In the aerospace industry and elsewhere, the success of an engineering project increasingly depends not so much on the design work itself, but on how effectively design data can be communicated to all members of a team.
One of the key benefits of computer-aided design and manufacturing (Cadcam) has been the ability to automate and increase the efficiency of all aspects of the design-to-manufacture cycle, by making sure that all members of the team can obtain information when they want and regardless of their role or location. The process is known as collaborative engineering.
In the aerospace industry, Boeing has taken the concept of collaborative engineering to its highest level. The construction of the Boeing 777 featured an unprecedented reliance on design and manufacturing technology and collaborative engineering.
The lessons that the US aircraft maker learned and demonstrated to such great effect have inspired its competitors to look at how effectively they too can deploy design data.
All on screen
In a project to make the GlobalHawk high altitude aircraft, Northrop Grumman used Parametric Technology's Pro/Engineer software at the heart of a collaborative engineering programme that would be devastatingly effective - "we used the Pro/ Engineer models as a virtual mock-up. We never did a physical prototype. We relied solely on the electronic definition," says Alfredo Ramirez, co-leader on the airframe teams.
"Traditionally, for a metallic structure such as our fuselage, there would be four or five engineering change orders per drawing. For the Global Hawk, our average was about one ECO per drawing." By using collaborative engineering the company reduced cycle times and resources by 50 and 40 per cent respectively, and achieved a a 97 per cent first time fit. It took just 13 months to go from the concept to a completed airframe.
The principle of giving as many people as much access to design information as possible has also been taken up by BAE Systems, one of the world's largest aerospace and defence prime contractors.
Last year, the company set up SEFF, a synthetic environment centre intended to increase customer involvement in the understanding and design of defence systems.
With SEFF systems, project teams view concepts in a simulated operational environment - using the same type of SGI graphics workstations deployed in virtual reality entertainment environments - and can then try alternative configurations, tactics or threat environments.
"This ability to conduct 'what-if?' scenarios is crucial to understanding our customer's needs and then optimising a solution to meet them," says Peter Beckett, synthetics environment technologist consultant at BAE. "The facility gives us a viewpoint on cost- effectiveness by looking across all those things which contribute to it.
"For example, if we wanted to see the overall benefit of a stealthier air vehicle, we can model the reduction in its radar cross-section, re-run typical missions, watch what happens and log the results. But we can also check that the new shape can be manufactured as easily and at similar cost to before and that maintenance crews can still get access.
"Balancing these dependencies and visualising the results will help SEFF users make better informed decisions."
However, accessibility has to be balanced against security, and getting the balance right is a daily issue for companies such as Aerospatiale-Matra.
The French civilian and military aeronautical helicopter, aerospace, and space vehicle manufacturer decided that it needed to build an information portal if it was to exploit fully the diverse repositories of design and manufacturing data held across its enterprise.
The portal, developed by Hummingbird, gives Aerospatiale-Matra staff a single point of access to the information repositories - generally consisting of information in Microsoft Word, Excel, Metaphase, Arbortex, AutoCad and SAP solutions - connecting users to the content they need in the context they need it in.
The portal allows for multi-directory single log-on and authentication, unified search results from disparate sources and application integration with other software solutions.
"We have unique needs. We needed a portal solution that had the ability to accommodate any repository," says Christiane Humbel, EADS document management project Manager at Aerospatiale-Matra.
"In addition, due to the sensitive nature of our corporate information, we needed a solution that could maintain the integrity and security of our existing documents."
Today's strong emphasis on collaborative engineering in the aerospace sector may be obscuring developments in basic design work. In fact, radical design is enjoying a renaissance in the industry, particularly with interiors. The newly fitted beds in the first class compartments of selected British Airways aircraft are a classic example.
"Interiors really gives the wrong image," says Garry Little, business development manager of DesignWorks, a design consultancy whose portfolio includes leading world airlines. "We are dealing with environments in which you can design every aspect including seating, bins, trolleys, you name it."
The studio uses AliasWavefront design tools, widely employed by the most creative product designers, to create its concepts. Mr Little reports that there has never been any trouble communicating the design data with engineering systems and very often the concept design information is used to drive rapid prototyping machines. Such capability gives DesignWorks excellent feedback early into the design process on the validity of its concepts, something that gives it competitive advantage.
These days all aspects of aircraft design exterior and interior are part of the overall marketing and sales message. Design process efficiency demonstrably reduces costs and the pressure on margins for aircraft manufacturers.
Without an intrinsic radical design element, however, these virtues may never really be fulfilled.