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Integrating factory data for SMEs

Data generated about a factory during its design, manufacture, use, maintenance and disposal serves many vital uses, but today's engineering processes are characterised by a multiplicity of involved partners and systems.

The IST IDA-STEP project is making it possible for SMEs to integrate different engineering disciplines of the virtual product and production development process and also to transfer between partners integrated information via online data access to all phases of a factory's life. ,Myriad partners and systems need integrating,To support all the uses, organisations need to be able to represent their factory engineering information in a common computer-interpretable form that is required to remain complete and consistent when exchanged among different computer systems. IDA-STEP project leader Robert Rech identifies the traditional problems and the current solutions, which are largely inadequate and not cost-effective for SMEs. According to Rech, the challenge is to "combine resulting information coming out of different tools" of the engineering process, such as the process planning tool, layout CAD system, robot simulation system, mechanical design CAD, into one integrated structure of geometries with additional properties. "There are system vendors on the market who deliver the whole set of different tools to support the major development process steps for production equipment. But not even in this ideal case, that systems from only one vendor are in use, is a full integration realised. In today's situation in the praxis nearly every OEM [Original Equipment Manufacturer] uses tools from different vendors to fulfil the approach of using best-in-class products," he says., ,For IDA-STEP to integrate and organise the data flow for the planning of production facilities, data collected at different stages of the design - starting from the requirement phase until the final production - is integrated into databases, organised according to STEP data models. STEP (ISO 10303) is the international standard for the exchange of industrial product data. The project adopts the sections of STEP dealing with data for 'Automotive Design' (AP214), as well as 'Electrical Installation' (AP212) for the body-in-white assembling of cars and the needed production facilities. It is well suited, according to the IDA-STEP consortium, to be the integration backbone to realise the concept of a 'digital factory'. Data from the engineering, design and try out phase is integrated in STEP-compliant databases and linked with various CAD, analysis and manufacturing (CAx) tools. The data is made network accessible in read and write mode for various usages and users in parallel. To keep the solutions platform-neutral the Java programming language is being used throughout the project. Data formats, suitable for Internet communication such as XML, VRML and Java object serialisation are used to link CAx systems and other end-user tools with the integrated STEP databases. The data is also made available on wireless handheld devices for end-user access. "The standard STEP is an international accepted definition to describe product (or production) structures in a neutral standardised way. Therefore we used a STEP-based data model to integrate information resulting out of different tools of engineering," Rech explains. The result is that data exchange between specific applications of the engineering process chain in automotive-based development - such as layout planning, process planning and electro planning - can be accessed via IDA-STEP translators. Attractive for SMEs ,OEMs as well as big suppliers currently support their engineering processes with product data management (PDM) solutions, yet smaller collaborators don't have the financial possibilities to invest in an expensive PDM system. IDA-STEP enables SMEs to take part in automatic data exchange in PDM-based processes, and to fulfil the requirements of managing metadata and product structure information beside documents and CAD models. Being a full standard-based solution makes IDA-STEP independent from technology changes in the future, and easy to adapt to customer specific needs because of the underlying 'predefined' standard data model. Compared to usual PDM solutions in the market IDA-STEP is fast to implement and less expensive, making it attractive for SMEs. Commercial release,One version of the IDA-STEP has already been released on the market, with an improved version that integrates additional functionalities due at the beginning of 2004. The first users were the industrial partners of the IDA-STEP consortium. Outside the consortium the IDA-STEP project marketing activities have just started. Although Rech says "We have positive feedback from internal users and we are encountered large interest also outside the consortium" adding, "Our investigations showed up that there is a need for the IDA-STEP solutions." The project's final event will be on 28 January 2004, hosted by consortium member EDAG in Fulda, Germany. Source: Based on information from IDA-STEP,The IST Results service gives you online news and analysis on the emerging results from Information Society Technologies research. The service reports on prototype products and services ready for commercialisation as well as work in progress and interim results with significant potential for exploitation. ,