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Engineering complex devices over the Internet

STANFORD -- The device is about the size and shape of a squat silver thermos. Its business end is rounded, and capped with an arcing black tripod. It does not look like a complicated electromechanical device, but it is. Called an optical seeker, it can lock on and track a dot of laser light shining on a distant object. Similar devices are used in the guidance system of laser-guided missiles.

What is unique about this device is not what it is or what it can do, but how it was made. The optical seeker was designed and built by a team of engineers, assembled from a dozen different universities and companies, who worked not face to face but over the Internet. Aside from a handful of in-person meetings, they communicated primarily by e-mail and teleconference, and by exchanging graphics, videos and computer files electronically.

The seeker was a test of the capabilities being developed as part of the Department of Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's efforts to dramatically improve the defense industry's entire design and manufacturing process.

The agency's Manufacturing Automation and Design Engineering (MADE) program is attempting to improve its work by developing tools that will allow companies to assemble effective interdisciplinary engineering design teams from different organizations and different parts of the country to tackle individual projects. Theoretically, such capability will allow defense contractors to respond more flexibly to changing requirements and product opportunities than if they continue to maintain large, multidisciplinary research groups in house.

In a February 1994 meeting, ARPA project manager Pradeep Khosla challenged a group of contractors who had not previously collaborated to design and build a product in six months using the tools that had been developed in the MADE program. Six months is a fraction of the time that it takes to develop such a prototype using normal procedures.

"I stood up and accepted the challenge," said Stanford mechanical engineering Professor Larry Leifer. But because Leifer's colleague, Mark Cutkosky, associate professor of mechanical engineering, was on sabbatical and didn't have teaching responsibilities, he ended up becoming the project manager. He was assisted by George Toye, a Stanford mechanical engineering research associate, who led campus circuit-board and software development efforts.

Within a matter of days after the challenge, the MADE engineers launched a product "dream team" made up of industry and academic people from across the country, Cutkosky said. Engineers from Stanford and the University of Utah coordinated the development process. Stanford focused on the electrical and optical design elements, while Utah concentrated on the mechanical aspects. They were joined by engineers from 10 other universities and companies. By April, the members of the project, dubbed MADEFAST, received the specifications for the optical seeker and began the design process.

"We made a conscious effort to use as many emerging technologies as possible, including some that were not quite ready for prime time," Cutkosky said. "We decided to do as much communication as possible electronically."

The technologies they used consisted of a disparate collection of experimental Internet services and concurrent engineering tools that had never been integrated before. Examples include Design Sheet, a symbolic spreadsheet developed by Rockwell International that handles equations rather than numbers; Alpha_1, a solids modeling system developed at the University of Utah that converts computer designs into instructions for numerical machine tools; and the Device Modeling Environment, developed by Stanford's Knowledge Systems Laboratory, which creates a detailed engineering model of electromechanical devices.

The participants managed to meet the challenge deadline. A working prototype of the optical seeker, made at a cost of less than $200,000, was demonstrated at a MADE program workshop in Salt Lake City in November 1994. Since then, the researchers, led by Toye, have been working on a "beta" version that is smaller and more self- contained because it has a more compact electronics package. The beta version was completed in June.

"We did it. MADEFAST demonstrated a working model in six months at a fraction of the cost presently associated with equivalent development projects," said Rich Riesenfeld, who headed the University of Utah team.

Engineers at Michigan State University made the seeker's composite parts. MSU's James K. McDowell said that "MADEFAST showed that researchers interested in advanced technology for design and manufacturing could actually collaborate and produce an interesting artifact under reduced design/manufacturing cycle times. For MSU/MADEFAST it was a successful test of some of our ideas about integrated materials, part and process design."

ARPA's Khosla said that "MADEFAST is the right model for how design will be done in the future."

World Wide Web's role

One of the key tools that the engineers used was the World Wide Web, which allowed them to post scheduling information, specifications, graphics, animations and even video that was accessible to all the participants. The MADEFAST Web pages provided detailed documentation of the process.

"It was a bit awkward at first, but it provides a richer documentation of the development process," Stanford's Cutkosky said. "When you have people from different areas, from different backgrounds, you need very thorough design documentation. Generally, it is not done very well." As a result of the elaborate documentation, people who were brought into the project halfway through were able to familiarize themselves with the project. "They looked at the documentation. They talked to me. We had them up to speed in a couple of days," Cutkosky said.

Industry today spends a great deal of time and energy in the "reinventing of wheels" because companies don't understand, or don't know, what others have done, Cutkosky said. Extensive electronic design documentation of the sort developed for MADEFAST could reduce duplication of effort, he said.

The group found at least one problem with using the Web for documentation, however. Because of its "hyperlink" capability that allows users to jump back and forth among various pages, there is no linear information flow. "We need to find ways to make it coherent; otherwise it will get lost," Cutkosky said.

The most serious problem encountered was establishing adequate communications, participants said.

"I think that the single biggest challenge that we, as a distributed project team, had to overcome was communication difficulty," said Carolyn Valiquette, the project coordinator for the University of Utah. This classic project management problem is greatly magnified by the introduction of geographic distance between team members."

The initial video conference that was supposed to allow team members at Stanford and Utah to get acquainted proved ineffective, Cutkosky said. Communications did not really begin flowing until the two teams met face to face.

"All of the multimedia, including videoconferencing and the exchange of graphics, doesn't work well without some face-to-face contact. Despite all the new technology, that still holds true. I have to trust you'll do what you say you will do. You need to trust what I'm asking is reasonable," he said.

Added Valiquette: "No matter how high the bandwidth, a teleconference cannot take the place of getting to know one another in person. Once the Utah and Stanford teams spent a day together, subsequent long-distance discussions were much more productive."

Cultural differences between the participants also caused some problems. For example, Stanford researchers were considerably more proficient on e-mail than their Utah counterparts. As a result, some Utah participants became annoyed by the volume of e-mail that they received, while some Stanford engineers became aggravated when their electronic messages went unacknowledged and unanswered.

Despite problems of this sort, the participants generally predict that collaborations of this sort are the wave of the future.

"Whether we like it or not, this is the way engineering and commerce are moving, toward doing distributed design and engineering over the Internet," Cutkosky said. Although the seeker was a relatively small project, as defense projects go, he said that "scaling up is not much of an issue. The process could be used for designing things like jet engines."

Utah's Valiquette added: "I think we are a long way from all of this being 'as easy as e-mail,' but the groundwork being done now will surely lead to better, faster communication over the net."

As a video that the participants are producing concludes: "This is the future! This is how engineering and business will be done."



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