Americana Building Products, Salem, Illinois, has long specialized in building shade products such as awnings and canopies. Lowe’s, the major home improvement retailer, recently developed the conceptual design for a line of modular wheelchair ramps and asked Americana if they wanted to compete for the job of completing the design and building the product. Americana previously used a low-end computer aided design (CAD) system that did not have the capabilities for a project of this magnitude.
Americana engaged FISHER/UNITECH, a SolidWorks reseller, to help the company get started with SolidWorks as quickly as possible. FISHER/UNITECH provided a crash on-site course to get the company up and running in a hurry and followed up a few weeks later with a more advanced course tailored to address the specific issues involved in the project. “Without the training, we would have had no chance of success in this project,” said Geff Purcell, president of Americana. “With the training, we responded quickly and beat out both American and Chinese competition.”
Largest design project ever
Founded in 1947 as Hindman Manufacturing, Americana makes products designed to improve the outdoor living environment such as outdoor canopies, awnings, wall enclosure systems, patio covers and carports, park shelters and walkways and related products. Lowe’s architects and designers had studied the needs of the market and developed concept designs and prototypes to fill an underserved niche. Lowe’s noted Americana’s expertise in designing and manufacturing aluminum products and asked the company to enter a competition to provide a detailed design and bid on the manufacturing for the new line.
“This was the largest design project we had ever taken on and it was clear that our existing CAD program was not up to the challenge,” Purcell said. “In particular, we needed a software program with parametric capabilities in order to easily manage the large number of different sizes and styles required to meet the market’s requirements.”
Onsite training classes
“We called on FISHER/UNITECH because it is one of the largest SolidWorks resellers and offers a wide array of training courses and professional services,” Purcell said. The SolidWorks reseller supports over 8,000 customers and over 15,000 users with 14 locations each with full classroom facilities. FISHER/UNITECH provided a demonstration and an evaluation version of the software and Americana made the decision to proceed with the software purchase and training.
“We discovered that their trainers not only know SolidWorks very well but also have extensive industry experience,” Purcell said. “First one trainer came in and crashed us through the basics.” Alex Yarbrough, CAD Specialist for Americana added: “The trainer looked at the models that we had created for our existing products and determined what areas were most important for us. They showed us how to think parametrically when we defined the geometry for a part, how a feature might change in the future and what would change with it, and how to create parametric relationships so the entire part updated automatically when we changed a key dimension.”
A few weeks later FISHER/UNITECH sent a second trainer back to Americana for an advanced class that focused on the specific issues that had arisen in the early stages of the project. For example, the trainer covered the hole wizard which simplifies the process of putting in holes, counter bores, countersinks and taps. The user selects the hole type and the fastener and the software automatically generates the geometry for the hole required to accommodate the fastener.
This class also covered sheet metal design such as how to define the finished 3-D shape of the part and then use SolidWorks to determine the flat pattern, identify the brake lines, and generate the callouts on the drawing. The trainers also explained how to use DriveWorks, a third party rules-based design program.
This product allows users to set up a template for a family of products and then simply enter a few key dimensions after which the software generates the solid model, drawings and bill of materials needed to build the product. Americana designers use DriveWorks to quickly create large numbers of different sizes of products they have just designed. Americana had never designed injection molded parts prior to this project so the FISHER/UNITECH trainer spent considerable time showing how to design for injection molding and export geometry for use in building the mold.
“The trainers quickly caught on to the fact that our people are smart and CAD savvy so they proceeded quickly through the material and covered a lot of ground during the classes,” Purcell said. “FISHER/UNITECH training is quite affordable – we got more than our money’s worth. Technical support is rarely required because SolidWorks and 3DVIA are intuitive to use and the training was comprehensive. But in the relatively few cases where we have needed support, it’s amazing how fast FISHER/UNITECH has responded and got us answers.”
Detailed design of the new product line
“Within three or four weeks our designers were working very efficiently with SolidWorks to design the new product line,” Purcell said. “We started with the initial prototype design provided by Lowe’s and added the detail required to prepare the product line for manufacturing. Using parametric dimensions to link critical features together eliminated the need to create the geometry entity by entity and helped ensure consistency throughout the product line. We linked assemblies together and when we made a change to a part, mating parts automatically updated so that the assembly still fit together. When we made a design change to one part it rippled through the entire part family of parts.
FISHER/UNITECH also helped design templates used for manufacturing drawings that automatically pull the bill of materials and other information from the SolidWorks model. We brought materials and injection molding suppliers in and displayed the design on a large screen so they could easily understand what we had in mind.”
“During the latter stages of the project we faced the challenge of creating the instructions for the wheelchair ramps,” Purcell said. “FISHER/UNITECH recommended [SolidWorks] 3DVIA from Dassault Systemes which turned out to be an outstanding product. FISHER/UNITECH provided a two day on-site 3DVIA training class that helped our team get up to speed quickly.
We pulled in the CAD models from SolidWorks and reconfigured them in many different ways. We rotated the parts to show them from different directions. We created cutaways to show hidden parts and exploded views to clearly show smaller details. We added arrows to show which way screws turn. We added drawings from the library such as hand tools to make the assembly process easier to understand. The software automatically created labels for the parts which were easy to tweak or remove if necessary. The end result was much better than our previous instruction manuals.”
“The training programs helped us get up to speed quickly on the software so we were able to focus all our time and attention on designing a great product,” Purcell said. “We created new versions of the design on a daily basis. Lowes designers came here twice for design reviews. We set up big screens in the conference room and walked them through the designs. The solid models made it easy to understand the design and kept everyone on the same page. We made design changes on the spot and they rippled through the entire product family.”
Winning the competition
“During the initial stages of the design process Americana competed against an American company and a Chinese company,” Purcell said. “The designs that we produced during this phase reflected our experience in working with aluminum products and the expertise that our people had developed in a short period of time in SolidWorks,” Purcell said. “The models and drawings that we provided reflected our best thinking and looked incredibly professional. The result is that we were awarded the contract to complete the detailed design and manufacture the products.”
Prior to releasing the files to the mold maker, Americana designers wanted to be sure they understood the geometry of the molded parts so FISHER/UNITECH created rapid prototypes using the Fused Deposition Modeling method which creates robust parts that can be used for functional testing and, in many cases, even for production parts. They used SolidWorks to create 3D files that we sent to the mold maker for use in creating CNC toolpaths to build the mold. “The support that we received from FISHER/UNITECH including software selection assistance, training and technology was crucial to the success of this project,” Purcell concluded. “Without it we could never have handled a project of this complexity.”
For more information visit www.funtech.com.
Filed Under: Rapid prototyping