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By Jason Brett, July 11, 2013
Meeting an old university buddy at a local pub, I was looking forward to catching up and pretty excited to tell him about the conversation I just had with Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL), a bus and coach manufacturer in the United Kingdom. "Buses?" asked my friend. "You teach electronics; why are you talking about buses?"
"Buses and coaches," I corrected him. "There is a difference. Buses run in town; coaches run between towns."
With that, I proceeded into a "My Dinner With Andre" style of conversation about how modern highway coaches and transit buses just might be the most sophisticated, high-tech, software-rich vehicles on the road today. "ADL has figured out how to cut fuel consumption by 60% in Britain," I explained. "They have hybrid technology that lets buses pull away from stops and traffic lights without starting the diesel engine. You know how we complain about buses blowing diesel fumes in our faces when they pull away? No more. Electric motors are more efficient for starting up, and then the diesel engine is more efficient for running at speed."
The server came to take our order.
"So it’s like a supersized Prius or Volt? These kinds of vehicles excite you?" he asked.
I stifled my sigh. True, I had studied engineering and he was a mere business school grad. And so he sometimes missed the fine points of technology. "It’s not just the drive train," I explained. "They streamlined the bus production process, cut down the weight, added closed-circuit TV and security systems, improved sightlines and visibility for driver and passengers... ."
It was clear that I was losing him.
"Look." I pulled out my smartphone. "I can track the position of any city bus. My phone tells me the exact time the next bus will arrive, thanks to the real-time data feed. But it’s not just GPS data being fed from an ADL bus; they transmit an entire data feed from the engine’s computer. The bus is wired so that the maintenance depot knows about problems before they become problems."
The drinks arrived.
I decided to express my points in the language he understood best: "In the last five years, ADL’s revenues grew by more than 300 per cent. They now have a 50% market share among buses in the UK, and in recent years started growing their global footprint. They formed a joint venture partnership with New Flyer in North America, and just closed a deal with Hong Kong transit for 500 double-decker buses. This year, they set to pass £500 million in turnover [$850 million in revenues], with their sights set on becoming a billion-pound business. That’s a billion pounds, not dollars [$1.7 billion]. You are not going to bet against that track record, especially considering there has been a global recession."
"Really?" He paused, raising an eyebrow, and then asking, "How can they compete with the cost of labor in Asia?" This was a poignant question, because in 15 years his firm had gone from exporting machinery to Asia, to importing Asian products to the domestic market today.
"Dude, if I could answer that question," I chuckled, "We’d be having these drinks on my mega-yacht, instead of at this pub. ADL tells me that they made some strategic decisions that turned out to be right, changed their corporate culture, and now are unafraid to implement new systems that offer them an advantage over the competition. "He nodded to the server that a couple more drinks would be in order. "Like what?" he asked me.
"Like this," I began. "What CAD software does your firm use for electrical design?" I already knew the answer: he didn’t know. But I did, because a half-year earlier he’d arranged for me to take a tour of his manufacturing premises. "You use a mechanical CAD package, with an electrical plug-in laid over top of it," I answered my question for him. "It’s basically the same software your company used a decade ago, and your guys keep using it because they are comfortable with it. Nothing wrong with that for your situation, maybe. But ADL was looking for something that would give them an edge.
"They looked at what they had, they considered what they needed, and then realized that their current software wasn’t the best solution." I told him how I had been speaking with David Alexander, he being the group engineering systems manager at ADL, and how he had been part of a two-year process that evaluated all the electrical CAD systems on that market. ADL looked at any that they thought could give them a competitive edge. They also needed software that would let them scale-up the company operations to work around the globe. "In the end, they went with the E3.series software from Zuken."
"What from who?" He sounded surprised. Industrial level CAD solutions were not his strong suit.
"E3.series from Zuken," I repeated. "Zuken is headquartered in Japan and has offices across Europe, South East Asia, China and the US. It’s a major multinational electrical and electronic CAD software provider. Their E3.series software designs and documents the wiring connections, communications and controls for thousands of products."
"That car, for instance." I pointed to a late-model sports sedan parked on the other side of the window. "The wiring harness in that car was probably designed using E3.series."
"So, a bit out of our league then." He assumed, as his company was by no means multinational.
"Not at all. Your designers probably don’t need all the bells and whistles of the full package, so that’s why it’s called E3.series. Zuken works with your engineers to create a software package that suits your engineering needs, and then can be scaled-up later as your business grows. This is one of the reasons why ADL chose Zuken."
The second round of drinks appeared.
"I still don’t get it. What’s the big deal with the E3.series stuff?"
I was impressed with his line of questioning. Our discussions about CAD software usually lasted rarely beyond the one-drink mark. I paused, as I tried to frame the benefits of Zuken’s object-oriented approach to electrical CAD in a way that he could connect with.
"In most CAD software, you’re just creating individual drawings. When you create a set of drawings, and then modify a part or number in your manual, you have to go back and check to make sure that these changes are reflected in all the drawings and other documentation.
"In E3.series, this works differently. You actually create objects that represent every component, every connector, and every wire in your design. Each object is linked automatically to all drawings, part numbers, and supporting details. To change a part in a drawing - or to change a part number on the parts list - you change the object. With this, the change is automatically updated throughout all of the documentation."
"We could have used that three years ago," he responded. "We sent a drawing to a subcontractor and had one digit wrong in a part number. Everything was made with sockets, instead of plugs. You would be amazed how much it cost us to fix that screw-up!"
I remembered the story well, as he had ranted about it for months. "Exactly!" I concurred. "Your firm might want to take another look at how your engineers are designing things."
He took a sip of his drink as he thought it over.
"You know," he began. "I did overhear the engineers talking about how they were having problems running wires on our latest product. Each time the electrical team made a change, the mechanical team had to re-do their work. And every time the mechanical made a change, it messed things up for electrical."
I nodded. "That’s one of the beauties of this kind of software. E3.series was designed to be integrated with all major mechanical CAD packages. You already know how important it is to get wiring harnesses perfect, so there is no strain in the cables or any loose wires hanging around.
"David of ADL told me another key feature that drew them to the E3.series: it’s the way it keeps track of their design integrity."
He knew about how designs can be modified and the importance of protecting custom designs when working with subcontractors and partners, but he didn’t seem to grasp how CAD software could protect the design. So I explained: "The latest release of E3.series sends much more detailed information to cable harness manufacturers, which eliminates ambiguity. It tracks changes to drawings, so there is never doubt about what your specifications were and if the design was modified before ending up in the final product. With the bi-directional link to MCAD software, it lets you get the mechanical input early, which cuts lead times. ‘You have complete design traceability, is how David described it to me."
"Well, it does sound interesting," he admitted. "They are mostly in Asia and Europe, you said. What about training and support?" He was paying more attention to the topic of software than he usually let on.
"Good point, and another one ADL considered. David said he was pretty happy with the support they’ve received so far. Now, I should add that ADL isn’t making massive changes right away. They are phasing in the software as they introduce new product lines over the next years. It sounds like their design engineers are picking it up pretty quickly, though. Once they switched all their electrical work from CAD to E3.series, they’ll likely start using it to do their hydraulics and pneumatics."
"Wait a minute," he interrupted. "I thought you said E3.series was an electrical package?"
"You’re right," I replied. "But there are a lot of similarities between electrical power and fluid power, which is why Zuken built E3.series so it integrates all three systems seamlessly."
I waved to our server to ask for the bill. He looked at his empty glass, and then at his watch. "So you think this E3.series software is worth a look?"
"Alexander Dennis certainly did," I replied. "And they seem to know a thing or two about producing innovative products for the global market." He nodded his agreement.
"You okay for getting home?" I offered.
"Yeah," he replied. "I was going to call a cab, but maybe I just might catch the bus instead. Apparently they are pretty high tech vehicles!"
|Jason Brett teaches electronics and materials science in the Technology Teacher Education Program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. He 13 years of experience in technology education. More...|