While many IT issues at the National Manufacturing Week conference focus on network technologies for the plant floor, one industrial parts company at the show described XML and SOAP as tools for data center automation. The project resulted in a Web-enabled computer-assisted design system that creates on-demand CAD drawings.SMC Corp., an Indianapolis-based manufacturer of pneumatic machine parts, recently deployed a semi-hosted Web services platform that allows its customers to generate part designs through an online portal. Delivered as compressed ZIP files over the Web, the CAD files can be dropped right into larger CAD projects. The system allows customers to generate in minutes what once took hours to create on their own through spec sheets, catalogs and phone calls with SMC sales engineers.SMC offers a catalog of more than 8,000 parts online, which can be configured in over 500,000 different ways - from sizes, to connection and coupling styles, and materials. To make it easier for its customers - mostly manufacturers themselves - to design products using SMC parts, the company decided to make its entire catalog of CAD models and drawings available over the Web. Since the parts are highly customizable, SMC needed this service to be flexible."We used to spend about 3% of our engineering time creating CAD files for customers upon request," says Steve Hoffer, marketing director at SMC, who ran the online catalog\/CAD generation project. "All [customers] do now is hit a button on the Web site, and in 20 seconds they get a CAD file to download." Hoffer is speaking at this week's National Manufacturing Week show in Rosemont, Ill., on Web applications in manufacturing.The company creates and stores its CAD designs on servers running software from TechniCon, a Java-based application\/database platform. These servers, hosted in SMC's data center, connect to servers hosted by Solidworks of Waltham, Mass., which offers hosted online product catalog and customer portal Web site services.When customers select the type of pneumatic component they need from the catalog, the Solidworks system passes the request for the CAD file to the TechniCon servers via SOAP-based XML messages, which relay the details of the part selected. The TechniCon database interprets the messages and delivers a zipped CAD file for downloading to the SolidWorks system. Users who download the file can insert it into a larger CAD schematic immediately using any standard CAD application, Hoffer says.Since the system went live three years ago, the number of CAD files downloaded per month went from around 1,200 to more than 40,000, Hoffer says.Hoffer says the only part of the project he would have done differently would be to set up a test lab for the Web site's user interface before going live. The look and feel of the customer portal required several tweaks once it was running based on end-user feedback. Part of this involved rewriting a section of the portal that verifies part numbers, moving it from a server-side process to a client-side application that runs in Java on customers' machines."We probably could have gotten to where we are now a little faster," with more in-house testing of these client-side\/server-side processes, Hoffer adds.More from the National Manufacturing Week conference is available here.