Most modern collaborative product-development software — including CAD modeling packages — is geared toward serial collaboration and uses featuresbased, parametric modeling first introduced in the 1980s. The parametric approach and the advent of the Internet have greatly accelerated product-development cycles compared with earlier explicit modeling. Despite these advances, the promise of "real-time collaboration" has remained just that, a promise. The culprit: order dependence of design operations.

But a new collaborative approach called simultaneous product development (SPD) solves this problem of order dependence. It lets team members work simultaneously, both synchronously and asynchronously. Traditional collaboration tools proceed serially and let one team member at a time, work on a single predefined data file, or in rotation on markup tools. In contrast, SPD lets multiple designers concurrently work on a product model, then share and merge design changes with other team members simultaneously (synchronously) or at different times (asynchronously). In both cases the result is the same: Contributions of all parties are automatically reconciled.

In essence, SPD gives designers functional features that relate to each other like nodes in a network, rather than as a bundle of geometry. Such a network outputs the required geometry and topology from a set of functional specifications that are independent of sequence.

To understand the advantages to the approach, consider the design of a consumer product by a global design team. All team members may need to modify the external shape of the product either directly by changing some parameters or indirectly through the editing of support entities. SPD allows modification of any element that contributes to the shape definition at any time. Some of these elements or objects may be "protected" from modification to enforce mandatory requirements, while others may be given more design "latitude."

Share-and-merge processors reconcile all changes and solve conflicts into one final shape, simultaneously recording all variations proposed by the design team. Unlike collaboration based on traditional parametric design, there is no concept of a master model with SPD, which eases design changes. It's our view that no matter how ingeniously traditional parametric tools are retrofitted for collaboration over the Internet, they will never surpass their original intent of a slow, stepwise approach to product development. Conversely, SPD lets specialists in multiple disciplines — design, manufacturing, procurement, quality control, service and maintenance, customer requirements, etc. — concurrently make changes to the same digital product. The result: a more creative and intuitive design process that will help manufacturers produce better quality products more quickly than ever before.

ImpactXoft is a maker of collaborative design software, www.impactxoft.com