The International Standard for the Exchange of Product Model Data, or STEP, technology has been in research and development for approximately 15 years now, and its progress is encouraging. STEP - also referred to as ISO 10303 - is on the brink of replacing the Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES) as the method of exchanging product data. As a result, over the next several years parts will most likely be cut directly from product models, reducing setup time by as much as 37 percent.
According to Dr. Martin Hardwick, president of Troy, NY-based Step Tools, Inc., an international supplier of STEP-integration software tools, IGES is simply a specification for geometry only and not in use worldwide. "STEP is a full-blown, international standard mandated by the United Nations," Hardwick explains. "All countries are in the process of adopting it. Product model means it's complete information about the product - not just the geometry but also the assembly information, the manufacturing features, the manufacturing process information - everything you need to know. STEP is more comprehensive than IGES ever was in at least two dimensions: one, because it has a worldwide scope and the other because it embraces everything about design and manufacturing - not just the graphics."
When STEP was initially deployed in the mid-1990s, the focus was on data exchange between CAD systems. "Now STEP is moving on to define more of the complete design and manufacturing process," Hardwick explains. "In particular, we are working on a new enhancement for the standard called STEP-NC - which essentially means that all of the geometry, manufacturing features and manufacturing instructions will be in a STEP file or database that can be directly read by a machine tool controller, such as a milling machine controller."
Hardwick hopped on the STEP-NC bandwagon approximately two years ago when the U.S. got wind of the developing standard overseas by such manufacturing giants as Fanuc and Siemens, and he is joined by a number of CAD vendors who have also started implementing the technology. "This is such a good idea," Hardwick affirms. "The G and M codes have been around for so long now and it's nothing to put a full-blown PC into a controller. Those can certainly process a lot more complicated data than G and M codes." The ability to cut directly from a file will eliminate back and forth between company and client as well as diminish a lot of setup time.
"The investment is well worth the results - if you can cut 37 percent from your setup time for the price of a PC, I think everybody will go for it," Hardwick states. "Initially it will be more expensive because there won't be mass market support behind it, just like when cell phones were first introduced. It's a matter of getting the word out and making success stories known. The more people that move toward the new standard, the more momentum that gets behind it, which makes it a more obvious choice to everybody else and it goes on down the chain. "STEP is a huge effort - not just by the U.S. government, but by all of the governments of the world to come up with a necessary, sufficient description for product data so that all of the suppliers, manufacturers, etc., can understand the information and use it," he continues. "That's the big picture."
Hardwick plans on expanding upon this "big picture" with a press event on November 30, 2000, in Troy, NY. "We will be demonstrating that we can produce data from a CAD system - we don't care what system - put it into a CAM system, process it, and produce the new style manufacturing data," he says. "Then it goes to the controller, and the controller is just making the parts. We will be cutting a test part directly from the step model.
"This year's demonstration will focus on showing that the standard has the capability to make the parts," Hardwick continues. "Next year we will focus more on proving that 37 percent benefit. People need to see it, touch it, feel it and the best thing of all - hear that someone else is actually using it and achieving these results in practice. But that's still a couple of years away. Even though we are validating it independently now, the real validation comes when a large company like Boeing uses it in production and shows that the 37 percent reduction has been achieved. When that happens, there will be an avalanche, of course - everybody has to get it. You can't afford to have the other guy be able to do things more quickly than you can."
Coming soon, Hardwick notes, is a "Super Model" database that is currently under construction and will contain all information needed to manufacture a part. "Included must be design information, manufacturing-planning information and manufacturing-strategy information," he states. "The database will be defined by STEP and STEP-NC standards."
Honeywell has been working with the technology for several years now, reports Bill Simons, IT Engineer, Honeywell FM&T. "We see the STEP standard as a mechanism that can be used to facilitate the product realization process," Simons states. "A model-based approach will allow us to streamline and automate many tasks within the product realization process. The end result will be improved product quality and reduced cycle time, which are benefits that Honeywell and the DOE [Department of Energy] will profit from in the long term. These benefits will not be achieved unless we have a standard mechanism for the exchange and long term archival of product definition.
"Implementation of a STEP-based Super Model - incorporating everything from a solid model based product design to the detailed manufacturing processes - is expected to eliminate many compatibility problems and data archival issues," Simons continues. "We have very stringent records management requirements that dictate the need for our designs and processes to be maintained for the life of the product, which could be 100 plus years. A robust STEP-based product data repository could simplify the effort required to fulfill these requirements."
Hardwick adds that the word "e-manufacturing" is often used when referring to STEP technology. "That's exactly what it is," he says. "We are taking full advantage of new networking technologies and getting away from sending and faxing drawings between each other and just sending the product model."
In 2002, Hardwick says the focus will be on turning machines. "We have to prove that this technology will stay around and can work with this new way of doing things fairly swiftly and easily," he says. "We will continue to focus on the technology and say, 'We did it with milling machines, now look how quickly we can adapt it to turning machines.'
"We're pretty excited about it and it's a message that resonates well," Hardwick adds. "Data exchange and data sharing via the STEP standard is an idea whose time has come and should become a near-universal standard as we begin a new millennium."