By Timothy Rider, RDECOMJanuary 30, 2013
PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. (Jan. 30, 2013) -- If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a 3-D picture worth?
Engineers at Picatinny Arsenal and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., are working on a project to find out. They plan to reap a daisy chain of dollar savings by developing technologies that will be at the center of a revolution in how the Army meets its constantly changing needs for equipment.
A prominent feature of the plan has the Army providing manufacturers the specifications for a needed part in an interactive 3-D model format, including data that can be used with modern, computer-aided machine tools.
Currently, when the Army wants a part made, it provides an "official product representation" as a technical data package,or TDP. The packages include two-dimensional drawings along with product manufacturing data that provide the basic dimensions and tolerances.
Manufacturers use the data packages to set up their shops for the production of a wide range of parts to meet the Army's needs -- trigger assemblies, cannon breeches, turret parts and grenade safety pins -- everything from new to improved parts or parts to replace depleted inventories.
"Much of the manufacturing world works with 3-D data," said Sanjay Parimi, a project officer with the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center. "However, we very often only provide industry with 2-D technical data packages, increasing the cost and time for acquiring manufactured goods."
The reason for the added cost is added work. The manufacturers must take the Army's 2-D technical data package and convert it into a 3-D computer-aided design, or CAD, format, which is the language used by modern machine tools. That conversion can occupy a team for a week or even longer, depending on the complexity of the parts.
"They're not going to swallow the cost of translating the data from 2-D to 3-D," Parimi said of manufacturers. "They're going to pass on that cost and risk to the government."
The risk, he explained, is making a mistake during the data translation.
The Army does not provide official product representations in a 3-D format for several reasons. Until recently, the Army had no way of validating 3-D CAD data. Also, the Army had not adopted the use of a "neutral" standards-based CAD format that would allow vendors to use CAD data, regardless of which CAD platform their business used.
Teams from two of the Army Research Development and Engineering Command's organizations -- Picatinny Arsenal's ARDEC and Aberdeen Proving Ground's Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, had both been working on projects that sought to modernize the Army's technical data packages.
"It made sense to join forces and put a more comprehensive program together," said Paul Huang, a materials engineer who is the project lead for models-based enterprise activities at ARL. He added that they are all part of the same Manufacturing Technology (ManTech) team working multiple projects in the "same space."
TOWARD A NEUTRAL ARMY 3-D STANDARD
The ManTech team began by investigating whether they could use a CAD format that is "neutral" among the competing versions from various CAD vendors. The format they explored was based on an industry standard called STEP, which stands for Standard for the Exchange of Product model data, said Huang.
In its current form, CAD vendors do not support the translation of STEP without some critically important data on how to manufacture the product. Consequently, the Army does not provide its official product representation in STEP.
Another approach would have been to pursue changes to STEP that supported the Army's needs, but since the STEP is based on agreement across an international body, that process would not have moved fast enough, Huang said.
"This leaves the Army back at square one," Parimi noted. "We still need the 2-D drawing as the official product representation. We recognized the need to send out 3-D data in a neutral format was important, but the technology to do that wasn't there."
Facing a wall the team could not get through, the team, "got a ladder and climbed over it," Huang said.
Team members investigated the common Portable Document Format, commonly known as a PDF, which allows viewing in 3-D and is readable on standard personal computers without additional cost. However, it does not support extracting the data needed by the CAD software.
"Our goal then was to replace the 2-D PDF with a 3-D PDF design document that includes 3-D visualization and the product manufacturing data to make it so all of the design outputs can easily become inputs to the manufacturing world," Parimi said.
Having developed a way to reach their goal with PDF, they then looked further.
Current technical data packages, commonly called TDPs, include every detail about the finished part, but no information about how to make the part. The team envisioned a TDP that would have not only the 3-D PDF documents that interoperate with CAD, but would also include step-by-step "how to" data, including video-like sequential illustrations that explain how various tools can be used to fashion parts.
Creating odd and distinctive shapes that require instructions is especially important, and typical, in gun manufacturing, according to Parimi. The Army must figure out how it will be manufactured, thus it makes sense for the Army to relay that knowledge to the people who will do the job.
"It saves money, and it saves time," said Parimi. "By providing the data, we're positioning (manufacturers) further along in the learning curve. They don't have to spend as much money figuring out how to manufacture the part."
The team is also developing a way of representing "systems integration data." Translation: A guide that explains how to assemble an assortment of individual parts into a working system.
That data would be valuable over a system's service life, Parimi explained. After an Army weapon comes off the assembly line, it may remain in service for decades exposed to the Army's brutal operating environments. During that lifetime of service, a system is likely to be shipped to depots for replacement parts, upgrades or modifications several times.
Maintaining both the assembly information and the parts data means that Army depots would never again have to pay for planning parts-making or assembly. All the data would remain a part of the 3-D data package.
"The technical data package is more important than any of the parts," Parimi noted. "If you have the data you have everything you need to make more parts."
Parimi characterized the current version of the 3-D data package as "somewhat mature."
He asked manufacturers for feedback on the proposed solution. Of 46 who responded, 84.4% plan to use the 3-D technical data package in their manufacturing planning, 76.1% plan to use the 3-D TDP to develop their computer aided modeling program, and 73.9% plan to use the 3-D TDP as a way to convey instructions to the shop floor.
3-D TECHNICAL DATA PACKAGES -- ONE PIECE IN A LARGER EFFICIENCY PUZZLE
Parimi and Huang entered into the field of models-based enterprise attempting to meet different specific needs.
Haung was leading an initiative to improve how organic Army facilities share workloads. Parimi had found a 2-D TDP inadequate to the task of communicating the design of a particularly vexing gun part and began exploring a better TDP.
After their efforts merged, however, they have set their sights on a much bigger prize: "providing knowledge and functionality to provide better procurement packages to the DLA," said Huang, referring to the Defense Logistics Agency, which is the central focus for obtaining parts across the Department of Defense.
"Another goal is to provide better procurement packages for the Army's contracting centers," added Parimi.
Ultimately, Huang explained, "We didn't want to create a point solution, we wanted to be able to hand them a better way of doing things."
To that end, their efforts are now focused on developing a way to manage 3-D TDPs that operates more like a social media site than a file drawer.
Named the Product Data Management System, or PDMS, it maintains extensive data on a system throughout its service life. Parimi describes it as a "living," secure, internet-based system that can be accessed by authorized personnel for reference or update whenever needed.
For example, a Soldier may have an idea for a how to improve a product based on combat experience. The Soldier could submit the suggestion via the PDMS.
An Army engineer in the U.S. could review the suggestion and begin refining it, then prototype it, test it and submit the new design as change proposal that leverages the 3-D format. If the Army approved the improved part, it would then be the official representation of the part and available for production.
There are multiple variations of that example, explained Parimi.
Basically, any improvement in a part design, assembly or maintenance as represented in the 3-D technical data package could be improved with a similar process. The key is that Soldiers, maintenance personnel, depots and product engineers can always access an up-to-date official representation from anywhere via the Internet.
FIELD REPAIRS AND PREVENTATIVE MAINTENANCE -- IN 3-D
The original 3-D technical data package can also be used to assist in the field maintenance of Army systems, since visual representations of products and parts are used to instruct Soldiers in the disassembly, cleaning and replacement of parts needed to keep a system working.
The Army is already using training manuals accessible with a tablet or hand-held computer that use 3-D product representations.
An example is the 3-D Interactive Electronic Training Manual, or IETM, for the XM7 Spider Networked Munition System.
A 3-D IETM allows Soldiers to disassemble and re-assemble virtual models of a system. The 3-D feature allows them to rotate components in the model to view them from different angles or "zoom in" to get a better view of small parts.
The 3-D data is also used to provide video-like assembly and disassembly instructions and is incorporated into self-paced tests, all to improve a Soldier's maintenance skills.
Parimi is developing plans to deploy 3-D PDF, PDMS and IETM elements.
He is working with their customers in Project Manager Soldier Weapons and Project Manager Close Combat Systems to bring the technology to fruition in a way that would support actual products being used by Soldiers.
One such project with PM Soldier Weapons includes developing 3-D digital work instructions to save time and money in the conversion of M2 .50 caliber machine guns into the upgraded M2A1 variant that was announced last year as an Army Greatest Invention of 2011.
And it starts with seeing things, in three dimensions -- just as they are in the real world.
"A picture is worth a thousand words," said Huang.
If that's true, then wouldn't a 3-D picture be worth one thousand words to the third power: a billion words?
If not, the ManTech team may just have to settle for billions of dollars in savings.
"That is why we see a huge impact with this technology," said Huang.