Collaborative design


– the time taken for a company to design and introduce a new product – is critical. A pharmaceutical company, for example, may be involved in 10 years of intensive collaboration with scientists, suppliers, lawyers and regulatory authorities before it can release a drug onto the market. If technology can reduce this process by just one year, a company can save huge amounts of money and steal a substantial lead on its competitors.

This is generating significant interest in technologies that support product lifecycle management (PLM), a group of technologies that supports the end-to-end process of managing a product from initial conceptual design to post-production maintenance and support. But despite the emergence of a host of niche software companies specialising in PLM technologies, many are still heavily paper-based and rely on regular and time-intensive consultation between participants.

How are organisations tackling real-time, collaborative design today?

In the aerospace industry, project complexity means that manufacturers often collaborate not only with their industry partners, suppliers and customers, but also with competitors.

"There are many joint ventures in the industry, particularly in Europe, where the cross-ownership is very complex," says Chris Coupland, director of ebusiness at aerospace manufacturing giant BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace). For example, on the project to build the Eurofighter Typhoon advanced combat aircraft, BAE Systems collaborates with its competitors in the aerospace industry, including European Aeronautic Defence and Space Companies' (EADS) Deutschland, EADS Spain, and Italy's Alenia Aerospazio.

BAE has been using online collaborative design tools since around 1997, says Martin Scalway, head of ebusiness strategy at BAE. So far, online collaboration has been carried out with around 20 of BAE’s largest partners, including aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin, engineering giant Rolls-Royce and the UK government’s Defence Logistics Organisation. The forms this collaboration takes range from sharing CAD (computer-aided design) work on the plans for a submarine to exchanging data via secure email about the specifications for part of an aircraft's fuselage.

BAE's collaborative design activities typically take place in a shared working environment and each involve around four or five companies, says Scalway. To ensure data confidentiality, security is vital. For this reason, BAE has used IT services company Computer Sciences Corp (CSC) to create a shared extranet for projects protected by a firewall.

BAE also uses a software platform from WebExCommunications that creates a ‘virtual meeting room' environment where disparate team members can share ideas and plan projects, says Scalway. The WebEx platform enables members of a project to collaborate in real-time by providing group access to bills of materials, change orders and design drawings. "This means that during a presentation an engineer can point at a specific area of a drawing and the other party in a separate location can see the movement of the engineer's computer mouse," says Scalway. BAE tried this type of interaction using CAD files, but found their size and resolution meant they often had to be exchanged asynchronously.

BAE is also a founding member of Exostar, a consortium-based e-marketplace for the aerospace industry, and will soon use Exostar's ForumPass service for collaborative design processes with smaller partners and suppliers. This activity will include visualising CAD data and tracking design processes. Typical applications could involve placing design requirements for a metal bracket for the fuselage of an aircraft into a shared space on ForumPass, for example. Using that, a supplier could then make this bracket to BAE's exact requirements.

In addition, BAE must make important decisions about how much of its historical collaborative data should be retrospectively put into its new electronic environments. In the aerospace industry, says Coupland, this can amount to a massive data input task. "The concept and assessment phase [for one of our products] can easily be 10 years," he says.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...