By Mike Imlay
Designing Like the Big Guys
Three High-Tech Tools to Advance Small Product Innovators
For medium to large specialty-equipment manufacturers, the concepts of computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) are not likely to come as anything new. Over the past few decades, most companies with the capital have been investing in these evolving technologies to create and speed new products to market. What’s new on today’s scene is the trickle-down of increasingly cost-effective CAD/CAM solutions into the hands of smaller companies and even individual product designers and manufacturers—a phenomenon that may well make them ever more competitive with the big guys.
“The ability to quickly scan an existing automobile and modify parts or collect the information quickly is expanding,” said Scott Davidson, product manager for Rhinoceros, a popular CAD software package produced by Robert McNeel & Associates.
“Before, people would have to have these big, expensive scanners and try to collect the information digitally in order to build on top of it. Then you had to have essentially very high-end hardware to model something accurate enough to fabricate from. What we’re seeing now is that a single person can have a machine you can buy essentially anywhere and produce highly accurate surfaces to fabricate from.”
“Having CAD at this point is really the only way to deliver the precision that’s required in the aftermarket at a higher level,” asserted Phil Frank, principal of Phil Frank Design LLC in Seattle, Washington.
Thanks to increasingly affordable CAD solutions such as Rhinoceros, Frank’s small design studio has been able to churn out big products for large aftermarket players for more than two decades. His many projects include body kits, interior parts, engine components and similar designs for five Saleen Mustangs and companies such as Keystone, Salvatore Motorsports and Edelbrock.
“All CAD packages are getting better in what they can do,” he said. “The challenge for a smaller business is always how much you want to spend. It’s kind of tough to spend $10,000 on a CAD package and then another $10,000 on training.”
Fortunately, he said, today’s market offers product innovators robust software solutions with easy learning curves for as little as $1,000. These lower-cost solutions allow creations to go from digital design to CNC machining with virtually the push of a button, truly empowering the small aftermarket businessman—making jigs and hand-fashioned product prototypes things of the past.
The SEMA Garage
Located in Diamond Bar, California, the recently opened SEMA Garage—Industry Innovations Center gives SEMA-member businesses access to the special high-tech tools and equipment they need to take their products from the drawing board to customer hands. For more information, visit www.semagarage.com or call 909-978-6728.
According to Davidson, the evolution of easy-to-master, affordable CAD software has run hand in hand with the expansion and spread of affordable laser metrology, CNC manufacturing and rapid-prototyping technologies.
“It takes less capital to actually put yourself in a position to use digital fabrication technologies, which of course allows you to do a much greater range of shapes with a lot less learned craftsmanship,” Davidson said. “That is what we used to base everything on before the computer. There’s a lot of legacy to the market. A lot of products have been around for a long time. Some of the things that are changing in the market now, though, are that hardware has gotten very inexpensive, and so has software. It has allowed a lot broader user base to access tools that are accurate enough and effective enough to be able to do class-A surfacing.”
So which CAD tools can today’s innovator or manufacturer turn to? According to Frank—a Rhinoceros user—the options are many.
“Software is kind of a complex thing,” he said. “It comes down to the design that you’re doing. If you’re doing mechanical parts or performance bits, which are the majority of aftermarket business, then I would probably go more toward a parametric modeler like SolidWorks, PTC Creo Parametric or Solid Edge, which are more engineering tools. But as you get into stuff that has surfacing, such as exterior body components, you would want to use more of a surface modeler because of the ease of use, freedom and lesser constraints. In essence it comes down to the CAD jockey and how he’s using the tool.”
Scanning With Lasers
High-Tech Tool Suppliers
From laser metrology to CAD to 3D printing, where can a business turn for help? According to the experts we interviewed, the following are popular suppliers offering a wide variety of product-development software and hardware solutions across a range of price points.
CAD/3D Modeling Applications
Creo Parametric (Pro/Engineer)
Of course, good CAD design begins with accurate vehicle specifications. In the old days, that often meant painstakingly measuring a vehicle by hand and creating paper templates or clay models as a prelude to new-product R&D. In more recent years, product innovators have found access to a growing number of OEM CAD files. But what happens when such files aren’t available? Enter laser metrology, commonly known as “laser scanning.” It’s another technology that is rapidly falling in cost.
“Applications for laser scanning continue to grow,” said Robb Rudluff, product and sales manager for API Services, a maker of laser metrology devices. “It seems that laser scanning and other metrology applications make major leaps and improvements every five years.”
Although such equipment can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Rudluff pointed out that the return on investment can be substantial.
“Laser measurement systems assist smaller companies by reducing the design-cycle time of a component,” he said. “A company typically will go through three to five prototypes before the design and fit-up are achieved. Laser scanners, coupled with innovative new engineering practices, allow the company to capture actual data from a production vehicle and utilize it during the design cycle, minimizing fit-up and design issues.”
Rudluff said that laser metrology fits hand in hand with emerging rapid-prototyping technologies, allowing companies to inexpensively design, print and test components in a manner that would’ve been impossible just a few years ago. Perhaps most important for the early stages of product design, data gathered through laser scanning can be transferred easily to CAD software to build highly accurate three-dimensional renderings of vehicles and parts.
“When you don’t have the CAD files, you’re able to reproduce the car to a certain extent,” added Gary Pis, SEMA vehicle product data manager. “There are different tools. There’s the traditional Faro-type arm that’s a little bit more for more detailed products, per se. If you’re going to do a small batch of parts or a fender, door or whatnot, that comes in very handy.
“A handy cam is based on the same type of software. It shoots a laser out onto a surface, and the laser reflects back into the camera. With the handy cam, you don’t have an arm but rather a device that you’re able to hold in your hand and actually scan surfaces. It’s a little easier to maneuver and scan restrictive surfaces that the arm might interfere with.”
Laser scanning is often accomplished with the aid of numerous small “tracking” devices that relay positioning and distance data to the device computer. The preferred setup is greatly dependent on what’s being scanned and the degree of accuracy desired. Hard-to-reach vehicle areas and reflective surfaces add challenges for scanners, but companies like Ruddluff’s are busy developing effective solutions to counter these problems, including devices that can rapidly capture data anywhere on a vehicle without the use of targeting.
“When selecting a piece of hardware, choose one based on your recommended overall applications,” he advised. “Accuracy and volume drive the costs on the initial purchase. Another key item is what role the laser scanner will serve. Reverse engineering is one application, but non-contact inspection is where the same instrument will assist with parts manufacturing and accuracy.”
Rudluff conceded that laser scanning equipment may still be cost-prohibitive for small companies, even with falling prices—especially for companies that may need a variety of scanners for a variety of applications. Thankfully, many laser-metrology providers offer contracted scanning services, allowing aftermarket businesses with limited resources to take full advantage of the technology.
Help for SEMA Members
Perhaps one of the best places to turn for high-tech assistance is the new SEMA Garage—Industry Innovations Center at SEMA’s headquarters in Diamond Bar, California. Among its many services, the Garage offers association members low-cost access to a FaroArm laser scanner, OEM CAD files and a 3D printer for rapid prototyping.
“There are still inventors who have ideas but don’t have the knowledge to design them, so they go to engineering consultants to help them out,’ said Pis. “They still do things the old-school way, hand fabricating a prototype and then coming into the industry to mass-produce their part.”
Pis said that the SEMA Garage is dedicated to helping such small innovators bridge the technology gap.
One of SEMA’s most successful product-development solutions has been its Technology Transfer program, which allows members to access production-vehicle CAD files from Ford, GM, Chrysler (including Fiat, Ram and Jeep) and Scion. There are also a limited number of files available from vehicles that have been laser scanned at the SEMA Garage, including vehicles from Toyota and Nissan, principally pickups. SEMA members can also use the Garage’s FaroArm services to scan vehicles and even their own parts for CAD/CAM applications.
“There are a lot of guys who created parts back in the days without CAD files,” Pis said. “They can go back, scan and create CAD files for their legacy parts for more effective manufacturing.”
Once they’ve modeled their products in CAD, innovators can create 3D prototypes in ABS plastic using the Garage’s 3D printer through a process known as computer-aided additive manufacturing. By extruding thin layers of material on top of one another, the machine can build full prototypes for fitment and testing at a cost of $12 per cu. in., which is often far less expensive than traditional methods.
“We’re here to acquaint and help members with technology,” said Pis. “When we first got the rapid-prototyping machine, everyone was curious about what it did. As people started using it, they started getting creative. We’ve seen people design things from scratch and create prototypes just for fitment all the way to creating a full intake manifold from pieces, gluing them together and actually testing it on a dyno. A lot of companies have also gone on to buy their own laser scanners after seeing ours at work and are now scanning vehicles and building their own CAD libraries of data that they didn’t have before.”
The bottom line is that the digital age is bringing new advantages to smaller product innovators. While there are certainly complex, high-buck technologies on the market for larger businesses, there are also wide-ranging, affordable options that are well suited to helping the little guy with big ideas. All it takes is tapping into them.