W&WP October 2004
WINStep Makes Strides
Members of the not-for-profit WINStep organization are trying to develop the standard for breaking the machine-software 'language' barrier.
By J.D. Piland
Rome was not built in a day, so it is unfair to expect that something as complex as an industry-wide standard for computerized woodworking technology could be developed any faster.
Nonetheless, the 15 members of the WINStep organization are pushing to get the latest revision of their two-years-in-the-making standard to each other before the end of October, in hopes of having it completely reviewed by the end of the year.
WINStep, which stands for Wood INdustry STandard for the Exchange of Product data, is an organization consisting of software developers and machinery manufacturers volunteering their time and resources to produce a common language. The group has selected XML (extensible markup language) as the language of WINStep to help various software packages and machines "talk" to each other regardless of brand.
Improving connectivity among machines and software is the goal, according to Ned Brown, co-chair of WINStep's Technical Committee and founder of CADCode Systems. "The mission is to create a standard data protocol for use in the woodworking industry," he says. "WINStep is not a software program; rather, it is a published standard from which users can read data and translate that data into whatever form they require."
To explain it further, Jean Mignault, acting president of WINStep and 20-20 Technologies, offers: "Think about the telecommunications industry. If there were no agreed-to standards, people using telephone systems would not be able to dial any part of the world directly from their telephone and connect with someone else on the other side. Telephone companies agreed on a common standard for communication that provides universal access and better quality of life. We want to do the same for communication between software and machinery in the woodworking industry, allow production data and equipment to work together more effectively.
"In short, by working within the WINStep protocol, manufacturers will eliminate production barriers and achieve greater manufacturing efficiency," Mignault adds.
WINStep was introduced to the industry at the International Woodworking Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair 2002. The organization held a seminar at IWF 2004 and updated those in attendance on the progress of the protocol; some members had WINStep demonstrations at their booths.
Streamlining the Process
"Most of the time in the past, we've started at the customer level or the production level and it never got to the part level," says Bob Gowen, president of Pattern Systems International and secretary of WINStep. "If it doesn't get to the part level, it'll never get to the machine level."
"The standards that do exist, or what we would call standards, are really kind of de facto based on certain products that people may be using," says Jerry McCall, manager of the Software Group at Stiles Machinery.
Even when machinery and software companies share information with each other - whether it be part dimensions, settings, technological data, etc. - there would be problems of data fragmentation, McCall adds. For instance, CNC machine manufacturers may only produce machine code without regard to the software used by an end-user to design its products. Consequently, the users of the CNC equipment and the original software have to find a way to get those two to work together, which most often results in having to re-enter data.
This event is a result of what Gowen calls "islands of information." (See Figure 1, above). These islands consist of data read by Software Program A, then converted and sent to Software Program B, converted and sent to C, and so on. With WINStep, the islands are eliminated because all the data is in the same language and no conversions are necessary. (See Figure 2, above)
So far, Version 1 of the standard, released to WINStep members for review in January, has made it through the evaluation and critique stage. Now that the responses to the initial draft have been considered, Version 2 is being readied for release by the end of the month.
"We took all those complaints into account and have come out with another version that's better," says Gowen. "It's a road map that says this is the way that file's going to look."
Brown says a meeting is scheduled for the end of October, at which Version 2 will be made available for comment. He says he hopes after a couple months of review, the responses to the latest version will be in by the end of the year.
Once that is done, it will be time to work on Version 2.5, McCall says. "The technical committee and the board just approved the Version 2 standard draft. That's being put into a finalized form at this moment. We're working on Version 2.5, which is going to be the intermediate release that includes all the technology needed."
Gowen, who also serves as the organization's chair of the Membership Committee, wants to focus on bringing WINStep to the market in order to get "more money into the pot so we can begin to advertise so we can move forward in a more expedient fashion."
Gowen adds that WINStep wants to recruit more members, but not too many, too fast, because having too many voices may hinder the the standard's progress and direction.
Once the standard is finalized, Gowen says the organization will have to develop a mechanism to enforce compliance. WINStep will be a public format, also known as open architecture. If it takes off the way the organization hopes and truly becomes the industry standard, misuse of the standard could occur - something no one on the board wants to see.
"Anybody can use it, anybody can read it, anybody can write it, but the real security is going to come when companies submit their products to the WINStep group and the WINStep group certifies their products to be WINStep compliant," McCall says. "It doesn't do any good to produce a standard unless the organization that produces it can also verify that the companies who claim they are using the standard are actually using it."
"It's not designed to create nor decrease the commercial viability of any product," McCall says. "It's not designed so that if I do WINStep, I somehow have a better product than somebody else.
"You know that if the industry does better, the business improves for everybody, which includes the providers of the supplies," McCall adds. "You have to believe this is something good for the industry so you would join. It's a little bit of an altruistic reason, but you join for the betterment of the industry."
Those who do join the organization will benefit from some more tangible aspects of WINStep. As David Rothwell, executive vice president of Stiles Machinery, said during the WINStep press conference at IWF 2004, one big advantage is that the standard would create improved integration of system operations. Manufacturers of software and machinery could be of greater assistance to each other and to users, as well as having more confidence in integrating various systems, he said.
From an end-user perspective, McCall says, "Any company, no matter what size they are, who has two different type of systems that need to communicate information between them, would benefit if those systems used the WINStep format. It's not a benefit like 'I save 10 cents every time I use it;' it's more of a general benefit."
Theoretically, though, a bigger woodworking shop may have more system combinations than a smaller company, so it may benefit more, McCall admits. "But more and more small companies are having multiple systems and pieces that need to talk to each other," he adds.
Because WINStep is being developed by businessmen volunteering their time, its development has been slower than if there was a dedicated staff working on it full time. Yet members recognize the time constraints and try not to worry.
"It's good because we obviously don't have to spend a lot of money on doing it," McCall says. "It's bad because I think it makes things run a little slower than we would like them to run ... the creation of a standard like this is a democratic process. Because of that, it takes a while for everyone to agree, and I don't mean that in a negative sense. [It takes time to] fill out all the information required because there are so many pieces of information that have to be dealt with."
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