In manufacturing today, computers are everywhere, but they don't yet have a common language. From the personal computers that control machine tools on the factory floor to the workstations that engineers use to design new products, the need for standards is urgent, experts say."There's an enormous frustration out there" among manufacturers, says David Bourne, a senior scientist in robotics at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "Standards" is a big issue in business at large, as companies seek to link computers made by different firms. But in manufacturing, an added twist is the need for standard ways of describing things like a hole that needs to be drilled in a hunk of metal. Part of the solution may be found in an international effort to come up with a language for describing products to be manufactured. The United States Commerce Department is working with agencies from other nations on a Standard for the Exchange of Product Model Data (STEP). A schedule is in place for pieces of the standard to appear during this decade. "It's a monumental effort," says Rick Jackson, deputy director of Commerce Department's manufacturing engineering laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). As STEP is introduced, computer companies will still sell proprietary software, but the competing systems will use a common language for modeling products, predicts John Blair, also with NIST. STEP promises to make product design quicker, especially in cases where engineers are using different software. Today, this problem crops up when several companies join together to develop a product, often on a short-term basis, Mr. Blair says.

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