Autodesk Vault

Data Management from the Assembly Environment

I know of very few people who jump up in joy at the mention of data management. That’s perfectly understandable. Digging into rows and columns of alphanumeric data to find the right part numbers, revisions, or file statuses to get a snapshot of your project is not exactly a creative endeavor. It’s a necessary evil of the era of parallel product development.

But what if you can use your 3D CAD models as the interface to search, query, retrieve, and visualize supplier info, file statuses, cost, compliance, and outstanding change orders? That would give data management a whole new face, quite literally.

The trend, sometimes described as visual data management, can be seen in how you might use your Autodesk Inventor models to access information stored inside Autodesk Vault, or how you might interact with Teamcenter data right from your NX assembly models.

For more, read my article in April issue, titled “Visualizing the Forest of Data Beyond the Trees,” and watch the video clip below:

Socio-Visual Product Development

If you’re in the business of developing and designing products, you may soon have to face this question: Are you social or visual? Chances are, you’re a little bit of both.

As digital product development becomes commonplace, so too is a symptom of commoditization: indistinguishable software suites. It seems, no matter where you look, you see variations of the same graphical user interface (GUIs). Whether you’re on the hunt for a product data management (PDM) or product lifecycle management (PLM) system, you’re confronted with the same grids and columns, consolidated into a dashboard with a series of graphs and charts. They may have different color schemes, may even have a few customizable options. But stripped of their GUIs, they offer more or less the same functions: file check-in/check-out, version control, compliance management, change order tracking, and so on.

But in the last couple of years, as Facebook and Twitter exchanges become as ubiquitous as water-cooler gossip, as real-time 3D visualization becomes the norm, these new media and new normals begin to demand equal consideration in supply-chain management and product development. This gives birth to social media-like collaboration tools and model-centric lifecycle management tools.

Social Product Development
PTC‘s Windchill SocialLink, previewed to invited press members last week, is an example of social media-inspired product development. When it finally becomes available, it’ll appear in the form of a floating pallet with collaboration, real-time project updates, microblogging, and community functions. According to PTC, SocialLink will be available throughout many of its products. The preview suggests it’ll be tightly integrated with Windchill PDMLink, the company’s PDM software.

Many of its functions will remind you of social media tools consumers have fully embraced. SocialLink’s collaboration and community tools will remind you of how you comment on your friends’ Facebook updates and how you seek others with similar backgrounds and interests in social networks. Microblogging is modeled after Twitter chats. You’ll be able to subscribe to updates coming from certain individuals and project files, just like you can see updates from friends and select fan pages on Facebook.

These social media-inspired functions, I think, will find an audience among a new generation of designers and engineers already accustomed to working with them. They may also serve as a foundation for supporting portable devices in the future. An iPhone or iPad may not be the ideal device for a serious CAD modeling session. But their ubiquitous presence and lightweight make them the preferred device for remote review, annotation, on-site data collection, and collaboration.

Visual Product Development
If you’re using Siemens PLM Software‘s NX 7 or Autodesk Inventor, you may already be on the road to visual product development. With NX 7 with HD3D from Siemens, you’ll be able to retrieve and display supplier data, file ownership, cost, part status, and many other information housed in Teamcenter right from your assembly model. Similarly, using Autodesk Inventor 2011, you’ll be able to display project and product data housed in Autodesk Vault (2011 Workgroup Edition).

In both cases, the assembly model serves as the interface for requesting, receiving, and displaying your product lifecycle data and enterprise data. Siemens’s HD3D and Autodesk Vault’s data management went beyond simply displaying text and numeric data in a pop-up window or a palette. Seen as colors and shades superimposed on your 3D geometry, your enterprise data and supply chain info may yield insights and wisdom previously overlooked. (It’s a lot easier to miss a line item in a series of columns; not so when it appears as a red highlight on your model.)

A Culture of Transparency
Since the primary motivation of social media is to be open and inviting (some may say it’s too open), collaboration tools like Windchill SocialLinks are expected to foster a sense of community, even among corporate citizens who’ve never met face to face but still have much to gain from swapping talent and skills. This practice, I think, would give rise to products that benefit not only from the primary design team but also from a larger pool of ad hoc collaborators.

Visual data management, as exemplified by Siemens’ HD3D and Autodesk Vault, makes it more difficult to hide or bury unflattering information in a pile of graphs and charts. In rows and columns, it is (at least to me) easy to miss a subcontractor who repeatedly deliver files late or a supplier from a certain region that is now subject to new regulations. Overlaying such data on 3D geometry (where designers spend most of their time) exposes the weakest links, giving project managers and designers the ability to monitor their progress without launching a separate program.

Taking these as harbingers of a new breed of product development technologies, we may expect social media-inspired tools and visual data-management features to appear in more software suites. Perhaps a combination of the two might give rise to socio-visual product development — a transparent, interactive experience.

You can listen to my interview with Tom Shoemaker, PTC’s VP of solutions marketing, where he discusses the use of social media at PCT and how Windchill SocialLinks works with PTC’s CAD and PLM packages.


You can also listen to my conversation with Paul Brown, Siemens’ senior marketing director of NX, on HD3D (previously published on June 29, following Siemens PLM Connection conference.

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Dispatches from Autodesk Manufacturing HQ: Data Management Has a New Face

Thursday, April 8: At midday, as my journalist cohorts and I were herded into a room for a presentation of Autodesk Vault 2011, I overheard Brian Roepke, senior product manager for the Vault product line, talking to a colleague.

“I’ll show ‘em that data management can be sexy,” he vowed.

“The only way to do that is to get Angelina Jolie as the presenter,” I warned him.

“Oh, yeah? I’ll make you eat your words. You just watch,” he checked me.

Roughly 60 mins later, I emerged from the conference room with the realization that data-management now has a new face. It isn’t exactly the face of a Hollywood actress, but it’s the face of a model — your 3D CAD model. Gone is the usual, uninspiring Excel-like interface so common among data management systems. With Autodesk Vault 2011, Workgroup Edition, your Inventor 3D model is your data management interface.

Suppose you need to get a snapshot of your project, to scan the parts that are released to production, those that are behind deadline, and those that are in revision. You won’t need to squint at a series of columns and cells populated with check marks and dates to get the information. Instead, you can launch your 3D assembly and get the status reports, right from within Autodesk Inventor. Your model will become a color-coded assembly, with all the revisions, released parts, and delayed parts highlighted in different shades. You’ll still get pie charts, but they now work as legends that tell you what each color represents.

Dassault, makers of SolidWorks and a competitor to Autodesk in mid-range CAD,  also advocates the use of a 3D assembly to inspect and view product lifecycle management (PLM) repositories. It calls its solution 3DLive Product Information. Late last year, Siemens PLM Software took a similar approach to data management with NX with HD3D, described as “a simple  and intuitive way to collect, collate, and present information” (see “NX7 with HD3D: Where CAD Geometry and Lifecycle Mingle,” November 2009). However, Roepke pointed out Autodesk Vault’s visual data-management environment had been in development for roughly 18 months, so it wasn’t a reaction to Siemens’ HD3D.

The visual environment is driven by meta data you maintain using Inventor and Vault (part numbers, suppliers, check-in, check-out, and so on). The new approach may yield insights into your project that weren’t easy to obtain before. For instance, by displaying parts that are delayed or overdue by geographical distribution, you may be able to detect certain bottlenecks and hiccups in your supply chain or subcontractors who are under-performing.

According to Roepke, Autodesk Vault Workgroup (despite its name) may be used as an enterprise-class PDM platform. Basic Autodesk Vault comes free of charge with purchase of most major Autodesk products (such as Autodesk Inventor), but upgrade to more robust editions requires fee.

Bridging MCAD Quadrants with 2010

For the past two days, I’ve been in Portland, Oregon, for a press event hosted by Autodesk’s manufacturing division. To sum up everything I learned in my meetings (7 interviews, spanning 7 hours) in a few hundred words seems like a futile endeavor. Yet, I’ll attempt to do just that.

Autodesk’s 2010 manufacturing portfolio shares a feature that gives Portland its nickname, Bridgetown. The development of 2010 seems to have been fueled by efforts to bridge flagship products with previous acquisitions (AutoCAD and Inventor with Moldflow, PlassoTech, ALGOR, and Navisworks), manufacturing with industrial design (Inventor and Alias), manufacturing with architecture (Inventor and Revit), and manufacturing with rapid prototyping.

Some pieces of Moldflow, a product Autodesk snatched up in May 2008, are now readily available in Autodesk Inventor Professional 2010. The latest release gives you plastic part design and tooling features , which automate many of the steps involved in injection molding. You’ll be able to quickly create core and cavity, patch surfaces, define runners and gates, carve out cooling channels, and simulate flow path. These functions better prepare you to upgrade to Moldflow Adviser and Moldflow Insight, two higher end products targeted at designers and analysts, respectively. These let you simulate molds with multiple materials and verify warpage, among other things.

When Autodesk acquired Moldflow, it also became the proprietor of the material database. The company makes good use of the intellectual data by incorporating energy cost and resin value of the chosen material into the selection dialog box, prompting you to consider the consequence of your design and manufacturing process.

Hilde Sevens, a senior product manager of Autodesk, said, “We intend to keep Moldflow CAD-agnostic,” so if you heppen to use a package from one of Autodesk’s competitors, you won’t be barred from using Moldflow.

Inventor Professional 2010 also marks the introduction of part and assembly simulation, a benefit of Autodesk’s PlassoTech acquisition. This toolset lets you check interferences, simulate assembly components in motion, turn your parts into mesh models, and apply finite element analysis (FEA) solvers.

The AEC exchange feature in Inventor 2010 lets you save your mechanical design as a DWG solid, a useful function for those who want to pass along mechanical structures designed in Inventor to architects using Revit.

Previously, Autodesk gave away Autodesk Vault, its basic data-management platform, for free when you purchase AutoCAD or Inventor. For those who want much more sophisticated functions, it offered ProductStream. This left a gap, a segment of businesses that have outgrown Vault but not yet ready for Productstream. To fix this, Autodesk reorganized the Vault lineup as follows: Vault (free, ships with select Autodesk products); Vault Workgroup ($995); Vault Collaboration ($1,495, for multi-site deployment); and Autodesk Vault Manufacturing ($1,995, Productstream renamed).

The Autodesk Alias product line has also gone through a refinement. Now, the repertoire includes Alias Design (for industrial design and consumer goods); Alias Surface (dynamic 3D surfacing, especially for creating Class A surfaces); and Alias Automotive. Alias 2010 is the first release available on Mac (for OS X 10.5 or higher), opening up the software to a new market segment. Currently, Mac version doesn’t offer direct support for rapid prototyping like Windows version does. (A recent survey indicates Autodesk in inspecting people’s interest in AutoCAD for Mac. Join the conversation here.)

I left Bridgetown this afternoon, just after lunch time. I’m now back home in San Francisco, getting ready to inspect the links between Inventor Professional 2010 and other Autodesk offerings.  I’ll be filing a video report on my findings soon, so stay tuned.