IN a demonstration event at this year's Olympic Winter Games, speed skiers will hurtle down the slopes in les Arcs, France, at nearly 140 m.p.h.
The United States athletes will be wearing aerodynamic helmets that represent not only the skiers' desire for raw speed, but also a quest for faster performance by US manufacturers.
As engineers move their work from drafting tables to computer keyboards, new opportunities are arising to streamline the design and manufacturing process. But these computerized systems need a common language to describe essential parts of products.
Where on the helmet does a hole need to be drilled? How smooth does the surface need to be? What tensile strength is expected? Current computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/ CAM) software has no uniform way of describing the answers to such questions, and many answers won't be there at all.
In the case of the helmet, 15 companies were able to collaborate smoothly to design and build it because they used compatible computer software. But outside of carefully orchestrated operations such as this one, a Babel-like confusion of tongues is making it hard for US manufacturers to compete, says Livingston Davies, president of Cadkey Inc. of Windsor, Conn., one of the companies involved in making the helmet.
Mr. Davies notes that the US has a diffuse economy compared to Japan or Germany: There are 127,000 US metalworking shops, for example, and most of them serve many clients. If an order arrives at one of these shops in an incompatible format - as they very often do - the job's time and cost goes up, he says.
A worldwide effort is under way to develop a Standard for the Exchange of Product Model Data (STEP). The goal is not just to establish a uniform way of describing products, but also one that is complete - everything anyone would want to know about a product. A design using STEP will describe not only an object's geometric shape and features (drill holes), but also the materials, design constraints, and tolerances (margin for error) involved in making it.
By making this detailed information easy to exchange, STEP will help US companies to work together in "concurrent engineering" teams like the helmet project, Davies notes. The move is similar to the broader drive toward standards in the computer industry, where standards allow users to plug various hardware and software products together.
Software companies will still compete to supply CAD/CAM software, but more and more of it will be written using the common manufacturing "alphabet" of STEP, says Malcolm Spence, a marketing executive with Digital Equipment Corporation.
Companies that learn to use this common alphabet stand to gain in worldwide competition. For US manufacturers the push for standards holds particular promise: "It's one of the last, best chances we have, if not to leapfrog, to catch up with the Japanese manufacturing Juggernaut," says Rick Jackson of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a branch of the Commerce Department. The agency's manufacturing engineering laboratory is working with a consortium of 25 US companies, called PDES Inc., t o help develop the international standards.
Firms from Japan, Germany, and other nations are closely watching the US consortium, because international standards will likely emerge from its work, says Mr. Spence, who is on the board of PDES. The standards must be approved by the International Standards Organization (ISO). Last month, a compu- ter language called Express gained majority support among ISO member nations. "None of the [existing] computer languages were expressive enough" to fulfill STEP's mission, Spence says.
"What is shaping up is a horse race ... over dominance in the manufacturing" sector, Spence says. Some CAD/CAM programs based on STEP may be available by year-end.