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STANFORD -- A Stanford University researcher's new computer tools are helping industry to simultaneously design products for manufacturability and serviceability.

The work by mechanical engineer Mark Cutkosky and his students is part of an international trend toward "concurrent engineering," which may make organizations less compartmentalized, and therefore more creative and efficient.

The old method - sequential designing of first the product and then the process by which it will be produced - frequently led to "increased costs, delays in introducing a product or its ultimate failure in the marketplace," Cutkosky said.

With Next-Cut, Cutkosky's latest product-and-process design system, designers are sketching a manufacturing plan as soon as they start designing a part.

Take, for example, a laptop computer manufacturer who wants to incorporate a new, lighter battery pack. In sequential engineering, first a designer would be asked to make the existing laptop accommodate the new battery pack.

"The designer might relocate a hole or a socket or some other feature without knowing the limitations of the equipment in the factory or the order in which various features can be made," Cutkosky said.

The design then would be "thrown over the wall" to a manufacturing engineer who would design a process to make the new parts for the laptop.

"The manufacturing engineer might notice that the new hole needs to be more precise than the equipment can easily make, so he or she might 'fix' the tolerances on the design to fit the tool, without the designer ever knowing. As a result, the factory floor produces a prototype that doesn't function to specifications," he said.

Using Next-Cut, a designer can ask existing or newly created manufacturing expert systems what will happen on the factory floor if the hole is relocated. Within a minute, Next-Cut can tell how that change would lead to others, revealing manufacturing pitfalls or suggesting changes that might save time and dollars.

Two companies have sent scientists to Stanford to work with Cutkosky's group on their problems. A Japanese manufacturer wanted a system to help other companies design components that were more readily manufactured on the first company's plastic injection molding tools.

A U.S. aerospace company is adapting Cutkosky's ideas and software to cable harness design.

"Anyone who's looked under the dashboard of an automobile knows that modern machines have a lot of wires, and designers typically don't think about where they'll put them until the end of the design process," said Cutkosky, speaking from his firsthand experience as a machine designer before he entered graduate school.

"The wires, or cable harness, can usually fit somewhere, but it becomes critical in aerospace equipment where you want to minimize weight and avoid heat build-up. You also don't want wires carrying sensitive instrumentation signals running near anything that produces lots of electromagnetic interference."

To Next-Cut, the aerospace manufacturer and Cutkosky's students have added software to keep track of the overall configuration of the cable, of all the wiring parts, of where space is free and of how accessible it is for maintenance.



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