WARREN, MICH. — On some days, Lisa Frey's mood grows as dark as the unlighted office where she works.
Frey, an automotive-parts designer at Modern Engineering Inc. in Warren, Mich., spends her time manipulating hundreds of crosshatched lines on a glowing computer screen.
Frey had just finished transferring a file from one computer-aided-design system to another. And she wasn't happy.
``Transferring files is so hit or miss,'' she said while wrestling with her computer to move surface details for a plastic bumper part. ``It forces us to spend all our time cleaning up lines or re-creating whole files. It's nuts.''
The problem has driven designers and engineers worldwide half-batty with frustration.
CAD technology has advanced this decade, but problems have come with that sophistication. Sending files between different companies' CAD packages has become a nightmare.
CAD vendors recognize the headaches, meeting regularly with customers and testing new software that can work on all systems.
Yet, a patina of doubt shrouds that industry effort.
Movement toward a universal standard is slow and might not be in the vendors' best interests, said equity analyst Tim Klasell of Minneapolis-based consulting company Dain Rauscher Wessels.
``It's a dicey issue,'' he said. ``The major players would rather integrate the smaller players with them instead of sharing their intelligence. And they don't want to see a program implemented that cripples data from their systems.''
But across the board in design houses and among suppliers, design work is crippled by the lack of a means to exchange data efficiently.
That inability costs designers time — as much as a month in some cases to fix a wounded file — and eats customers' money, said Mark Dziersk, vice president of design with Chicago-based firm Herbst LaZar Bell Inc.
``It's 100 times better than four years ago, but it's still horrible,'' said Dziersk, whose firm's 46 designers and engineers battle the problem daily. ``We don't want our creativity limited by machines or terrible file transfers. That's a bad way to live.''
At Modern Engineering, Frey struggles with a file that has been transferred from a surfacing program to a three-dimensional modeler requested by her customer, General Motors Corp.
The file, like most sent to her, has not emerged cleanly. Gaps are left where lines are supposed to intersect, double lines are formed where single ones once sat and myriad other lines branch at skewed angles.
Meanwhile, Lunar Design Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company serving the computer industry, has trouble recreating files transmitted to a software program for finite element analysis, said John Edson, Lunar's senior product designer. That work, to check the impact resistance and hardiness of a product, is critical.
But once a file is sent for FEA, no further changes can be made on it, Edson said.
``It is basically frozen like a sphinx,'' he said. ``You can add bosses, ribs and other details to a design, but you can't go back and manipulate the original model.''
Material suppliers are not immune from the frustrations.
Polymer Solutions Inc., a product-design joint venture of GE Plastics and Fitch Inc. of Pittsfield, Mass., frequently receives data from outside part vendors. The design company then helps create a design that fits a specific material.
But when a file is translated, Polymer Solutions' software makes its own assumptions about how surfaces should appear, said Scott Leslie, development engineer with the company. Unfortunately, the software's guesswork is not always accurate, he said.
That can wreak havoc, with end points not aligned and dimensions thrown off, he said. ``The fewer transfers we do, the better,'' Leslie said.
CAD vendors want to help, but the industry unwittingly created a monster, said Kenneth Versprille, CAD program manager for design research firm D.H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, N.Y.
Those vendors have introduced multiple, highly specific CAD systems that contain their own codes and operating protocols, Versprille said. That polyglot of CAD packages creates a Tower of Babel, where files cannot be communicated.
``If anything, the problem is getting worse,'' Versprille said. ``We don't have a Microsoft in design, where you can double click on a window and move some data.''
The problem sometimes involves shifting data in-house from different software programs. But it is amplified when data is sent outside the designer's walls.
``I've heard lots of horror stories sending models to a tool shop,'' said Warren Ginn, an industrial designer with Integrated Design Systems Inc. in Great Neck, N.Y. ``Discovering a bad model in the metal-cutting stage can cost tens of thousands of dollars. It's just too dangerous, so we have to spend more time checking models before they go out the door.''
The issue burns hot among CAD vendors, said Asa Trainer, manager of interface products with CAD software vendor Parametric Technology Corp. in Waltham, Mass.
``In years past, a customer bought a turnkey system from a single vendor that was supposed to meet all CAD needs,'' Trainer said. ``Now, there are many tools in a designer's toolbox, and not all of them retrieve information reasonably well.''
Software companies, working with an array of government officials and private companies around the globe, are developing a sort of electronic highway for design data transmission.
They are attempting to create a neutral file format called STEP, short for Standard for the Exchange of Product model data. The internationally certified format would allow data to be translated to a universal file that can be used with all software packages.
STEP would replace a currently used neutral format called Initial Graphics Exchange Standard, or IGES. That government-imposed standard does not work well with solids, a CAD designer's bread and butter, said Trainer at Parametric.
About 25 companies representing roughly $600 billion in sales sit on STEP panels worldwide, said Robert Kiggans, general manager of PDES Inc., the Charleston, S.C., company that manages U.S. and British implementation of the STEP protocol.
Customers explain the problems to CAD vendors, who then are expected to share proprietary file formats in a quest for a common solution, Kiggans said.
Companies are just beginning a move to STEP. Aerospace industry giants Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. and several automakers, including GM and Volkswagen AG, have started translating data to STEP files.
But the STEP gospel has its unbelievers. The work, going on for almost a decade, has moved at a snail's pace and has not been successful, said Jeffrey Rowe, president of CAD translation company Cairowest Group LLC of Salida, Colo.
``There is no perfect way to translate data today,'' said Rowe, who publishes the newsletter ``Zero/One Design Report.''
``With STEP, you're dealing with difficult mathematical propositions, and you have a lot of egos involved. Any participating vendors would want to push forth their design philosophies. All that does is pose more problems.''
CAD vendors do not necessarily disagree. Dassault Systemes SA, the maker of Catia software, does not share its newest or most sensitive information for competitive reasons, said Dassault data exchange and administration manager Jean-Pierre Nogue.
None of the others do either, said Nogue, speaking from Dassault's Suresnes, France, headquarters. Nogue said he would like to see that situation change for the industry's betterment.
``We need solutions now,'' Nogue said. ``Big OEMs are giving back design data to their suppliers, who are expected to work with different core modeling techniques. Everybody recognizes that there is a problem with the current situation.''
Even Kiggans of PDES, the group managing the STEP program, acknowledges the difficulty.
``The truth is that everyone is participating and trying to be positive,'' Kiggans said. ``But behind closed doors, each [vendor] probably whispers that customers should go to its CAD system exclusively.''
Indeed, several CAD vendors extolled their company-exclusive alternatives to STEP translations, even while touting STEP's benefits. Unigraphics Solutions Inc., the Maryland Heights, Mo., software company, offers customers a kernel modeler that creates a more-accurate depiction than STEP after file transfer, said Ted McFadden, director of Unigraphics' development group in Cypress, Calif.
Yet, Parasolid does not work with all software.
``We don't see STEP going away,'' McFadden said. ``But we have to work around the limitations.''
Those limitations include STEP's inability to handle drafting sketches transmitted electronically and its difficulties with colors, layers and special features, McFadden said.
Patience could pay off. Kiggans said new versions of STEP work accurately with solids. And future STEP systems will be able to call up a part's design history and store completed designs for future reference, Trainer said.
``It's going to be the richest system in the industry,'' said Trainer, who sits on the STEP committee.
That news would please a cross section of designers and design engineers. Some of them have been desperate for help.
Tim Coonahan, vice president of engineering with plastic-part design firm Altitude Inc. in Somerville, Mass., tried STEP two years ago but without success.
So, the company attempted another approach. Coonahan had heard about a translating company that did quick work.
``A few years ago, we sent our [Pro/Engineer] file to a company in India to recreate the geometry fast in Catia,'' Coonahan said. ``But even with them working a 12-hour shift, seven days a week, the conversion still took six weeks or so to do. I don't see any easy answers.''
Until STEP can move forward, CAD designers might continue working in the dark for a long time to come.