How Seeing Became Doing

Oct. 31, 2007
We basically went from an Etch-a-Sketch type of CAD system to a true engineering design package.

By Jim Montague, executive editor

Software can turn pictures into actions.

“What are you looking at?” is a computer-aided design/manufacturing (CAD/CAM) question. “What are you doing?” is an electrical CAD (ECAD) and computer-aided engineering (CAE) question. And, the evolution from one to the other is what happened as CAD/CAM moved onto the plant floor, and became ECAD in electrical control applications in the past 10 years.

As its name implies, CAD and ECAD’s computer-generated, on-screen pictures initially were used only to design machines and components, but software’s ever-growing power and capacity soon made it possible to use designs to simulate mechanical processes. Naturally, once those simulations gained speed and sophistication, some bright users began using them to configure equipment prior to installation and collaborate with each other. And now, some are using ECAD files as a foundation for monitoring and even controlling real-time applications.

ECAD’s recent evolution began to unfold when OEMs found that traditional CAD didn’t provide enough help in adding control systems to electrical schematic designs, and so they began seeking new software to meet these needs. “It lacks the detail needed to automatically error check and manage all the data associated with the schematic drawing,” we wrote in April ‘98 [“Schematic CAD—The Software Will Set You Free,” ControlDesign.com/ecad]. “Electrical control design software can allow the user to construct complex electrical schemes up to four times faster than using Autodesk’s plain, vanilla AutoCAD, with much greater accuracy, increased cross-referencing capability, and multiple-use of shared data.”

In that article, Shawn Creighton, a vertical machining center designer at Monarch Machine Tool in Cortland, N.Y., reported on struggling with a non-intelligent CAD package, evaluating several intelligent ECAD solutions, and selecting AutoCAD-compatible promis-e software from ECT. “I liked the panel layout and cable drawing intelligence. I needed European compliance and I wanted AutoCAD compatibility,” said Creighton.

Likewise, Jeff Schellenberger, engineering systems administrator at IPEC/Planar, a Phoenix, Ariz., manufacturer of wafer polishers for semiconductor manufacturing, added his firm moved away from printed circuit-board drafting software that lacked checking or cross-referencing, and installed Eplan software. “It does all the mind-numbing work it promised,” said Schellenberger.

ECAD continued to evolve between 1998 and 2000, and in Aug ‘00 senior editor Rich Merritt wrote in “The Domestication of ECAD,” [ControlDesign.com/ecad], “The same advanced design capabilities still exist, but the Internet and ever-growing Microsoft architectures have upped the payout. ECAD has been absorbed into the tidy little world of Microsoft-compatible software, databases, protocols, architectures and libraries.”

In this article, Jeffery Jerovsek, engineering computer services manager at Rapistan Systems, Grand Rapids, Mich., said his firm used electrical CAD to make its conveyor and material handling systems. “We’ve used the capability to create documents that we can send to customers via floppy disk or e-mail,” explained Jerovsek.
A few years later, in ‘04, senior editor Dan Hebert traced the development of advanced CAD in “Collaborate,” [ControlDesign.com/ecad], which included using CAD to accomplish high-level functions such as collaboration among machine builders, customers, and vendors. He reported Automation Tooling Systems (ATS) employed SolidWorks’ eDrawings software to help design and build its advanced factory automation systems, custom automation equipment, standard automation products, and turnkey assembly machinery. “Our customers use the markup functionality of eDrawings to convey their thoughts about the design of our machines,” observed Mike Baljak, ATS’ mechanical designer.

More recently, our June ‘06 TechFlash, “ECAD Software Enables Innovation,” [ControlDesign.com/ecad] by contributing editor Loren Shaum described a shift in ECAD’s functionality toward computer-aided engineering (CAE) and away from being just a design package. “Integrating electrical design with estimating, purchasing, fluid power, plant process engineering, software generation, panel build, machine build, 3-D modeling and even manufacturing are crucial in today’s global economy,” said Mark Taylor, Eplan’s general manager.

In that column, Thomas Noller, controls manager for automotive paint systems at Eisenmann Corp. in Crystal Lake, Ill., added, “We can generate standardized schematics for an entire system by defining circuit variables in an Excel file that’s loaded into promis-e’s Project Builder module, and the hardwire schematics are generated within minutes.”

Later, in our Oct. ‘06 cover story, “Pretty Pictures,” [ControlDesign.com/ecad], we reported, “Simulation is pushing ever further into the real world, and several software-based design tools have grown sophisticated enough to not only mimic very complex devices, but also incorporate unique test, PLC, and other data from individual applications before building the machines they need. Pre-configuration and pre-testing are being joined by “pre-operation. The trick is simplifying the programming, while maintaining enough computing power to achieve useful simulations.”

Finally, in Sept. ‘07’s “Higher Quality in Less Time,” [ControlDesign.com/ecad], Kenny Dunhoft, senior electrical CAD designer in R.A. Jones’ Electrical Controls Group, explained how his firm uses AutoCAD Electrical to streamline its process for building control panels for packaging machines. “We had a library of AutoCAD blocks that we used  with AutoCAD Electrical,” said Scott Richardson, an R.A. Jones’ electrical controls engineer. “We added AutoCAD attributes to those blocks, so we can use functions in AutoCAD Electrical.”

Tim Meyer, another R.A. Jones engineer, added, “We basically went from an Etch-a-Sketch type of CAD system to a true engineering design package when we moved to AutoCAD Electrical. Using this software enabled us to reduce the design cycle time for a typical project.”

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