User Story

Inventor : Precision Remotes

In today's workplace, it is estimated that for every one producer of design data, there are more than 20 other users downstream that need that data generated by an engineer working with a computer-aided design (CAD) system. Yet, designers and mechanical engineers - those who typically use CAD systems - work in relative isolation from other departments in the enterprise. Sometimes, they are so involved in their piece of product development that they don't often have the time to adequately accommodate requests for information made by the other consumers who also rely on design data. The engineer's and designer's interaction with the design information is very different than the what is required of the data by non-technical entities such as purchasing, procurement, quality assurance, and shop floor production.

While mechanical design information is extremely valuable to an enterprise, manufacturing engineers often still work with 2D hardcopy prints that are sometimes outdated and inaccurate. Information is not always presented in a format that is understandable to his various audiences. As a result, for example, shop floor production workers interpret prints that engineers provide to them for the assembly of a product to the best of their knowledge. If they have questions, they write them down and they get delivered to the design department, or they adapt the CAD-generated model themselves and make it work on the shop floor. Neither option is very effective.

In addition, as outsourcing is a major trend in manufacturing, it means many different audiences that may not exist in the same location or time zone, put even more strain on communication and the accuracy of design data interpretation. Because competition in manufacturing is stiff, time is valuable and streamlined processes between these parties are critical. Over reliance on overnight mail services and long back-and-forth communication processes must become things of the past.

Precision Remotes (Point Richmond, CA) builds remotely operated weapons and surveillance platform for military use. All design work is conducted at Precision Remote's headquarters, while outside contractors as part of the extended enterprise perform manufacturing and other downstream functions. While machinists will always need 2D drawings, we believe that the tide is changing in terms of providing other media that contains important engineering data to other people downstream in the product development cycle. When we worked in a strictly 2D environment, we created 2D prints while developing each component. We built assemblies up from the part level. This process involved a lot of interpretation by the designer. He or she formulated a concept in their head, then attempted to recreate the 3D idea in a multi-view 2D print. This approach can be dangerous because it allows for a huge margin for error.

We generated 2D prints and sent them to our machinists on the shop floor. This strategy wasn't an issue since machinists understand that medium. However, in terms of communicating the model to other important entities working downstream from engineering such as marketing, purchasing, and procurement - disciplines that generally don't understand 2D drawings -- companies like Precision Remotes typically hired artists to create artistic representations of models based on the 2D line drawings. The point was to provide usable, easy to understand information so others in the food chain could obtain a reasonable idea of what the finished product would look like. Even then, however, the artist's sketch is just an interpretation. Odds are the artist's drawing will probably closely represent what we're conceptually designing, but from an engineering perspective, it's not exactly what will be produced.

Today, using Inventor, we are in a much different position in terms of collaborating with a wide audience. For instance, recently, we were faced with developing a user manual for a remote operated weapon called the TRAP T-2 ( Precision Remotes developed the TRAP T-2 to keep military, security, and law enforcement personnel away from danger while simultaneously giving them a superior ability to project force if needed.

We wanted to include a lot of illustrations in the TRAP T-2 manual because we know many different disciplines rely on documentation. We wanted to create a meaningful, usable, and easy to understand manual using pictures to complement the text.

So, using Inventor we opened up our model and started screen capturing all the different assembly systems. For installations, we included a lot of exploded views. The images made the user TRAP T-2 manual so incredibly easy to understand. It is definitely one of the best tools we have generated in terms of providing meaningful engineering information for entities who don't necessarily have engineering backgrounds. Anyone would be able to assemble this device based on the manual.

The beauty of the manual is that no interpretation is necessary. The information was generated directly from the design information. Everything that is shown in the TRAP

T-2 manual is exactly how the product is represented from the source. In the past, if an engineering change was made after the artist's sketch was completed, the illustrations might not represent the actual state of the product when it hits the store shelves. Using Inventor, we can make changes on the fly and the whole model updates before our eyes. What you see is what you get.

It's so easy now to create all kinds of materials that are valuable to wide range of users beyond engineers. Being able to quickly produce user manuals or two-page product literature that we can take to trade shows as sales collateral is extremely beneficial. Gone are the days of printing out drawings and hovering over them deciphering hidden lines to glassy eyed prospects. Prior to implementing Inventor, we used Mechanical Desktop software, also from Autodesk. The software helped up create some really nice renderings. However, doing so was time-consuming. After generating one or two views, significant time had elapsed and we generally would be satisfied with just a few views and move on. The TRAP T-2 manual included hundreds of images because it was so fast and easy to include them using Inventor. We've learned that images bring our products to life.

Using Inventor, a whole slew of downstream people can take advantage of the engineering/mechanical design information. They can easily and quickly obtain and understand design intent without interpretation. For example, electricians who need to know about the inner casings can see exploded views and know how the design can be taken apart and reassembled.

As a result, we are reaching a much broader audience with these visuals versus 2D drawings. Since our founder has a lot of contact with investors, we can now take investors and clients to our Inventor studio. There, two systems can project models onto the walls. We can rotate the models before their eyes so they can immediately understand what the product is all about. Because they do understand, non-technical entities such as sales, marketing, clients, and investors can offer valuable feedback. We collaborate on design changes and view the effect of changes on the model in real time. We know, too, that non-technical people are much more comfortable about asking questions and making recommendations when they understand the model. Our communication among the various disciplines is greatly enhanced. Because we obtain feedback from more disciplines, we have the ability to build a more intelligent, more sophisticated product. The technology bolsters everyone's confidence.

Virtual 3D models are actually more powerful than physical prototypes. Using Inventor, we can rotate the model, show exploded views, remove housings, and provide interior angles. Most manufacturers do not disassemble prototypes in front of investors or clients.

Collaboration don'ts
Our organization is small so we're nimble and open to changes if they foster the creative elements of our synergistic group. Yet, when I first started working here, the founder was of the old-school ilk - working in 2D. Yet, today, just a short time later, after realizing the benefits of working in 3D, he is completely hooked on the methodology and the technology. Management must be more open-minded about new technology and especially 3D solid modeling in order to remain competitive. The world is changing and time to market windows are becoming shorter and shorter. Management must realize that collaboration beyond the engineering department is mission critical to the bottom line. We are realizing the advantages of across-the-board collaboration everyday.

While it seems like a no-brainer to provide meaningful illustrations in a user manual, companies have been working in 2D for decades. Manufacturers should address the issue of providing engineering information in easy to use formats that benefit specific groups that need the data. Beyond user-friendly assembly manuals, other media such as a video or other graphically formatted media can be served to the user over the Internet. The purchasing agent or sales person, for instance, can view the current draft of a model on the Internet and quickly determine what's needed to support the production of that product.

Another deterrent to collaboration is the propensity to make multiple design changes to the 3D model. Using Inventor, because it's so easy to make a change in the design, you can get caught up with a seemingly endless string of changes. You have to know when to draw the line and move on to the next project. However, unbelievable ease of use is a nice problem to have.

In the very near future, the Internet will have caught on and there will be new and very innovative ways to access critical information including engineering data. More manufacturers will initiate e-commerce processes to work more closely with suppliers. IT departments will provide safe portals for the distribution of what is now sensitive information reserved for in-house only. Will the need for 2D drawings disappear? Not anytime soon because many manufacturers rely on small and medium sized machine shops, for instance, that cannot afford CAD systems or do not have access to the Internet. Yet, as the market continues to drive hardware and software prices down, the issue of providing a CAD system on every designer's desktop is not far fetched. After all, not so long ago, the implementation of a CAD system meant an engineering department practically shut down while users learned how to use it and become production-proficient. Today, with Inventor, any user can be up and productive in one day. The times they are a changing.

Author: Eric Hobson, mechanical engineer, Precision Remotes

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Page last modified on December 31, 2000
Copyright 2000 by John Stark