Is There A Better Approach to Design Software?
Michael Alba posted on December 11, 2018 |
The need for more effective design software cuts across engineering industries. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)
The need for more effective design software cuts across engineering industries. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

Design teams today face numerous obstacles, from shifting customer expectations to the rapidly changing technological landscape. Some of these obstacles are rooted not in design itself but the ways in which designers work together. The need to collaborate among disparate engineering disciplines is ever-increasing, as is the physical displacement between members of a global design team. The capability to collaborate effectively in real-time is a need that cuts across engineering disciplines and must be met with innovative approaches to design software.

“Everybody's using different design platforms,” said Graham Day, an aerospace engineer currently working toward a PhD in knowledge-based design for the architecture, engineering and construction industry. “If you've got a $500 million building and the best thing you've got is design intent in an abstract design model with drawings at 1:20 scale, you have a recipe for risk and cost overruns. The industry needs better ways of working.”

But what are those better ways of working? Day suggests that integrated, cloud-based platforms like Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE may be a candidate for solving the problem. 3DEXPERIENCE provides a unified experience for many of Dassault’s design applications like CATIA and SOLIDWORKS for CAD, DELMIA for manufacturing, SIMULIA for analysis, EXALEAD for business intelligence, and more. Effectively, with a software portfolio spanning every aspect of a design company’s needs, platforms like 3DEXPERIENCE attempt to offer more effective collaboration across the design lifecycle.

A design in CATIA. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)
A design in CATIA. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

That same design on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)
That same design on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

One of the key enablers of more effective collaboration is a move away from traditional file-based systems.

“When people are working file-based, they experience problems when they duplicate files here and there because the reference is not the same. I've seen engineering teams sharing files with manufacturing, but manufacturing was building a new file, and the analytical team was also rebuilding and creating a new file,” said Éric Neuville, Senior PLM Consultant for Techso Solutions.

Digital continuity made possible by the cloud-based database approach. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)
Digital continuity made possible by the cloud-based database approach. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

“When you work on a file-based system, you can expect not-so-nice surprises,” echoed Fernando Petre, leader of the Processes, Methods and Tools Department for GECI Engineering Services. “File management is quite difficult in big projects with many users, and mistakes can occur very easily. Collaboration is also difficult, and it doesn't matter what you use to let your colleagues know the status of the work.”

The alternative to file-based systems is a database approach, where indifferent software applications can simply access the relevant data (say, of a 3D CAD model) from a central location.

“Now, if you put one file in one place, it becomes a single version of the truth. Everyone should be pointing at that file to use the information, and not recreate another file for their own needs,” Neuville explained.

The Database Approach

Some design platforms, 3DEXPERIENCE included, have caught on to the advantages of replacing files with a central database. This move offers several advantages. Most obvious of all, a database approach makes file management much easier, according to Jim Strawn, Solutions Architect of Digital Design/Build Integration for Textron Aviation.

“There are no files in the 3DEXPERIENCE platform, at least not from a CAD standpoint,” Strawn said. “Everything in 3DEXPERIENCE is an object in the database. Most of that's pretty transparent to the users.”

Neuville extols the benefits of the database approach as a solution to many common problems faced by designers working with files.

“Where is my design? It's in the database, so go and search it. Do I have the right version of the design? It's in the database, and you can see all the versions of the design in the database. You can see the history of the design in the database. And that is a huge improvement compared to file-based systems,” Neuville said.

Many users, however, may feel uncomfortable with the shift from traditional files. For engineers like Day, who spent decades acclimatising to the file-based approach, giving up that control is an understandable psychological hang-up.

“I'm quite happy to admit I wasn't a big fan of the idea that I didn't have control over file location in the first place,” Day said. “But having now used it since 2014, I'm a big fan of it. Having a single repository for the data is a massive advantage.”

One of those massive advantages is how databases simplify collaboration between designers. Day recalls the project he was working on during his first use of the 3DEXPERIENCE platform, a refurbishment for the Wynyard railway station in Sydney, Australia.

“I am located in Brisbane, a colleague was in Sydney, and another colleague was in Melbourne; we all worked on the same assembly model concurrently,” Day said. “Two or more individuals can't work on the same part, but you can collaborate within the same assembly model as long as you follow a few basic rules. We had one project model between us and were successful on our first attempt without any problem whatsoever.”

Entrance to the Wynyard railway station in 2017. (Image courtesy of Philip Terry Graham.)
Entrance to the Wynyard railway station in 2017. (Image courtesy of Philip Terry Graham.)

A unified database allows designers to access data with the confidence that it’s the correct version of that data. On top of the database, platforms like 3DEXPERIENCE can offer further tools that facilitate collaboration.

“When you know that all the files are in the database, when the sharing tools are also in the product that you use, when you have workflows, when you can send messages, when you have queries and questions and you can report problems… when all those different elements are within the same tool, you improve the communication and the workflow between users. So, the integration of all those tools is nice,” Neuville said.

Strawn, speaking of 3DEXPERIENCE in particular, considers the shifting approach to be transformative.

“It is changing the way disciplines work together,” he said. “It is becoming more collaborative; we're getting more roles involved, getting more data involved.”

Security and Automation

Besides the improvements to collaboration and file management, a database-centered, integrated platform provides more subtle benefits as well. One effect of switching to a database approach is improved data security, as Neuville explains.

“Sometimes, for instance, if you put security in one [file], and you open the file, it will still maintain the security. And from the PLM perspective—not only database access but from the overall perspective and the user experience—then you might have some problems when some file might be saved five days [ago] and then brought back to the database. So, you don't really control where you save the file. With 3DEXPERIENCE, [taking] the file outside and working file-based is very hard, and it's not recommended. Keeping all the files in the database is a huge security improvement, and it's very important for all companies. From the small companies to the big companies, it's very important to get that security stuff,” Neuville said.

Another big advantage of database platforms that has the potential to be truly disruptive: enhanced automation capabilities. With data so neatly contained in a central database, users have the potential to exploit regularities much more easily across applications. The 3DEXPERIENCE platform, for example, offers a scripting tool called Enterprise Knowledge Language (EKL), which Day laments is underutilized by engineers on the platform.

“Most CATIA users don't use the Enterprise Knowledge Language… my guess is that probably less than 10 percent use the automation tools within the software,” Day said. “The automation enables the creation of adaptive models that can change configuration within user-defined rules. Instantiation of templated models can also be automated. The capability has been in CATIA for a long time, but prior to 3DEXPERIENCE it was not the easiest tool to use.”

Day has used EKL and automation to great effect in his career. For example, on the Wynyard railway station project, Day and his colleagues pushed the power of automation to the extreme.

“Anywhere we could see a pattern or repetition we just automated the design. Between three of us working on the project, we generated many thousands of assembly models and 19,500 detail drawings during a three-month period,” he said. He went on to explain that prior to the database architecture of 3DEXPERIENCE, scripting for automation was much more cumbersome.

“If you're working on a file-based system, then it's necessary to address the correct location of the files. The linking of all of the inputs and outputs was not easy. You had to create GScript files, which also had to go in a predefined location. There also was a need for a catalog to integrate the components. Whereas now, none of this matters. You just create the assembly or part template, create an engineering template file, define the inputs and your parameters, and then either use these templates manually or, through the Enterprise Knowledge Language, automate their instantiation. The 3DEXPERIENCE architecture helps enormously… It's a massive game changer.”

A Better Approach to Design Software

A final benefit of the integrated database approach is the improved ease-of-use of design software. As Neuville points out, spending less time fussing with software and more time engineering is a benefit that can’t be downplayed.

“I feel that it provides a good solution for the user to focus on what they're doing,” he said. “An engineer should spend most of his time doing engineering stuff, and not looking for files, trying to see if it follows a process, or an export, or changing a file from one database to another, and so on. When everything is in the same place, maybe a user will focus more on his actual job than on all that stuff that’s aside and can sometimes consume a lot of time.”

Petre also sees the advantages of such systems and understands the traditional approach’s days are numbered.

“For the time being, we are using ENOVIA VPM to manage files and the workflow,” he said. “But, for sure, we will switch later on to 3DEXPERIENCE, as many other companies will, due to the many advantages you can get from the platform: collaboration, management of the projects, file management for CAD or other formats,” he said.

As design projects become more complex, and engineers must collaborate with interdisciplinary colleagues around the globe, design software tools are being forced to adapt. Many pain points in the design process can be mitigated by integrating design tools onto a cloud-based platform and eliminating files with a database approach. This simplifies file management, increases data security, streamlines the user workflow, enhances the ability to automate design, and, crucially, improves the ability for designers to collaborate in real-time.

To learn more about 3DEXPERIENCE, visit the product website.

Dassault Systèmes has sponsored this post. They have had no editorial input to this post. Unless otherwise stated, all opinions are mine. —Michael Alba

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