The benefits of having (3D) images in SAP PLM
The vision of the “Visual Enterprise”
SAP acquired the Right Hemisphere company, which had already been engaged in a strategic partnership with SAP for several years, in September of last year. Right Hemisphere was a supplier of software technology for 3D visualization and was also involved, amongst other efforts, in the development of the 3D PDF neutral data format from Adobe. The central suite of products carried the name Deep Exploration.
In the long run, having just a partnership with SAP did not suffice, since in this form the functionality could not be deeply enough integrated with SAP’s own software. SAP namely intends to make the subject of 3D visualization an important cornerstone of its own product strategy. Not only with regard to engineering, and not only for SAP PLM, but for all company processes that SAP supports for its clients.
As the only PLM supplier without its own CAD software, SAP wanted to go a step further than its competitors regarding the usage of CAD data, because having full availability of virtual product models offered the chance of opening up a unique possibility for customers – using 3D data that is directly coupled to other data from business processes.
Visual Enterprise is the name of the vision that led to the acquisition of Right Hemisphere. And SAP Visual Enterprise is also the name of the product palette that has come onto the market for the realization of this vision. The vision itself is simple – a picture says more than a thousand words. A 3D model can often explain the expected characteristics of a new or modified product better than any written description. If, added to this there is the possibility of linking such models in real time to data from logistics, service, warehousing, project planning and other areas, this can result in enormous advantages for the customer. This vision is now implemented in the functionality of an integrated product offering.
Other visualization products from third parties can of course also be used in combination with SAP, but do not offer the same advantages as the own deeply integrated solution.
The modules comprising the SAP Visual Enterprise solution
SAP Visual Enterprise Generator
This module generates a neutral visualization file used by the other modules in the solution package from almost all (around 150) existing CAD and geometry formats, the latter including the neutral STEP and JT formats. The generated files are lightweight and have only a fraction of the size of, for example, CAD files. In spite of this, the geometry is extremely exact and permits reading out any detailed dimensions to an accuracy of one-thousandth of a millimeter or less.
SAP Visual Enterprise Author
This module allows animations to be generated from 3D data that are used, for example, in operating manuals or assembly instructions. It also allows 3D data to be embedded in text-based or other documents and contains high-quality rendering functionality that generates photo-realistic images of computer models.
SAP Visual Enterprise Viewer
The Viewer is integrated into all SAP applications and requires no additional license fees. It permits representation of the model in differing formats including so-called thumbnails, i.e. small graphical icons that give a highly simplified image of the actual model.
SAP Visual Enterprise Navigator
The user can “fly through” all Visual Enterprise models using the Navigator. He can also cut these open and show, measure and dimension any required section as if he was using a CAD system.
SAP Visual Enterprise Access
This module permits graphical searching for, and identification of, specific parts or models. It supports versioning and offers report output functions.
With this new product family, SAP intends to eventually support all customer business processes. In the opinion of the supplier, there is hardly any process that cannot be optimized by using 3D engineering data.
The focus here is less on the path that the image takes to arrive at the user than on the question of what application scenarios are supported by which functionality.
It is already definite that Visual Enterprise Viewer will be capable of being used on tablet PCs in 2012. Particularly in those customer fields dealing with service, there is a great deal of interest in the use of such mobile tablets. There are, however, for the next 1 1/2 years no specific deadlines in the roadmap for extended mobile availability for other Visual Enterprise product modules or for visualization on a smartphone.
For functional extensions and visualization integration, SAP is initially concentrating on areas in which 3D data is in any case available and is part of the normal business operation. At least as important, however, are application scenarios in areas that today do not access CAD data themselves. The opportunity here is to show potential users what they can do with 3D models, how they can access these and for what tasks they can be used.
The result is often a big “wow” effect. A work planner first generates a large number of presentation views from the 3D model until he realizes that all of the views he could possibly need are available at any time in the model and that he can rotate and move it, section it or measure and letter it in whatever way appears best to him for that specific step. An understanding of the possibilities now available in visualization has to be “rolled out” at the same time as the product itself.
3D visualization in practice
There are several aspects that are general and apply across all processes:
In today's companies, but even more so in the networked world of partners and suppliers, working from country to country and across continents has become a matter of course. But often language barriers present an obstacle when a decision must be made quickly or an order expedited.
In some cases, for example that of instruction manuals, each text must be translated into 15 languages or more. The more that can be explained with the aid of images or videos, the less the amount of text that must be written down and translated.
For this reason, the use of 3D data is of outstanding importance. Using a model of a cylinder that displays a groove that has to be corrected and, with the help of redlining on the model, showing the exact dimensions of that correction, eliminates the need for many lines of text – text that could lead to difficulties in understanding. Whether Purchasing, Construction, Partner Management, Sales or Service – this advantage applies to all.
The more that development and manufacturing is spread across companies and increasingly dominates the scene, the more important the synchronization of engineering disciplines has become. The greater the degree of integration of processes along the value creation chain, the more important the question of how the many differing organizational units and people can optimally cooperate with one another also becomes. It is therefore natural here that an image, particularly a representation of a three-dimensional self-explanatory product model produced by Engineering, plays a central role.
This is of particular importance when the partner or supplier does not work with the same CAD system; when the model originates in a calculation department that uses highly specialized software; when in Manufacturing, in Purchasing or in Sales no CAD system of any sort is utilized or when the documentation is created automatically and is to be illustrated with up-to-date released models.
What is special about Visual Enterprise is that all involved in these processes can link “their” process data immediately (and without having to change system) to the 3D product data and thus have all of the data available at a glance, whether for customer service, purchasing or marketing purposes.
A particular highlight is the support of production planning. Recently, as part of SAP PLM, an application called Product Structure Synchronization has been brought to market. It serves the important purpose of comparing the construction BOM with the manufacturing BOM. This module has now been extended to include the targeted use of 3D.
The corresponding 3D product model is shown next to the construction BOM. Now those involved in work preparation can create, component by component, work plans that are immediately linked to the corresponding model data and illustrated. As a result of the planning, the manufacturing BOM is produced more or less by pressing a button. Instead of having to create these manually, these are now generated automatically and enriched through the inclusion of the model concerned.
A change requirement is formulated because, for example, due to new environmental directives, an additional device must be built into the exhaust system of a large machine. Instead of explaining in many pages and with the help of sketches at which point a pipe has to be shortened and attached to the new device, the worker produces a photograph of the assembly to be modified. The construction department finds the corresponding model via Visual Enterprise with the help of the image and sends this on along with the change order. The additional device in fact comes from a new supplier who works with another CAD system, but its data is automatically converted into a Visual Enterprise file that is also added to the change order. This way of working saves text and time and ensures more secure procedures.
Previously, the purchasing specialist had to work with text, part number, tables and catalog extracts to be able to order a specific part. Now he can show the 3D model of the part on the screen. The dimensions of the order that are of importance to him – because there may be many variants – can be taken from the model and displayed. He can also add a few words on the specifics of the order. The supplier who receives the order does not need to call back because the order is unambiguous.
Simulation and test:
It is not possible to run a crash test using the Navigator, and complex kinematic investigations involving collision testing or dynamic flow simulation do not form part of its functionality. But it does, however, allow the model to be “flown through”. Whether it is an installation cavity in the vehicle or a complete aircraft or ship that is being investigated, those involved in the project can virtually check whether safety distances are being maintained or how well certain components can be accessed long before building a prototype. And this can be done irrespective of the software used to generate the model. This multi-CAD becomes especially important the more complex and larger the products or systems are, because it is almost never the case that all components, whether casing, piping, wiring harness or control unit, have been created in the same system.
Visual Enterprise offers major advantages compared to conventional procedures, not for machining or shaping, but for assembly and fitting. Each individual work step can be illustrated with a corresponding picture of the 3D model. In what sequence are the parts assembled and with which bolts or other fixing materials? Which tools are used? What safety guidelines must be followed?
Instead of complicated written instructions, the assembly worker can see everything in a picture. Animation permits a moving representation of the parts so that it can be seen how they mate to one another or are inserted without having to use words. Even when the construction engineer is located in Stuttgart and the assembly worker in Russia – correct fitting is quickly learned when model-based instruction is used.
The same techniques are even more important when, rather than standard assembly work, the disassembly of parts to facilitate installation of spare parts or a complete strip-down and reassembly is carried out for servicing purposes. When after several years the machinery or plant requires attention by the customer services operation, generally no one who was involved in the original fitting and commissioning is available. At this point, searching with the aid of part numbers and thick handbooks is not particularly profitable. The use of an animated model on a tablet PC makes it easier to find out what the right parts are, what the correct sequence of manual operations is and who the least expensive suppliers are. This also eliminates downtime, something that no one can really afford anymore.
A very clear explanation of what benefits the users especially in the service can draw out of the Visual Enterprise solution provides Dan Armour by Joy Mining Machinery in an interview that can be seen on YouTube.
The documentation, the handbook, the fitting instructions – manuals are expensive when they are created using graphics, photographs and a lot of text. Many machine and plant builders, but also those in the aerospace industries are increasingly using 3D models from their own product development as well as those from partners and suppliers that are already in-house. This is now also possible with the aid of Visual Enterprise. Videos and manuals can be created automatically without giving extra work to the construction engineer and his CAD workplace.
Sales and marketing
Visual Enterprise offers rich animation and rendering possibilities whose use is particularly profitable where there is a broad range of variants but where individual customer wishes are still of the highest importance. These functions are also, however, important for large-scale machinery and plant where it is necessary to show on a model how a special configuration can be realized even before the order is accepted.
As well as representation on the screen, sales and marketing departments attach importance to other features that can produce a meaningful photo-realistic portrayal in other forms. For an example the creation of large-format placards showing the virtual product in its real environment – whether a factory production hall, the street or the sea – just as if someone had photographed it.
The roadmap thus described is not small in its scope or nature, although it is not even fully described yet. Applications for special industries such as oil and gas or even more specialized applications such as city planning are being prepared. And in principle, Visual Enterprise can provide many forms of visualization but these will not be among the initial applications because they have not been given the highest priority by customers, examples being virtual/augmented reality or the use of smartphones.
Given the integrated portfolio of Visual Enterprise, the lack of an own CAD offering may even become a plus point because more or less all CAD data is now available regardless of its origin. And this is possible without making demands on CAD workplaces, since the models can as of now be used in all processes.