How was the Mars rover Curiosity designed? With Siemens PLM software

Last Sunday night, I watched the live video feed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as the rover Curiosity descended through the Martian atmosphere, and landed on the planet’s surface.

NASA called the process of landing the Curiosity “7 minutes of terror.” The whole process was completely automated—and all that the people at JPL (or the tens of thousands of us who were watching over the web) could do was wait, helplessly, as the drama played out. When Curiosity landed safely, and sent its first pictures from Mars’ surface, cheers rang out—not just at JPL, but on Twitter and other social media sites.

One of the things I noticed immediately, when I tuned into was that the average age of the scientists and engineers shown in the feed was quite young. I’d noticed this before, in a video segment shot by PhD Comics inside the Mars Rover Test lab, where NASA engineers Chaz Morantz and Bobak Ferdowski talked about Curiosity.

It’s not your father’s NASA anymore.

The Curiosity is the largest and most advanced space exploration robot ever made. It was designed with Siemens PLM software, including TeamCenter and NX, and is almost a best-in class example using those to tools, from conceptual design, to full-system simulation. (To understand why I say “almost,” keep reading.)

Rover with Siemens CAD 300x222

Here are a few videos that discuss Siemens PLM’s involvement with the Curiosity rover project:

Here is Daren Rhoades, who works for Siemens PLM, and used to work for JPL, explaining some of the challenges in designing Curiosity:

Doug McCuiston, Director of the Mars Exploration Program, talking about the importance of Siemens PLM software in designing Curiosity:

You can watch these, and other videos here.

Almost a best-in-class example.

In the videos, NASA’s Doug McCuiston says: “The challenges of building something like that, with all the parts that are involved—all the discrete parts, all the interfaces, and all the testing, and the ability to maintain not just the documentation, but all the drawings, the test flows, the verification items, is a very complex task in itself.”

No kidding.

Yet, if NASA were to design Curiosity today, I suspect they’d want to take a serious look at a couple of advancements in Siemens PLM software could make their life quite a bit easier.

Active Workspace

The first is a product called Active Workspace. Siemens calls it “a personal environment for accessing your entire PLM system.” You can download a fact sheet for it here.

I was lucky enough to be able to Active Workspace before its public announcement, and talk to some of the key people behind its development. The product includes a lot of really valuable capabilities, incluidng product data navigation and visualization, visual reporting, shared contexts, flexible collaboration, and ridiculously powerful search (including shape search.)

But what completely surprised me was that it goes way beyond just letting you view relationships between parts. It lets you view relationships between all of your product information, including requirements, functions, logical diagrams, and systems-engineering information.

Let me put that in a different way: Active Workpace supports a systems engineering driven product development process. It is systems engineering that lets you link together all the disparate elements of a product design into an intelligent product model, which can be continuously validated. It is the key to enabling true model-based development.

Here’s Chuck Grindstaff, CEO of Siemens PLM Software, talking about systems engineering and Active Workspace:

Product and Manufacturing Information

The other advancement from Siemens PLM that NASA would benefit from isn’t entirely new, but it’s become increasingly important: PMI (Product and Manufacturing Information.)

If you watch the videos about Curiosity, you’ll notice that they talk about “drawings.” CAD drawings have been around a long time—but that doesn’t mean they’re a good thing. They’re designed for human interpretation, and are thus subject to human misinterpretation. And they create a disconnect between product design and manufacturing.

PMI can contain GD&T, weld symbols, text and dimensions, as well as the product definition and process notes. PMI can exist in 3D models in the same way that information exists on 2D drawings – using leader lines that connect the data to specific parts in the product design.

The use of PMI shortens the design cycle by enabling product teams to incorporate product and process information during the design phase. This results in better communication between design and manufacturing groups, fewer errors, streamlined design and manufacturing processes and faster change management. PMI not only reduces the need to generate 2D drawings; it also enables downstream applications to directly access this information for automating tasks such as CNC programming, tolerance stack up analysis and CMM analysis.

Here’s what Norm Crawford, of Applied Geometrics, has to say about PMI: “Through the use of 3D documentation methods (i.e., PMI), the time and cost of documenting a part can be reduced by 50 percent and make early involvement of manufacturing easier with state of the art online 3D collaboration and visualization tools. Limiting redundant annotation and views – normally created on drawings in an attempt to clarify part design requirements – leads to better communications with fewer interruption errors, improved first time quality and increased productivity.”

You can watch a video about NX PMI here.

Now, as for NASA: they may well be using PMI already. NX has supported PMI for many years. If they produced 2D drawings for the Curiosity rover, it may have been a crutch (because of some immaturity in NX’s support for PMI at the time), or it may have been just a matter of habit. (CAD people love their drawings, and don’t want to give them up.) In either case, today’s NX supports PMI well enough that there’s no reason to create 2D drawings. And many reasons not to.




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