New software that automatically extracts manufacturing process-specific information directly from any 3D CAD model, to create the inputs for cost models that reside in virtual production environments, is an enticing prospect for OEMs and suppliers alike.

For any supplier, accurate and timely project quoting is a critical success factor. It can make the difference between winning and losing business. Many suppliers have traditionally used their own mix of different cost calculators, spreadsheets and off-the-shelf cost management tools. This can be very manual and time consuming. In many cases, a supplier’s cost estimators will have to analyse a series of 2D drawings and then add in each different attributes, runs rates, parts and labour costs. A big project with 500 different parts could take weeks or more to quote. In some cases, the supplier will receive 3D models from customers and have to turn them into 2D prints.

The key to new product cost management software package from aPriori is its ability to quickly analyse any part or product from a CAD model and break it down to the lowest possible level of cost detail. It also provides complete CAD independence. It can work with 3D CAD models generated by any major CAD modeling system on the market today, including: Pro/ ENGINEER, CATIA v5, Siemens NX, Solidworks, SolidEdge and Inventor among others.

So, no matter what type of CAD model the customer sends, aPriori can quickly open that model and generate a cost estimate in seconds. And the user does not even have to own a license of the source CAD system to open the model in aPriori.

This is a product designed to be used by people throughout the customer’s company, requiring very little training to become proficient, and provides a cost estimate in real time simply by opening a 3D CAD design, picking the type of manufacturing process from a drop down menu, entering the volume of production, and selecting the virtual factory that will be used to generate the cost.

aPriori’s OEM customers include Ford, Polaris Industries, Toyota Industrial Equipment, AGCO Corporation (agricultural equipment) and suppliers such as SFI, Cummins and Thermo King.

To find out more about this seemingly remarkable tool, AMS met up with Stephanie Feraday (SF), president and CEO. We started by asking about the history of the product:

SF: The product was first launched in 2005, we have had to build each module type for each manufacturing process so that we are able to calculate costs ‘on the fly’. Indeed, it took until now to build in all the support for all the various manufacturing process areas and we had to incorporate the different CAD modelling programmes. We now support everything from Solidworks to CATI and NX.

AMS: How did the patent process happen?

SF: It is difficult to patent intellectual property like ours but a good example of what we have patented is what we call our ‘routing engine’ for quickly examining manufacturing in many different ways.

When we look at a design, we calculate not only the cheapest way to make a part but also report the different options. This is directly ‘patentable’.

AMS: OEM presidents, purchasing chiefs and manufacturing leaders in developing countries are constantly complaining at AMS conferences about the quality of incoming components and systems. How does aPriori aim to make the difference here and how can you help to ‘future-proof ’ supply contracts and prices?

SF: The three key factors in this are, of course, quality, cost and time to market.

We can give the customer insight firstly into the cost options of using different suppliers. As the quality requirements are established by the customer, we can compare the cost/quality ratios.

As to future-proofing of component contracts, to avoid cost changes due to material fluctuations etc, we will work with design engineers and sourcing departments to help break down the real costs in each part. The purchasing people can then sit down with the supplier and work out how much of the cost of a part is labour, how much is materials, and so on.

AMS: Suppliers in a developing region often start contracts with excellent quality and delivery standards but these can slip and the OEM has to continually check incoming parts.

How can you help address these problems?

SF: aPriori allows constant comparisons between supplied components on price-versus-quality and any update to specifications and to the customer experience will also be archived. We will be the engineering cost of record, which goes through engineering design; we might be first cost into the ERP system. Then the customer will start to ‘capture’ the actual manufactured cost and they can then compare these metrics. A VP of engineering will be responsible for the engineering cost; the manufacturing division would tell him that his design came in over cost. With this software, changes in the manufacturing process can be quickly reconciled to understand where the cost has been added.

This clarity of process applies to sourced parts; it can help all parties to understand where changes are made and how any extra cost has been incurred.

AMS: Some OEMs in the BRIC countries are giving out software packages to their smaller—often start-up— suppliers free of charge, to encourage them to align their ERP, MRP etc. with the OEMs’ systems. Can you see aPriori working out a licensing deal or similar that would allow this type of ‘sponsorship’?

SF: We have already started to see this happening; of course there are transparency [confidentiality] issues. With large OEMs, there is usually a stratification of information exchange; with their larger suppliers there will be more transparency than with lower tier providers. One of our customers, a very large agricultural equipment maker, has bought licences which they share with their suppliers. In some of our sales contracts, the OEM customer will ask for the same [corporate discounted] rate to be given to their suppliers.

AMS: Many companies are offering product lifecycle management (PLM) products; tell us how aPriori complements them?

SF: aPriori complements PLM perfectly in many areas; as designs evolve through development and testing, so do costs, so being able to manage this evolution along the engineering ‘milestones’ is exactly what aPriori can help with. Cost maturity, like amortisation of equipment, can be made so much more visible through the right software ‘window’.

Indeed, we are helping a lot of OEMs and suppliers who have not really monitored the amortization of their tooling in the past. These companies tended to concentrate on the piece cost and profit and think of how this paid for the tooling; now they are managing tooling costs on separate cycles.

AMS: Logistics costs are a notoriously unpredictable area and one that some other departments at OEMs and suppliers see only as a tiresome cost centre. How can aPriori help in forecasting/controlling these?

SF: We have taken this area on recently and we try to incorporate calculations of logistics costs into the assembly and packaging cost. We don’t currently tie into other common systems at present but it is definitely an area we shall move into.