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Selecting software for your micro.

Selecting software for your micro

The personal computer has given you a valuable tool for all types of analysis. Your pencil and calculator are being replaced. Manual methods are not the best use of your professional time. Machines can now manipulate data faster and with greater accuracy. Computers can now be assigned the mind-numbing, number-crunching tasks.

Unfortunately, for the computer consumer, the possible choices of computer hardware and software are staggering. Each vendor contends that his packages are unique and adaptable to a wide variety of applications. The number of hardware brands is edging towards 300, and the number of makers of add-on hardware, printers, plotters etc, exceeds 250. Although not always interchangeable, software programs now number in the tens of thousands.

With large mainframe systems, many company resources are available to the end users who find applications, transmit their needs to the MIS department, and use final computer-generated reports. Yet, because of the highly technical mainframe environment, more of the benefits fall to the system analyst than the department-manager user. The complexity of the mainframe's operation tends to create a bureaucracy and red tape that cause delays in completing projects.

However, this situation is completely turned around in a microcomputer installation. Here, it is possible to take assumptions, conditions, and data and quickly narrow the situation to a few choices. The process becomes more like traditional problem solving. And the vital link between the problem and the solution is the computer software, the set of instructions that add a sense of intelligence to any computer system.

As hardware advances, software is also gaining momentum. Many programs today rival the power of mainframe computers a decade ago. With economies of scale, software development costs can be spread among hundreds or even thousands of users. The result is low-cost application software and the incentives to develop even more powerful software.

The software industry is experiencing explosive growth. New, integrated application software is now entering the market. It is estimated that software sales will reach $1.5 billion this year, and $12 billion by 1990.

Software for manufacturing

Software for manufacturing engineering is a relatively new market. The personal computer industry began in the consumer market with games that were popular in the home, but useless for business. Then generic programs appeared that could be used in a variety of environments, like word processing, and appealed to a larger market segment. But engineering software does not have this broad appeal, particularly because it tends to specialize within an industry and further narrow its marketability.

Until a few years ago, a personal computer or PC was considered an expensive executive toy. After IBM entered the PC market, this perspective has changed, and they have reshaped the market. No longer will computer manufacturers start up in a garage. The dues to enter this exclusive club today are quite expensive.

Essentially, IBM has validated the personal computer for business. No longer do managers need to bury their expenditures for PCs under "Miscellaneous.' PCs are now considered a resource to be used by any department that has a problem to solve.

Software firms are beginning to develop and market specialized software, such as quality-control programs, that will operate on PCs. Book publishers are developing a computer segment with manuals that aid the user in taking a real-world problem and solving it on a PC. The PC is clearly moving beyond the technical hobbyist to the heart of American industry.

What's available

Manufacturing software falls into several distinct categories:

1) Spreadsheet--Row and column calculations are completed electronically, formulas can be embedded to perform logic decisions and trigonometric calculations. Report format is the same as an accountant's spreadsheet. Uses include quotations, material allowance for part design, and any repetitive set of calculations.

2) Data-base software--Also known as electronic filing cabinets. Applications include quote-history file, material cross-referencing, supplier files, experimental logbooks, machine/manufacturing parameters, material specifications, and maintenance history.

3) CAE--Computer-aided engineering, solid modeling on personal computers, is beginning to enter the market, most often with the PC as a part of a larger OEM package.

Also NC-tape preparation. Because the PC is not dedicated to the CAE application, it can be used in other areas.

4) Electronic design--Design software can now have troubleshooting potential, or aid in isolated electronic-circuit design, such as filter design, impedance and phase-angle calculations, Kirchoff's voltage and current law etc.

5) Simulation--Typically an industrial-engineering tool, simulation can be used in work-cell design, evaluating of production bottlenecks or problem areas, and plant layout.

6) Statistical software--Properly analyzed, production data can disallow or predict problem areas via calculations that would be impractical to do by hand. Statistical programs can substantiate trends and replace the reliance on "gut feelings.'

7) QC software--Quality-control software is a new concept for creating histograms and descriptive statistics from variable and attribute data. This can include variable control charts, standard deviation, moving-average and moving-range charts, and calculations of upper and lower Z values based on tolerance limits.

All these software packages are designed for problem solving. Concepts and algorithms either performed manually or not at all in the past have been converted into formats that operate on personal computers. With this transfer of complex mathematics to the microcomputer, your ability to analyze and manage is greatly improved.

Purchase strategy

Because of their rapid recent growth, software houses are offering numerous programs. Because many are highly technical, the market is limited, but they can still be money-makers for the software firms if they are well written and documented. A reasonable cost is no deterrent. CAE and statistical software can add to the bottom-line profits of a company by identifying costs that can be avoided or reduced. Generally, though, the growth of engineering software is lagging behind the expanding hardware market.

Package prices vary from $500 to $5000, with the higher cost generally yielding more powerful capabilities. But don't judge the value of the software by its price tag or its authors' reputation. Particularly with engineering software, the highest priced package is not necessarily the best choice.

You should conduct a software review first, exercising great care on the choice of the reviewer. Not all software is created equal. It takes an experienced user of personal computers to distinguish major advantages from minor shortfalls on software that has a similar design.

"User-friendliness' is dependent on the thoroughness of the documentation and the software's complexity. Generally, a program's complexity and power is directly related to the package's cost. Note that this greater computing power translates into a longer learning curve for the end user to master.

Why buy software?

Nearly all engineering packages are prewritten and tested. Software development is a long and tedious path. Often, software houses have at least two final testing sites, designated alpha and beta, where the software author's testing is supplemented by testing under more realistic conditions. It is certainly easier for software firms to resolve problems or system crashes at these test sites than reissue corrected copies of programs to paid customers. Alpha and beta testing also avoids the costs of lost sales due to a reputation for poor software design.

The advantages of letting the vendor develop the software, rather than developing it with your own engineering staff, include:

1) Your engineering time can be used for problem solving, rather than program debugging.

2) Documentation is prepared for the computer novice, whereas in-house software rarely is. This is important because success of the software will depend on ease of use.

3) Developing software in programming language often takes man-months or man-years to complete, typically with many extensive delays and unforeseen complications.

4) Multiple-unit sales cut costs for the software firm, whereas in-house labor costs cannot compete with this economy of scale.

5) Application software can be expensed, rather than capitalized by the end user.

The disadvantages of purchasing prepackaged software include:

1) If documentation is insufficient, vendor support may be inconsistent or incomplete.

2) Omitting the software-evaluation stage can mean the package arrives and does not meet your project's needs. Most vendors will not allow returns for fear of software piracy.

3) Software reviews for engineering programs may be difficult to find and nearly impossible to evaluate, other than relying on vendor's marketing brochures. Reviews in engineering trade magazines are the best source of information.

4) Very few software programs can be easily modified. To make alterations, you will need an experienced programmer. Again, because of piracy fears, most vendors are reluctant to release programs that can be modified.

Selecting a vendor

Vendor selection is the most perplexing decision in purchasing a microcomputer. Currently, there are over 200 milcrocomputer manufacturers, and the list is growing. Each contends that their package is unique and adaptable, but the perception the vendors have of what constitutes good customer support varies widely.

With large mainframes, many vendor services are normally provided: system selection, installation, training, initial operation support, and progressive onsite support. These are high-budget purchases, and vendor support is excellent.

The typical microcomputer purchase is a fraction of this, and vendor support follows accordingly. Most user support is in the form of manuals, group classes, and demonstration programs. Because of the large consumer segment of their business, most vendors market through their retail stores. Consumer competition has narrowed their profit margins, and they must depend on moving inventory and high sales volumes. Retailers depend on some degree of customer sophistication. Customer support is inconsistent from one retail outlet to another. These stores are operated by entrepreneurs with only a few years of computer experience, and the level of support they can offer varies widely.

Here are some vendor selection tips:

1) First, make sure he understands your needs.

2) Insist on a realistic demonstration of all the software and hardware.

3) Check for support systems; such as cables, surge protectors etc; that may not have been added to the system price.

4) Be sure to completely understand the hardware warranty.

5) Be sure to completely understand the software updates. Software is continually being revised and improved by the software firm. New releases occur on a regular basis. The update agreement between maker and user differs from one product to another.

6) Check on the availability of additional hardware or software training. The computer-education industry is growing too. Adult classes, seminars, and college-credit courses are available in most communities.

7) Determine the level of software support available from the retailer. Most software is claimed to be "easy to use,' but when questions or problems arise, your first source should be the dealer. If you have picked the dealer for his knowledge and experience, these problems will be easily resolved.

8) Determine the level of hardware support also. It should be comparable.

Software leads:

Data base:

dBase II

Ashton-Tate 10150 West Jefferson Boulevard Culver City, CA 90238



Autodesk 150 Shoreline Hwy B20 Mill Valley, CA 94941

Design, curve-fitting:

Engineering programs (boilers, heat exchangers)

PSI/Systems Research Rark Andover, MA 01810



Visicorp 2895 Zanker Road San Jose, CA 95134

Circuit analysis:


Spectrum Software 690 West Fremont Ave, Suite 11 Sunnyvale, CA 94087

Quality control:


Penton Software Inc 420 Lexington Ave, Suite 2846 New York, NY 10017

Statistical software:


Human Systems Dynamics 9010 Reseda Blvd, Suite 222 Northridge, CA 91324
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:manufacturing
Author:Hohner, Gregory
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Feb 1, 1984
Previous Article:FLEXIBLE manufacturing system solutions.
Next Article:The next 50 years in metalworking.

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