Digital Prototyping Comes Naturally to 140 Year Old Company

Digital Prototyping Comes Naturally to 140 Year Old Company

 
By Bill Lydon - Contributing Editor
 
On a recent visit to A.T. Ferrell Company, I learned how they are using digital prototyping, modeling, 3D CAD, finite analysis, stress analysis, and other new tools as a transformational business strategy to improve sales, quality, efficiency, and productivity. Using the Autodesk Inventor software suite, A.T. Ferrell is taking advantage of these advanced methods at a fraction of the cost of other solutions. Access to these lower-cost digital design tools is a game changer that levels the playing field for smaller companies that take advantage of it.
 
Autodesk named A.T. Ferrell as the August 2009 Inventor of the Month for its use of Autodesk Inventor software for the design and engineering of its products. The Inventor of the Month program recognizes the most innovative design and engineering advancements made by the community using Autodesk Inventor software. Inventor enables manufacturers to create a single digital model to design, visualize and simulate products before they are built to reduce the need for physical prototypes. A.T.  Ferrell’s selection as Inventor of the Month for August is particularly significant, as August is National Inventors Month, which celebrates invention and creativity.
 
 
You may not know the A.T. Ferrell Company, but their equipment touches 60-80% of the food you eat. The flakes in corn flakes, the toffee in chocolate bars and the oats in oatmeal all have one thing in common: they were probably flattened, rolled or otherwise processed by equipment from A.T. Ferrell Company, Inc. The A.T. Ferrell Company is based in Bluffton, IN, a small town with a population of about 30,000 people. The company has been serving the agricultural, food, and industrial markets since 1869 with products under brand names including Ferrell-Ross Materials Processing & Recovery, Clipper Separation Technologies, and Mix–Mill/Farmatic Feed Processing Systems.   A.T. Ferrell is the most widely known manufacturer of roller, flaking, and cracking mills worldwide, boasting an impressive client list that includes the nation’s largest breakfast cereal producers.
 
Early A.T. Ferrell Machine
 
Upon meeting with the management team, including President Steve Stuller, Design Engineer/CAD Manager Allen Gager, sales staff, and others, it was obvious that the company has a culture of open communications, creativity and is open to new ideas. The company’s management understands that people need the software tools, capable computers, and other tools to improve engineering and manufacturing.
 
Allen Gager shows a model of early separator machines that were made of wood. The real machines are about two stories high.
 
A.T. Ferrell has streamlined their operations by using Autodesk inventor to do 3D design and digital prototyping. Since they began using 3D and Autodesk Inventor software, the need for physical prototypes has been reduced considerably.  Gager says the company no longer has to cut metal to prove the feasibility of a design, improving its ability to reuse designs and components. In a recent project, designers were able to identify a problem, test the existing design, and develop a new design all in one day. In addition, they use the digital models created to directly generate CNC code for machining using Edgecam software (www.edgecam.com).   Autodesk Vault Workgroup software has become the central repository for all product information. The company also has created linkages from the Autodesk open database to their Epicor (www.epicor.com) manufacturing ERP software to streamline operations.
 
New Designs
Gager discussed the use of digital prototyping in new designs stating, “Digital prototyping is playing a major role in getting the cracking mill and other products to the market and in meeting the challenges of our clients’ needs. It would be safe to say the design cycle of these projects is cut in half as a result of working in 3D.”  Designs, stress analysis, and machine operation issues are “worked out” before creating a real prototype.
 
Currently they are working on a new high capacity cracking mill. The team is using Autodesk Inventor software and Digital Prototyping technology to explore a number of design possibilities. It is also using Autodesk Vault Workgroup software to organize and reuse proven component designs. “Using Inventor software to create a 3D digital prototype means we no longer have to cut metal to prove the feasibility of a design,” said Gager. “We know exactly how a mill will perform before it’s been built.”  Gager also discussed how they can explore ways to lower machine energy consumption during design using these tools.
 
 
Tribal Knowledge & Existing Parts
A.T. Ferrell supplies repair parts on machines that have been running for 70 years or more. One of the reasons for this is many large machines are built into the customers’ production buildings and are functioning fine. In the past, making a repair part required looking at the old drawing and the “tribal knowledge" that the machinist and production people know about properly making the part.   Converting these paper drawings into 3D and electronically documenting all the machining and manufacturing information means parts can be made efficiently without the need for “tribal knowledge” that leaves as people retire.  
 
Reengineering
With Inventor, A.T. Ferrell is doing a better design analysis to reduce cost and make more efficient machines. Gager gave an example of how open communications and having these design tools work at the company.   The plant manager discussed a troublesome part with engineering and suggested, “we need to fix this part," which was a cast steel part that weighs about 80 pounds.  Some of the manufacturing processes required the machinist to lift this part to put it into the machine.  Since the part was a bit complicated, it required 12 manufacturing steps to produce and it was difficult to consistently make quality parts.
 
Autodesk Assistance Program Offers Help to Displaced Workers
 
Designers, Engineers and Architects Can Receive Software, Training, Certification and Other Company Resources to Help Extend Their Skills and Improve Employability
 
The Autodesk Assistance Program provides unemployed engineers with software tools, education and resources that will help them to enhance, maintain and develop their 3D design technology skills and remain competitive in the marketplace.
 
The program offers free* student software term licenses, free online training and a path to certification to unemployed architects, designers and engineers in all industries.
 
The Autodesk Assistance Program is being launched in North America. The company hopes to roll the program out in other countries over the next few months. Listen to Steve Blum discuss the program in a video on the Autodesk YouTube channel
 
Autodesk currently provides training and online resources to end users through Autodesk University Online (AU Online), Autodesk User Group International (AUGI), various online industry communities and the Autodesk YouTube Channel.
 
For more information about the Autodesk Assistance Program, please contact your local reseller, or contact Autodesk directly at [email protected] or visit www.autodesk.com.
Gager took the part into Inventor to work out ideas and show manufacturing and the machinist new ideas in 3D until they had an acceptable solution. 
 
The result was a new design that only requires four steps to make and the machine operator only needs to handle it twice. The new design reduced the manufacturing time by an hour and forty-five minutes. 
 
Sales Impact
A.T. Ferrell products are sold worldwide and machines needs to be customized for applications. Using digital prototyping, the sales people can make more significant presentations to clients allowing them to visually see the solutions being proposed. In addition, the customer can participate interactively in the process of developing the right machine for an application. A.T. Ferrell can create a digital prototype and, using Autodesk’s Freewheel, they can simply send clients emails with links to drawings for review. The customer does not require any software other than IE 7.0 or higher. More information on Freewheel.
  
Seed Change?
Autodesk Digital Prototyping software is a hit at A.T. Ferrell and looks like an investment other companies should consider. Autodesk believes that a digital prototype-centric approach, with the data management supporting the flow of the digital prototyping, is a valuable and fast way to achieve higher ROI (Return On Investment). 
 
This approach is in step with Autodesk’s track record of supplying lower cost solutions to a broader group of users. AutoCAD was introduced in 1982 as the cost effective alternative to large expensive software and is the 2D CAD supplier of choice for the majority of users today. The company’s digital prototyping solutions are consistent with this history.
 
Allen Gager talked about their success with Autodesk’s products, the Autodesk community, and their Autodesk and Edgecam value added reseller support from Industrial Technology (www.industrialtechnology.com). I would add that the attitude, creativity, and commitment of A.T. Ferrell’s people and management are a big factor of success.
 
More Information:
Industrial Technology: www.industrialtechnology.com
A.T. Ferrell: www.atferrell.com