I spent part of the week at the 2011 Siemens PLM Connection Americas Users Conference (in Las Vegas!). William Allen, senior engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and mechanical systems design lead on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), spoke to the crowd about how the JPL, based in Pasadena, CA, designed the NASA rover, which will land in late 2011 . (See the Mars Science Laboratory in action.)

Here's more of what Allen had to say:

First, to set the stage, can you talk about the latest version of the Mars rover and what its functions are?
William Allen, Senior Engineer: The name of it is Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Just by comparison, the previous rovers, Mars Exploration Rovers, were sort of mobile geologists, and this next one, MSL, is more of a mobile scientist and science laboratory. This'll be the first time that we'll actually do science on the planet itself, so it'll collect samples, process them, and do actual science experiments right there inside the rover.

From a product lifecycle and design perspective, what would you say your biggest challenges are compared to previous versions?
Allen: We did more of a “concurrent” engineering design on this than ever before, so up to 200 design and engineering staff commonly sharing master design all at the same time.

What challenges did the complexity of the MSL present?
Allen: Certainly it’s the most instruments we’ve had on one spacecraft or rover. You have things shooting neutrons, you have a power source that’s emitting radiation, and then there are sensitive instruments. All of these have to live in close proximity. So just integrating that complex science was an interesting challenge.

Another part of it was the amount of mechanisms. I think we were upwards of close to 50 actuators, and that’s a quite a bit for us. So there are a lot of things moving during different events. It’s quite a problem with the design cycle. I hate to think the operations team is going to have to manage all that, but that’s just the nature of the beast.

What were the specific improvements in the lifecycle process?

Allen: For starters, it’s being able to do more complex design approaches and procedures. The tools are now more affordable, more capable. It’s kind of a chicken and an egg. I’m not sure what came first: We do more complex designs because the tools can, or the tools are being developed and do more complex things because our missions are more complex. It’s a cycle, and I don’t see that ever ending.

You mentioned earlier in your presentation that the future is about visualization. Can you talk a bit about the visualization displays in your own facility and why you consider visualization to be the future?
Allen: If you look at the old analogy, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then a movie’s magnitude is greater than that. Now, you can have information visualized at your fingertips, both figuratively and literally. You take a physical environment where you have a multi-touch monitor for instance. So instead of using a mouse and a keyboard, you’re driving that information with your hands.

We develop complex spacecraft as a team. In that process, we need information. The more relevant information we can have at our fingertips, at one time, in front of the same group of people, the more effective our design process, our solution process. So the visual environment is two parts.

Siemens is doing their part, developing the HD3D software, the PTS, the product template studio. We’ve built the physical environment to complement that and run that in the physical world: Multi-touch monitors with interactive whiteboard, floor to ceiling, so those two married together produce what we like to think is an out-of-the-box thinking environment.

That’s the wave of the future. Visualization is going to increase its value by magnitudes. Exponentially. Because the tools are going to catch up now. You can visualize tons more data at one time than you can through any other means.

What technology has been the most exciting development for you and has helped you do your job better?

Allen: I’m a big fan of the collaboration tools, so teams have a community. Now you can manage content to a team, so it’s active content. An email is static; you write an email and send it to a team. With collaboration provided by Sharepoint and their community, I can build partitions that do certain things and say “Alert these people when this sort of activity happens.” That’s an active process. That was one of the most beneficial tools for me as the mechanical systems design lead on MSL.

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