Putting the Internet to Work

While the Internet may hold intriguing possibilities for the future, moldmakers need helpful, online options today.

While the Internet may hold intriguing possibilities for the future, moldmakers need helpful, online options today. Fortunately, there are several sites that - if used correctly - can help moldmakers become more profitable.

Anyone not living in a cave these past few years should agree that the Internet is arguably the most significant technological breakthrough to come along in the past decade. This tool links us instantaneously to virtually (no pun intended) any person, place or thing in the world. Yet even more impressive is that the Internet is still defining itself while supplying the infrastructure for applications that we can only begin to imagine. The possibilities are limitless.

But what about today? What practical benefits is the Internet currently providing to manufacturers? Phrases like "collaborative product development," "e-this," and "virtual-that" are impressive, but presently have little meaning to the average moldmaker or CAD/CAM user.

Practical Applications

Fortunately, valuable information and related services are now being provided via the Internet. Businesses of all types and sizes can access sites customized for their specific interests and needs. These sites cut through all of the clutter, offering a single source for industry-specific information, tools and services.

OnLine Repair and Translation
Online CAD model repair and translation is an important area common to all CAD model users. As CAD models continue to solidify themselves as the standard throughout product development, moldmakers and other downstream CAD model users are routinely asked to work with a wider variety of CAD model types and formats. Whether CATIA, Unigraphics, Pro/E, I-DEAS, IGES, STEP, STL, Parasolid, ACIS or other types of files, suppliers must demonstrate an ability to work with CAD models regardless of origin or risk loosing the business. This creates some very real problems for moldmakers as inherent differences between software systems and platforms make sharing CAD models nearly impossible at times. Consequently, moldmakers and other CAD model users are spending days - or even weeks - repairing or completely recreating models.

One alternative might be to purchase a CAD model repair and translation tool. But what about the shop that experiences only an occasional need for translation and repair? These groups generally don't perform enough translations to justify purchasing and becoming proficient with software - but when they encounter a model with problems, they need that model fixed and translated and they need it now! These companies are the reason that online translation exists.

How it Works
Generally, users of this new online translation will evaluate this new service in several areas including: results, ease-of-use, time savings, and of course, cost.

The goal of online repair and translation is to deliver a valid surface or solid model that can be immediately imported and used in the customer's CAD/CAM system with no rework. From our experience, automated online translation will deliver a totally valid surface or solid model that can be immediately read into one's in-house system the vast majority of the time (70 to 80 percent of models). In other situations (15 to 20 percent of models) most errors/issues in the model will be repaired but there may be some work required by the customer to complete the repair.

Unfortunately a small percentage of CAD models cannot be translated to the point where they can be immediately used without extensive rework. These cases may include models that have serious design quality problems. Simply translating these types of models will not deliver desirable results. Fortunately these instances are rare (an estimated five percent).

Many moldmakers have come to think of repairing and translating CAD models as a normal part of their job. In fact some shops figure time and costs spent fixing models into their bid process. Online translation enables moldmakers to concentrate on their core jobs and turn repair and translation over to the experts.

In fact, continued evolution of the Internet and e-mail reduces the process to a simple "point and click" exercise of sending the file and retrieving the translated file.

Time is Money
It generally takes anywhere from a few minutes to a few days to complete a translation with online services. Turn-around time will vary depending on the size and complexity of the model; additionally, models with severe geometry problems may require some level of human interaction, adding a little time to the process. Compare that, however, to the days or weeks it generally takes to find and fix CAD model problem areas and you'll quickly see the big dividends online repair and translation offers.

Translation charges are generally based on model size, and most translations would probably fall into a price range of $200 to $500. This is where you may want to take a look at how often you are employing these services to determine if usage warrants purchasing CAD repair and translation software for in-house use.

A word of caution - some online translation services simply run models through a translator, leaving the customer with a "what you get is - well, what you get" take it or leave it result. These services rely on price as their hook, playing the risk-free card that promises no charge for poor results. This might be okay assuming that you have time to burn. A good rule of thumb in online translation, as in life in general, is the reliable adage: You get what you pay for.

Moldmakers today have a variety of sites offering online CAD repair and translation. The following are just a sampling:

C-Solutions, Inc. (Boulder, CO) recently announced Tools4 CAM.com (www.tools4cam.com). According to Vice President of Business Development Mark Kostovny, the site was created to provide CAM professionals a way to increase efficiency and lower costs based on the latest technology available for a minimal up-front cost. "Services such as engraving, toolpath optimization and verification, job setup sheets, rapid prototyping and CAD model healing and translation will be available as a cost-effective web-based service," says Kostovny. "Once the offering proves its worth on actual jobs, it can be purchased from the Tools4CAM application market at a discounted price. Only best-of-class products and services that excel in quality output, price/value ratio, ease of use and online support will be included."

Engineering.com (Woodbridge, Ontario) (www.engineering.com) is an online resource tool. It is the first Web resource to be built with active, real-time collaboration with its core users - the engineering community. Introduced in mid-October, this unique initiative, named Live & Interactive, features an ongoing Feedback Forum. Members can log on to the site and send in comments and suggestions on the content, which the site development team will pick up and incorporate into the site. "Engineers are best suited to know what they need from an online resource tool. So we decided to collaborate with them on its development," notes Brian Mori, executive vice president of business development for Engineering.com. "Put simply, Engineering.com is the engineer's ultimate resource tool, structured to let engineers work better, faster and smarter."

Engineering.com is designed to provide working engineers with easy access to a wealth of technical data, a 24/7 marketplace for sourcing products, services and training and an online meeting place for interaction with fellow professionals.

ProtoMarket.com (Chicago, IL) (www.protomarket.com) is an online marketplace for the rapid manufacturing industry offering tools and services. The service saves engineers and designers time and money spent sourcing made-to-order components by allowing them to receive and evaluate numerous vendor quotations from a single online request for quotation. The site offers rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, machined parts, sheet metal, thermoform parts, metal and urethane castings, production tooling and short-run production. Protomarket.com offers secure file transfer, online collaboration tools, vendor rating systems and e-mail notification to allow buyers to source and order parts with unprecedented speed and confidence. Protomarket.com is expanding its offering to include additional value-added engineering services.

ITI's (Milford, OH) DEXCenter.com (www.dexcenter.com) pro-vides CAD model repair and translation services. Customers can submit their CAD model(s) for translation and quickly retrieve the repaired and translated model. An experienced engineer adds a human element to the loop to better ensure success and quality.

Conclusion

The Internet is quickly evolving into a practical and reliable tool for a variety of business and manufacturing applications. Organizations embracing and leveraging its advantages are seeing some very significant returns. Web-based CAD model repair and translation services allow mold makers and other downstream CAD model users to receive clean translated files they need when they need it.

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