CHICAGO — Until now, plastic gears have not meshed well with computer software.
Potential customers of Stillwater, Minn.-based UFE Inc. were thwarted when comparing plastic to metal gears. Computer-aided engineering techniques could not accurately size plastic gears or analyze performance.
UFE wanted to grow its plastic-gear business, which only accounts for about 10 percent of the overall gear market. So the plastics processor and toolmaker decided to improve its position. Working with two partners, it came up with its own, Web-based software — at a cost of about $4 million — that could make the sales job a little easier for those spherical and helical gears.
"It at least will help get people thinking about using plastics," said Robert Sirany, UFE general manager for product engineering. He was interviewed at the National Design Engineering Show & Conference in Chicago in early March.
That has become the mission for many mold makers and processors: Web-based tools have become much better at getting all parties on the same page, looking at designs and working through engineering bugs.
"The Web has changed the paradigm," said Jack Maranthe, president of consulting firm Universal Technical Systems Inc. of Rockford, Ill. "It gives us opportunities to open some doors as never before."
Maranthe's company, ITS, and resin supplier Celanese/ Ticona AG are the other partners on UFE's gear project, available on UFE's site, www.ufeinc.com.
The aisles of the design show were dotted with software companies talking about collaborative techniques that will link toolmakers and customers. Yet, while that Internet-savvy technology will become a force, many mold shops have not yet witnessed its expected rollout.
"We haven't seen offerings yet that are very robust or customers who are up to speed on it," said Jerry Edquist, chairman and chief executive officer of Carlson Tool & Manufacturing Corp. of Cedarburg, Wis. "But it is coming, and we want to get ahead of the curve. It's all for the sake of speed to market."
If the software works ideally, toolmakers will have better leverage at getting involved upfront in product development. Upfront engineering avoids many mistakes found later, said Dan Hess, president of Paragon Die & Engineering Co. of Grand Rapids, Mich. Cutting steel itself can account for only 30-40 percent of the total tool cost, Hess said.
"Customers quite often don't see that, so we have to keep educating them," Hess said. "No tools are the same. It's a total value package that can't just be measured by initial purchase price."
Yet, that work is not easy. Files today must be transmitted between companies, running the risk of lost or garbled data. Sometimes, what is decided with design software ends up incomplete when it reaches the manufacturing floor.
That is where the Internet will help, said Mike Morse, technical marketing consultant with CAD vendor Structural Dynamics Research Corp. of Milford, Ohio. Morse just published a technical paper detailing many of those problems facing mold makers in an increasingly competitive environment. New Web-hosted systems, such as SDRC's I-Deas Enterprise, unify product development among all parties, he said.
"In the past, we've had problems with no integration [between design and manufacturing] and difficulties sharing data and working across physical or geographic boundaries," Morse said. "New advancements will help toolmakers respond quickly."
Technology companies large and small are vying for a piece of the collaboration pie. San Francisco-based Actify Inc. has emerged with a new product, SpinFire, that easily allows three-dimensional solids models to be viewed on a company Web site.
"Toolmakers anywhere can visualize products and plug into customers' models," said Actify President Mark Gisi at the design show. "Toolmakers can plug into a customer's world."
Another, VX Corp. of Palm Bay, Fla., was founded in 1985 as Varimetrix Corp., a research and development company for mold software.
Now, with a new name, the company is remaking itself as a designer of 3-D modeling tools that allow seamless work, aligning mold design with manufacturing controls. It wants to bridge the gap between a well-designed part and one that frustrates toolmakers attempting to cut steel.
"Software is never going to be perfect," said Bob Fischer, VX vice president of sales and marketing. "But product designers need to have tools to create models that look good and have some flair and fashion. But the products also have to be manufactured."
The Web could be the next frontier to do that, if Chicago-based Protomarket.com has its way. That company launched in June 2000 as a Web marketer of rapid prototyping services.
But that initial focus has shifted since November, when the Internet company formed an alliance with Tel Aviv, Israel-based tool software provider Cimatron Ltd. The company, with its U.S. base in Livonia, Mich., will provide its QuickConcept solids-modeling software on Protomarket's site.
That way, toolmakers can gather with customers to easily tweak a design upfront before it moves to the manufacturing floor or to review a project before bidding for the job. Translation difficulties often are caused by different software makers who do not want to talk to each other, said Ralph Picklo, Cimatron regional manager.
"They've allowed rivalries to get in the way," he said. "Using the Internet takes that away."
Protomarket's site will allow toolmakers to red-line problem areas on a design, said Brad Lewis, Protomarket vice president of sales and marketing.
"Given the global market we're in, toolmakers can't afford four to five days to have information relayed to them or to set up another meeting," said Lewis, who formerly owned a tool shop in Windsor, Ontario. "You get online and you get it over with. You make decisions and move on."
That is the next logical progression, said John Casali, general manager of Nypro Inc.'s technical center in Clinton, Mass. The large molder also makes tools, with about 10 percent of its molds sent to outside processors.
Nypro already used videoconferencing to discuss mold engineering with customers early in the product cycle, Casali said. But today, problems with prints or databases must frequently go back to customers to fix later, he said.
"In some cases, we're waiting for changes before tools can move through," Casali said. "Using the Web, we could clean up a lot of design-related issues upfront. As the project starts coming down the track, we might be aware and have less hiccups."