Likewise, Siemens PLM reports its NX software recently added Mechatronic Concept Designer, which allow users to add behavioral information and simulations to their designs. "We're seeing more of a push to verify performance much earlier—in the design cycle—so machine builders don't have to do as many physical tests or make as many prototypes," says Paul Brown, Siemens PLM's global marketing director. "Previously separate mechanical and electric design silos are definitely beginning to meld because of all the pressure to reduce lead times. As a result, with our Mechatronic Concept Designer we can show how a PLC will run in a particular mechanical design, validate that design before it's built and then output code that can be used to program the PLC in the real application later."
Beyond expanding use of simulations in machine designs, Nate Holmes, product marketing manager for motion control at National Instruments, reports that today's machine-design software is also enabling more frequent and more useful collaboration among users. "Once they can integrate multiple mechanical, electrical, controls and other tools into their design process, then they also have more chances to work together," Holmes says. "For instance, our Multisim software can create circuits, simulate the behavior of inverters and use field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to better match their actual dynamics. However, NI also collaborates with Dassault Systèmes, which lets us use our LabVIEW software to control mechanical assemblies in SolidWorks and analyze the physical forces acting on them."