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Digital Prototypes: Why U.S. Manufacturers Need to Change the Way They Develop Products
Manufacturers in the United States today are facing greater economic challenges than ever before. One way of dealing with these challenges is by increasing profitability and reducing time to market through the use of dedicated prototypes. The information gathered from testing prototypes can be used to reduce material requirements and rework from failures. It can also be used to work out bugs and check for manufacturability issues (e.g., interferences or unwanted contact between parts during operation). Prototypes can even be used as sales and marketing pieces. The only reluctance towards physical prototyping for most manufacturers is cost and development time. However, there are alternatives to the physical prototype.
You may have heard the buzz in the engineering world about digital prototyping. It isn't a new concept, but it is becoming increasingly accessible to manufacturers. The concept is simple. Digital prototypes allow businesses to do things that are typically done with a physical prototype in a computer's digital format. As with the physical prototype, a manufacturer can validate a design's functional requirements or create marketing material from the digital prototype.
Digital prototyping starts with using CAD software developed with digital prototyping in mind. The primary function of digital prototyping software is to create very accurate 3D representations of all the parts, putting them together in a dedicated assembly environment and using this information to check, tweak, and present products. This is done much more efficiently than with physical prototyping. What would require hundreds of resource hours over the course of weeks is reduced to dozens of hours over the course of days.
With digital prototyping tools, common costly mishaps that usually show up in the field or on the shop floor are significantly reduced. The software allows the engineer to visually inspect designs more clearly than previous generations of CAD systems. Engineers can check for interferences and contact between moving components, perform motion simulations, and perform strength analyses. They can even develop standard machine components (springs, gears, and flexible drives) based on geometric and functional requirements. With these functional design tools, the geometry is modeled automatically and accurately, accelerating the design process of the digital prototype. This functional design capability allows the engineer to forego the requirement of manually calculating the stresses (or other design criteria) within a machine system.
Every manufacturer builds prototypes. If a manufacturer is not building an assembly dedicated to prototype use, then the first production unit is really a prototype that is tweaked until everything fits and functions per specification. Dedicated physical prototypes are custom units for a few or possibly a single test. Physical testing often requires test fixtures, special equipment for taking measurements or loading, and thorough data records and inspections to interpret results. If some data isn't properly recorded during a test, it is often hard to go back and get that information, especially if it is a destructive test.
The physical prototype and test fixture involve many manufacturing drawings, fabrication of parts and assemblies, and possibly a test department to perform and document the test. Involving other departments requires a lot of planning, scheduling, and resources. By using digital prototyping software, this work is performed in the engineering department using the digital prototype and CAD tools for design validation, motion simulation, and strength analysis. The digital prototype is accurately tested before the creation of any manufacturing drawings. Data that wasn't recorded during the virtual test is typically accessible without having to retest, and is very easy to extract. Product development times are usually significantly reduced. Field failures, scrapped materials, and rework are reduced as well.
Through virtual testing of the digital prototype, the engineer can accurately find areas for material removal without compromising product quality. This translates into reductions in costs of materials and shipping of raw materials in, and finished goods out.
One typically overlooked benefit of the digital prototype is how it can be used to sell a product or create market awareness, sometimes before even the first unit is built. This use of a digital prototype can be approached in many ways. Instead of building a physical prototype for sales purposes (which may not even be considered because of time and money), a virtual one is developed. Operation can be simulated to show proof of concept and presented in a computer animation. Spectacular photorealistic images can also be created for use in product literature or on the Web.
Another way to use the digital prototype to boost sales is by putting it in the hands of sales and marketing personnel. Outside sales representatives can show the 3D assembly models to prospective customers. These models are easily manipulated and digitally marked up to fit their specific application, without requiring the sales representative to know how the CAD program works and without affecting the original design data. Instead, the sales representative uses a simplified design review tool with archived copies of the engineering data. The end result is a means of communication between the manufacturer's sales representative and the prospective customer that significantly shortens sales cycles.
One more way of using the digital prototype for sales is to determine part and assembly weights for accurate estimates of material and shipping costs. This information is then used within quotations or proposals. The process is simple: Individual components are assigned materials, and the weights are automatically calculated for each component. This is translated into an assembly weight, where the component information is automatically tabulated and totaled. Even weld material is calculated. This information allows the manufacturer to quote more accurately and be more cost-competitive.
You may be thinking that the company you work for can't afford the cost of the software and the equipment, or the time to develop digital prototypes. In the past, it was very expensive and time consuming to create and use digital prototypes. The necessary hardware and software cost tens of thousands of dollars per user. The software was difficult to use and required a lot of training and experience, creating a significant dip in productivity during the learning phase. This is not the case anymore. The price-to-performance ratio of hardware has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. Instead of needing UNIX-based supercomputers, most Windows Professional workstations, and even some well-equipped desktops and laptops, can easily handle the new breed of digital prototyping CAD software. Today's digital prototyping systems offer most of the capabilities of the big powerhouse modular CAD systems (used heavily within the automotive and aerospace industries) at a small fraction of the cost. Best of all, it takes only weeks of training to become efficient.
In terms of digital prototyping software's ability to produce manufacturing drawings, the process is much better than its 2D and 3D predecessors. The previous generation of 2D and 3D CAD systems digitized the drafting board, in the same way that the word processor digitized the typewriter. These earlier CAD systems put the work of the drafter into the hands of the engineer, just as the word processor put the memorandum work of a secretary into the hands of the manager. Unfortunately, this change caused the engineer to spend more time drafting than engineering. Today's digital prototyping CAD reduces the drafting load through automatic drawing view creation and updates. The engineer merely dimensions and annotates the drawing, therefore spending more time on engineering and less time on drafting.
The power and capabilities of today's digital prototyping CAD systems have become very impressive, and a wealth of tools are available to take advantage of. This article just scratches the surface of what this software has to offer. There are dozens of productivity tools to automate the design process of sheet metal, frames, wire harnesses, tube and pipe, and much more.
The Inventor Suite and Inventor Professional digital prototyping systems from Autodesk, makers of the widely used AutoCAD product line, have a comprehensive and robust set of tools necessary to develop, test, and present products virtually. Autodesk continues to invest heavily in its digital prototyping systems because the company recognize it is critical for the future success of manufacturers. Inventor's primary use is for mechanical design; however, it has capabilities that support other design disciplines.
One example is that it is fully interoperable with Autodesk's electrical engineering package, AutoCAD Electrical. Both AutoCAD Electrical and Inventor can read and write data files that allow them to communicate with each other. For example, the electrical engineer exports a data file of an electrical schematic so that the wiring and component information can be accurately represented in Inventor. The mechanical engineer then uses this information to automatically create routing information, wire harness data, detailed nail board schematics, and wire run lists. Essentially, the digital prototype is increasingly more accurate by including mechanical representation of the electrical design, which translates into consistent documentation for the shop floor electrician, the field technician, and the customer.
Finding the right digital prototyping solution and implementing it well can be a daunting task. It is important for a manufacturer to find a partner (usually referred to as a value added reseller) that understands digital prototyping technology, as well as manufacturing and business. The partner should be someone who is willing to take an interest in the manufacturer's success, not just sell them a product and basic training. A good partner will work with the manufacturer to marry the functionality to the manufacturer's needs and show them how to maximize the benefits. All too often, a business will invest in this type of software and not fully realize the true benefits of digital prototyping. Instead, the software is used only for creating manufacturing drawings or only a limited amount of functionality is used.
In most cases, a business can benefit from a comprehensive process audit, where the partner works with them to create an effective plan for implementation along with business and technical goals. The benefits of a process audit aren't limited to large or medium manufacturers. Small businesses can benefit just as well, if not more, because of their growth potential.
Digital prototyping is the latest stage in the evolution of CAD and is accessible to all manufacturers. It is a means to reducing costs and increasing revenue in the highly competitive world of manufacturing. If you don't own digital prototyping tools, or are not taking full advantage of the system you own, I highly recommend working with a partner to develop a plan to implement digital prototyping into your development process. The future success of your manufacturing business may depend on it.
About the Author
Walt Bednarz, manufacturing solutions engineer for Synergis Engineering Design Solutions, Quakertown, Pennsylvania, is a graduate of Drexel University with a bachelor's of science degree in mechanical engineering. He has over 12 years experience in the engineering field, including mechanical design and analysis with extensive use of solid modeling, FEA, and motion simulation tools. Prior to joining Synergis Technologies Inc., Walt worked as a mechanical engineer in the defense and material handling industries and as solutions engineer for the CAD/CAE industry. As a mechanical engineer, he has experience in the design of hydraulic and electrical systems, welded assemblies, and mechanisms.
About Synergis EDS:
Synergis Engineering Design Solutions, an Autodesk Premier Solutions Provider for Manufacturing, has been providing support to manufacturers since the inceptions of the AutoCAD and Inventor product lines. For more information, visit www.synergissoftware.com.
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