In today’s edition of death by acronyms (DBA?), we’re talking the transformational vision of Model Based Enterprise (or Model Based Engineering depending on your mood and relative wind speed). MBE, quite simply, is a methodology designed to replace the traditional engineering drawing with model-based annotations and information.  In theory, MBE aims to dispense with the long-held drafting board legacies in engineering documentation, in order to reduce the labor needed to create drawings while retaining and/or improving the value of documented design intent.  In a prior life, MBE was either defined as a drawing-less (Less Drawings – Get it?) initiative or via the prominent subset capability of Product Manufacturing Information (PMI).  PMI (not to be confused with the Private Mortgage Insurance or Present Minded Individualism) was a term used to describe the methods of model annotation before it expanded into the full-blown enterprise initiative known as MBE.  Chad Jackson of Lifecycle Insights fame just yesterday introduced a 3D Collaboration and Interoperability Report and an accompanying blog entry with some puzzling conclusions.

One of the key findings of the report is that 63% of companies in Aerospace & Defense have adopted MBE and that 76% of those have been mandated to do so contractually.  Queue in the cheering that MBE has come into the mainstream.  This made my right eyebrow raise so high, it clearly fell right off my forehead.  It certainly didn’t feel right; the future seemed suspiciously bright.  Having been directly involved with MBE/PMI initiatives at a couple of rather prominent aerospace firms as recently as this year,  it seemed rather inconceivable that more than half of the aerospace world had appropriately moved into full bore MBE.  Progress into this rather severe paradigm change is indeed inevitable, but it has been desperately slow to adopt for myriad reasons, both emotional and legitimate.

Thinking a bit about the numbers a little made more sense .  One of the key differentiators not captured is the true extent to which MBE is being utilized as the sole record of design intent.  So if we back out companies that are going through the motions to satisfy an esoteric contract requirement, and then assume half of the remaining companies who claim MBE use on their own volition are probably doing so on an experimental basis, we end up with numbers like this:

  • 7.5%  Companies using MBE for real because they are so very special.  Hooray!
  • 7.5%  Companies who are experimenting with MBE just because… well haven’t you seen Iron Man?
  • 48%   Companies going through the motions of MBE merely to satisfy a contract requirement, but actually using the old process internally.
  • 37%   Companies wondering when this whole internet thing will go away.

Yeah, that sounds more like the industry I know and love.

The contractual requirement seems particularly perplexing.  On the military side I am not aware of any hard Department of Defense (DoD) requirement for MBE, though plans were in process.  The DoD tends to ride the conservative side of Technical Data Package (TDP – I warned you about the acronyms) requirements, though perhaps not as downright retro as say the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  I’d be surprised if they would voluntarily ask for MBE at the expense of drawings, but perhaps wouldn’t mind adding on MBE in addition to drawings at cost to the taxpayer.  I’d love to hear from someone who has recent knowledge of DoD contracts with MBE requirements and can set me straight on the state of TDP today.  My guess is that the DoD may be making a mandate a little prematurely, while standards and technologies still haven’t quite settled.

Adding Fuel to the fire, have a look at the 2009 Supplier Assessment for Army ManTech commissioned MBE Capabilities.  Particularly humbling, fully a third of suppliers in that study either don’t have CAD models at all of can’t fill out surveys correctly – now that’s the level of depression I’m used to.  32% in this report is rather close to 37%, so my take above sounds plausible.  Sure the survey is four years old, but I’d wager that not much has shifted in those four years.

On the commercial side, I can certainly see Boeing and Airbus mandating MBE upon their suppliers to justify their own internal initiatives – but I have doubts most of those suppliers are drawing value from it other than securing business.  Smoking gun evidence of this lies in the high incidence of 2D drawings (72%) still present as deliverables according to the 3D Collaboration and Interoperability Report.  In his blog, Chad states:

“Yes, MBE deliverables can be used to dramatically automate the creation of 2D drawings. PMI includes notes, dimensions, GD&T and much more. Once embedded in the 3D model, they can easily be dropped onto views in a 2D drawing. Now, while it is easy, this use of MBE deliverables begs a question. Embedding PMI in a 3D model lets you avoid the creation of a 2D drawing. Why, of all of the potential applications of MBE, is that use adopted at the highest rate?”

Let’s think about this.  What could it possibly be?

Yep, They still need drawings.

There’s a quote in the report, go look for it on page 14.  Brett Fontaine of Zodiac Aerospace makes a profound statement on the state of MBE with regard to 2D drawings.  Epic win, Brett.  Well done.

Joe Brouwer, President at Tech-Net, who has a valuable historical perspective for engineering documentation at Boeing clearly indicates the user perspective in the MBE transformation in a recent LinkedIn discussion:

“Boeing used the PLM, MBE and PMI on the 787 and have created a monster of confusion, costing millions if not billions in wasted time and materials. They were convinced by Catia that the software could handle it all. They were so wrong. The suppliers were required to have 3rd party software for validation and compare. They even have a 3rd party program that turns PMI into conventional drawings. OMG, what a mess.”

And that’s the crux of MBE at the moment.  Software suppliers were eager to move drafting tools to the modeling side and quickly declare victory, all the while glossing over myriad use cases of downstream drawing consumption with insufficient tools.  Visualization tools currently have neither the accessibility nor the ease of use to truly replace a long-standing, but well refined paradigm.  Complexity is still too high, usability is troubling, and the technology/training requirements necessary on manufacturing floors is cost prohibitive for all but the largest of organizations.

Don’t get me wrong.  MBE will have its day eventually.  But right now we’re awkwardly stuck between paradigms.   But maybe I have this wrong – if you have successfully deployed an end-to-end MBE process and love it than make your voice heard.