Case Study: A low-cost NT-based workstation solution in a mixed environment

In an initiative to bring modern technology to the Stoke-based ceramics industry, the Hothouse programme opted for a low-cost...

In an initiative to bring modern technology to the Stoke-based ceramics industry, the Hothouse programme opted for a low-cost NT-based workstation solution

Within the Midlands region, pottery has flourished over the last 250 years, spawning household names like Doulton, Portmeirion, Spode and the Stoke-based Wedgwood Ltd. As global competition pushes all companies to become more competitive, new technology has stepped in to help revitalise Stoke's diminishing pottery community.

In 1994, the European Union granted Stoke-on-Trent City Council a substantial grant of £1.3m to help bring new technology to both manufactures and retailers of ceramics in the Midlands area. The Hothouse in Loughton, Stoke-on-Trent, has subsequently benefited from a additional £1.14m upgrade of St James House, a local listed building offering a huge number of services to all area of the ceramics industry.

The company makes use of an extensive range of workstations and imaging and manufacturing tools. Initially Hothouse chose a non-Microsoft/Intel solution instead of running a Sun Solaris file and web server and separate Solaris-based Firewall. Initially, CADCAM applications were run on a variety of SPARC-based boxes with Apple Macs for 2D graphics and printing.

Hothouse general manger, Andy Briggs, explains the reasoning. "Stability for us was a very important consideration - Windows was not a stable enough environment for our needs back in 1995. Although more expensive, we choose SGI and Sun Workstations as our primary hardware platform and they served us very well indeed."

The Hothouse has flowered into a truly extraordinary mix of technologies with hardware and operating systems offering several unique services to the 25 companies based at the site and the 60 others who regularly use their services.

These services include Visualisation, Rapid Prototyping, 3D scanning as well as extensive CADCAM tools. The outputs from these creation tools are linked over the company network to computer-controlled lathe's and colour printers. It makes use of some of the most specialist pieces of equipment available, including one of the UK's few 3D printers, made by Z-Corp. It turns 3D designs into physical starch and cellulose models, up to 25cm high.

The Hothouse's computer systems are based around a 100Mbit network connected by a 1.55Mbit ATM to the Star-Line network, which is a collection of local colleges, universities and training centres in the Staffordshire area. The five design rooms are equipped with SGI Model 320 NT Workstations running DeskArts-3D surface Modelling and Delcam's Powemill software. The 320 is a Pentium III-based system, which scales from a single 450MHz chip up to a dual 550MHz Intel Zeon processor. The system has a proprietary graphics architecture that is significantly faster than the more common AGP chipset and is optimised for CADCAM applications. Desktop publishing is catered for by several Apple Macintosh G3 suites and a few high-end imaging systems from Intergraph that provide real-time virtual reality rendering. The whole centre's network is managed centrally using Hewlett-Packard's ProCurve range of switches and Top-Tools management software. The network is maintained by Live Information Systems.

Technical manager, Darius Khadjenouri says: "When we set up the Hothouse's network infrastructure the site was clean, so the kit went smoothly allowing us more time to develop services. In fact, we are currently setting up systems to allow companies working at the Hothouse to use bandwidth segments on a 2Mbit data stream connected to the Internet."

Although Hothouse has extensive in-house facilities, the centre often demonstrates CAD technology to companies within their own environments. Briggs explains: "There are over 250 companies involved with ceramics in the Stoke area and over 40,000 jobs dependent on this industry. Unfortunately, the growth and acceptance of new technology, especially in respect to time to market issues has been pretty stagnant. We are trying to offer these industries a way of dipping a toe into the waters of cutting edge technology without having to take a financially risky cold bath."

Managing the Hothouse's network has been a challenge for Briggs. Over the years, the number of support contracts and vendors has mushroomed, especially as more software applications move over to the Windows environment.

Reducing costs generally motivates this move to NT. The 24 SGI 340 NT Workstations cost the centre over £100,000. Compared to equivalent non-Intel/Microsoft solutions this figure is "less than the support costs of one solution we looked at," according to Briggs.

The Hothouse is not standing still. Next year sees a new site opening across the road. The site will offer CADCAM to more users, a 100-seater lecture hall and Internet hosting services aimed at the ceramics industry. A Gigabit fibre stream to the existing network will also link the new site. Although initially funded by European money, Hothouse is now self-sufficient and the additional site and facilities upgrades are all being paid for by the revenue generated by the centre.

Will Garside

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