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Common language: engineering information can make it over to accounting and marketing with the help of XML.

Take a step back 40 years or so, and you'll find two-dimensional engineering drawings passed hand between departments. Those drawings served as common language for almost everyone involved in making a product, including the manufacturing, mechanical engineering, and quality control departments. Everyone would pretty much know how to interpret the documents for their own ends.

"Those drawings would show different views with cross sections and arrows pointing certain ways, and all this immediately made sense to anyone in the industry who saw it," said John O'Connor of Vistagy Inc. in Waltham, Mass. The company sells CAD products for composite materials as well as software that communicates information from CAD to other business systems.

Today, there are 3-D computer-aided design systems. We are told in study after study that they save companies time and money in product development. You can use your computer to zap digital information across the hall or across the ocean, thereby saving precious steps and doing away with paper-document handoff.

But information from a 3-D CAD system can't move as easily among company departments as the old drawings did. While CAD has improved product development time, not all the important company software systems can read 3-D CAD information. In fact, most of them can't. So software systems that unite a company's overall operations can't get to some of the most important information--product design.

Why is this a problem? Manufacturing companies are engaged in the fine art of producing a product and most product information originates in CAD, O'Connor said. Other systems make use of their company's most important information--product particulars--in their own ways. So in a perfect world, they should be able to get that info. Those other systems include the customer-relationship management software that a marketing department relies on and the enterprise-resource planning system that compiles company information from all departments, including accounting and human resources.

"CAD systems have potential to be a communications tool that pushes pertinent information across all company systems," O'Connor said.

What Makes It Over?

For now, much of the 3-D information can be passed on with simple CAD viewers that manufacturers can use. They can't change anything in the design or add to the notes.

Much of the information can be passed along by a company's product data management system, which communicates between manufacturing and engineering. Still, that info can't make the jump from PDM to marketing or planning software.

Not surprisingly, some software vendors have stepped in to fill the gap--to build a bridge, as it were, over which data can flow from CAD to other business systems.

The 3-D images can't make it over the bridge, O'Connor said. The notes can cross, but the text needs to be converted into extensible-markup-language files before the information can make it over. XML is a relative of the hypertext markup language used to create Web pages. Because XML can describe many different types of data, the language is uniquely qualified to share all types of data across all types of digital systems.

So while 3-D drawings can't be shared outside CAD software, except as view-only, documents tied to CAD drawings, the notation, can be passed along. And that can be vitally important to the manufacturing or marketing department. Documents can include change orders, materials specifications, assembly instructions, and cost estimates. You can bet manufacturing engineers want to see those assembly instructions. And the accounting department will certainly be interested in those cost estimates for its own purposes.

Vistagy, where O'Connor is director of product, sells its EnCapta software to push information from CAD to manufacturing, purchasing, quality control, and other departments. Vistagy works in partnership with CAD companies to take information from the CAD files and convert it to XML for sharing.

The company doesn't have the field entirely to itself, however. A French developer, Seemage, based in Nice, makes several types of viewer software capable of sharing CAD and design information across systems. One of Seemage's products, Publisher, can export information to other company software systems. That type of information can include after-sales service instructions and training instructions.

The purpose is to give everyone who needs it access to key information about the product they will build, support, or maintain in order to make a living.

"For every part, the quality guys need to have an inspection plan," O'Connor said. "The plan is really about reorganizing engineering information in a way that the quality department can use to set up part inspection.

"The quality guy used to have to search manually through engineering drawings and talk to engineers before he could make that plan," he added. "Now, they can use their own technology to access information from the CAD drawings and use that to make their own plan."

The Rise of XML

XML, the language that makes this sharing possible, has been around since 1996, and the engineering world is now tapping into its potential, according to Ronald Bourret. He's a consultant on XML and databases who is based in Felton, Calif., and speaks frequently on the subject.

Because XML is a universal system that can be viewed on all different types of display hardware, engineers, manufacturers, and accountants can view XML documents on handheld devices or on their own computers, no matter what system they're running. Thus, the capability exists to share XML documents among accounting, engineering, and, really, anyone else.

XML will be particularly useful to engineering companies because even information included in legacy engineering documents can be formatted for highly specialized searches, Bourret said.

Many everyday engineering documents, like change orders and bills of material, include data tied to CAD files. These datacentric documents, as Bourret calls them, as well as other legacy material like technical manuals, can be ordered within an XML database. The database pulls out information included in the documents and formats it behind the scenes so engineers can search those documents in highly specialized ways. This works a little like traditional text-base searches like Google, although engineers search internal documents. They can structure their search to their own particular needs. So what exactly does this look like?

"For a change order, you could go in and find all the designs with a part tag of 1234," Bourret said. "A regular text-based search would return you all documents that include the numbers 1234 anywhere in the document. XML allows you to specifically focus your search on part tags that include that number."

These databases don't include tables behind the scenes. That means the part tags aren't put into traditional boxes, as with a phone book. The person who creates the XML database specially calls out all part tags within the XML document and codes them. So part tag numbers can be searched specifically. Of course, the database creator could also tag many other classes of discrete information that could also be searched for individually.

Think of an XML database as a book index. But rather than indexing every single page that a particular word appears on, the index also references chapter headings that include that word and, separately, subheadings.

"The point is, you can do very targeted searches," Bourret said.

An XML database also allows companies to order legacy data, like large technical manuals, in ways that can be accessed by anyone, no matter the accessing media.

Suppose an airline maintenance employee wants to search his technical manual to discover exactly how to deal with a particular fastener. He can jump immediately to the subhead that promises to describe how the fastener is used in conjunction with his particular repair. He needn't search all references to the fastener.

The XML manuals can also be easily reconfigured.

"Let's say that Boeing uses an XML database to store its technical manuals for the various aircraft it builds," Bourret said. "Now when United buys an aircraft, they're getting a slightly different model than American, but there's probably a 95 percent overlap in design."

Boeing can create separate manuals for United and American, customizing only the five percent of the manuals that don't overlap. Again because XML is an open language, these manuals can be read on any system. Boeing needn't worry about access issues.

"The whole point is you could store all the pieces for these technical manuals individually in XML, and then pick and choose what you need and combine them into documents," Bourret said.

Still, converting these types of huge legacy documents to XML and tagging references to create a behind-the-scenes database can be hugely expensive. That's why large engineering companies have mainly had the funds for legacy conversions.

Companies that have invested in an XML database, however, reap immediate returns, Bourret said. So look for more engineering companies to hop on board. And look for XML to be a big part of your digital future, both at work and at home.
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Author:Thilmany, Jean
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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