The Multi-CAD Language Barrier: Working with Partners that Use Different CAD Systems


Organizations that design and manufacture products spend a lot of time, money and effort becoming proficient at using their 3D CAD software, as doing so has proven to deliver significant bottom-line benefits, such as faster time to market, higher-quality products, and reduced product development costs.

The reality, however, is that with today’s distributed product development process, with its extensive chain of suppliers and partners, it’s impractical to believe that all CAD data will be created in the same system. In fact, it’s estimated that 66% of 3D CAD files are delivered in a format other than the preferred one.

According to an Aberdeen study, Working with Multi-CAD?, 82% of respondents report using three or more CAD formats in their design process. With multi-CAD environments, collaboration between companies becomes a complex process, prone to human error and delays. Organizations must not only be proficient at accepting CAD data created in multiple formats, but also at bringing together various CAD models without losing or recreating work.

Exchanging, then repairing, files shared between partners and vendors that are created in multiple authoring systems, is probably one of the biggest challenges of and bottlenecks in today’s collaborative product development process. Sharing product data among different CAD systems often results in errors due to manual rework of the model, which leads to increased turnaround times and greater costs.

Keeping it neutral

For a while, the industry looked like it would adopt so-called neutral formats, IGES and STEP, for exchanging CAD data. The problem was that users would spend a lot of time building intelligence into their CAD models using history-based, parametric modeling tools that would get lost in translation using neutral formats.

Unlike native 3D CAD files, IGES and STEP files do not maintain a rich set of data about the product in a history tree. Native CAD files converted into so-called “dumb” STEP or IGES files strip out much of the intelligence and leave only a surface model. The upside is that valuable IP is safe, the downside is the receiving partner or vendor has a lot of rework to do to be able to use that model.

According to the Aberdeen study, the use of neutral formats has decreased in recent years. While still done, delivering and receiving CAD files in neutral formats is no longer the preferred practice, a significant shift from a previous study done in 2006 when over half (52%) of companies reported delivering designs in neutral formats compared to 38% of best-in-class respondents in the latest study.

Best practices of best-in-class organizations

According to the Aberdeen study, 69% of best-in-class organizations standardize on one CAD application in house, but are proficient at delivering and receiving in many different CAD formats. They do so by sending visualization files to partners, suppliers, and customers. Manufacturers should also be sure they start out with good data, as files that are corrupt or otherwise poor quality will lead to translated files that are also poor quality.

Other best practices implemented include centrally locating all CAD systems, searching legacy data for potential reuse, and synchronizing design data between distributed locations across all CAD systems. Supporting technologies that enable these best practices include CAD tools that support import of other CAD formats, visualization tools, and a single integrated PDM or PLM system to manage all types of CAD data across the enterprise.

Data exchange is one of the most difficult, complex and near-ending challenges that manufacturers face now and in the future as design supply chains continue to expand and design become more and more of a collaborative effort. Keeping an eye out on increasingly sophisticated interoperability tools can help organizations stay one step ahead of this challenge.

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