Employee-Driven Software Purchase Saves Time, Money

Ideas about new ways of doing things don't always come from the upper tiers of management. At this facility, a CAD package that a shop floor employee had been using for home projects transformed the company's design process.

Case Study From: 2/19/2008 Modern Machine Shop

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Alibre Design Professional

Methode toolmakers use Alibre Design Professional to design all the equipment needed to produce electrical components for automotive OEMs. This screenshot depicts a servo-controlled pick and place machine that takes the plastic scrap out of a molding machine and places it into a scrap grinder.

This Alibre CAD rendering

This Alibre CAD rendering depicts a machine used to assemble electrical contacts. It takes the contacts off of a reel, indexes them, cuts them off individually, places them on a hand-loaded plastic rotor and then inserts plastic pegs to hold them in place.

To remain competitive, manufacturers constantly seek solutions to problems caused by unproductive or outdated processes and equipment. Purchases of new technology, revamped procedures and other methods to alleviate bottlenecks often originate at the top with managers and those who make purchasing decisions. In the case of Methode Electronics’ Automotive Electronic Controls Division, however, employee initiative led to the purchase of new software that improved the company’s design process and saved time.

Methode Electronics is a global manufacturer of electronic components and subsystem devices. The company’s Automotive Controls Division supplies electromechanical devices such as switches, interconnects and controls used by automobile OEMs. Its products include switches for power windows, doors and mirrors; hood and trunk switches; steering wheel and column controls; fluid-level and torque sensors; and more.

The company’s toolmakers spent years using graph paper, pencils and drafting tools to create design drawings for the fixtures, assembly machines and other equipment needed to manufacture the electrical components. The project collaboration process consisted of handing one another these drawings, which were filed in cabinets for storage and retrieval. With no tooling background, engineers would often find the hand-drawn sketches difficult to interpret and communicate to the external vendors that produced the designs. Changes were often required because the finished product did not meet the engineers’ expectations. Reworking the machines was both time-consuming and costly.

The solution to this problem arose from an employee’s search for affordable design software to use for a project at home. After seeing a magazine advertisement for Alibre Design Professional CAD software, Methode toolmaker Brian Ray bought a seat with his own money and installed it on his home computer. He was soon designing new kitchen cabinets. The software worked so well for him that he thought it could make an impact at work, so he demonstrated it to the rest of the design team. One by one, the other toolmakers also bought personal copies of the software to use for home projects, despite having very little 3D experience.

Soon, the designers began bringing their computers to the office every day to use the CAD application for work projects. Management noticed. In fact, the company was so impressed with the results that it bought Alibre Design Professional for the entire team.

“I installed Alibre Design Professional and got up and running immediately,” Mr. Ray says. “Even the toolmakers without CAD experience found it easy to use.”

The toolmakers now use the CAD software to draw designs before exporting them into Mastercam CAM software to build parts. Compatibility between the two applications eases this process, as the latest version of Mastercam X2 MR2 directly reads native Alibre design files.

Among the software features that Methode toolmakers find most useful is 3D parametric solid modeling. Having a solid model controlled by intelligent design parameters rather than only geometry provides a detailed picture of how a finished component will look. Parametrics also enable easier changes—users simply enter a new dimension value and the model updates. With the software’s visualization options, toolmakers can peer deep into the interiors of the assembly, welding and other machines they design.

In addition, the software allows multiple people to work together on a single design at the same time, resulting in improved communication, better designs and less rework and scrap. Support for PDF allows a file with a full 3D model and 2D drawing of a component to be sent to upper management or external vendors without first finding out what format is needed. A library of standard and manufacturer parts allows use of off-the-shelf parts for designs. Users can also create their own parts libraries.

All in all, the company says Alibre Design Professional has provided a competitive advantage by reducing the time it takes to make quality products. Users save time by designing entire parts before cutting any metal.

“If a part on a machine needs to be replaced, you don’t have to take the part off the machine,” Mr. Ray says. “You can bring up the saved file, make the part and know it will fit. This means no downtime.”

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