Designers in the automotive industry practically need a Berlitz language guide to transfer files among different software systems.
While the problem of exchanging files is difficult in many industries, the design roadblocks are amplified in the automotive world. The thousands of suppliers and toolmakers working with car makers has created a cauldron of differing computer-aided-design systems.
``It's become a pretty monumental challenge,'' said Frank Reid, manager of information technology for Johnson Controls Inc.'s automotive center in Plymouth, Mich. ``We have a unique situation in the automotive industry, where we are required to use CAD tools that our customers use. But a lot of smaller niche packages that we need don't work well with them.''
Throughout a supplier's product life cycle, design files must be transferred many times, said Marc Jones, JCI systems engineer in Holland, Mich. Files must move from surfacing modelers to stereolithography prototyping packages to finite-element-analysis software to programs involved in the actual buying of the part.
Those transfers are unwieldy, frequently requiring a week of rework to stitch and clean up models, Jones said. ``We have to make up for lost part details from the failure in translation,'' she said.
Compound that with the numerous software packages that suppliers must buy, and the costs get steep, Reid added. Each Big Three automaker asks its suppliers to work on different CAD packages: General Motors Corp. uses Unigraphics Solutions Inc.; Ford Motor Co. prefers software from Structural Dynamics Research Corp.; and Chrysler Corp. wants its users on Catia software from Dassault Systemes SA.
Some toolmakers and overseas automakers use different systems, Reid said.
The difficulties plaguing JCI also affect GM, which must exchange files with suppliers and toolmakers on various CAD systems.
``We've had confusion and chaos here,'' said Dave Bandit, manager of information systems and services with Detroit-based GM. ``All of our suppliers implement a standard differently, and we are caught in the middle.''
But the auto industry — led in part by GM and an industry consortium — is fighting back. The group has joined forces with others to develop an industry-certified, neutral file format called STEP — or Standard for the Exchange of Product model data — that can accept files from all CAD software.
The group is led by the Southfield, Mich.-based consortium Automotive Industry Action Group. Meetings have been held with CAD vendors to develop a separate, automotive-based standard called Auto Step. Similar work is under way in Germany, Japan, France and Sweden.
The work, which began in March 1995, has progressed to the point that GM has set up a STEP translation center to help its designers use the system. The automaker plans to roll out STEP through the company next year on a trial basis, Bandit said.
``We want to see how well it works before we ask our suppliers to use it,'' he added.
Ford and Chrysler also are beginning to use STEP, said Frank Bay, AIAG industry executive in charge of STEP. But he said not to expect it to perform miracles yet.
Current STEP formats still have some problems transferring drafting sketches, precise manufacturing models and some complex designs, Bay said. Still, the initial formats have conquered the problem of receiving clean, basic solids models, he added.
But when new versions of software come out, STEP might be a bit behind, he said.
``CAD [vendors] aren't necessarily going to share complex or precise parametric information that they consider proprietary,'' Bay said. ``We have to reach a compromise with them.''
Future work also will focus on product data management, or meshing a part's design with the entire assembly for that portion of a vehicle, Bay said.
All that work would be good news to JCI. The industry gradually is building up a comfort level with STEP, she said.
JCI is testing versions of STEP translation systems, Jones said. A universal STEP translator would save the firm between $2,000 and $3,000 for each of the numerous direct translators it now must buy to exchange data between specific software packages, she said.
The next step for the committee is motivating CAD vendors to improve STEP translators, said Jones, who sits on the Auto Step committee. ``We're asking vendors to deal with the issues and problems with STEP translation,'' Jones said. ``We encourage them to move forward at a fast pace.''