At LEMO, 3D Is Not an All-or-Nothing Proposition1 Feb, 2011 By: Jeffrey Rowe
Manufacturer of popular connectors finds DWG data is still critical for internal communication and fast delivery of custom designs.
Editor's note: Through a sponsorship by Autodesk, Cadalyst editors bring you this feature, part of a special series of articles that highlight the role of AutoCAD and 2D design in today's demanding CAD work flows. Watch for the next installment later this month.
There's no room for error in designing for LEMO, a brand well known for its push-pull connectors used in medical, industrial, audio/visual, telecommunications, military, scientific research, and measurement applications. Nobody wants a connector to come unplugged accidentally during a crucial operation, said Erik Gammon, engineering manager at LEMO USA, based in Rohnert Park, California. LEMO prides itself on making completely reliable connectors for applications in which safety and absolute performance are critical.
So, it's no surprise that LEMO relies on 3D modeling to provide the accuracy and analysis capabilities it needs — in this case, Autodesk Inventor. What might surprise you is that in an industry that today often touts 3D as the only viable approach to design, a company such as LEMO USA also still relies heavily on the 2D functionality of AutoCAD Mechanical to support its demanding work flow.
With approximately 110 employees, LEMO USA is a subsidiary of Switzerland-based LEMO SA. The company derives its name from that of its founder, engineer Léon Mouttet, originally a manufacturer of contacts made of noble and rare metals. LEMO sets the industry standard for quality with its push-pull circular connectors that range in diameter from 8 millimeters to 60 millimeters and some of which incorporate fiber-optic, coaxial, and low-voltage contacts into a single hybrid design.
Digital Prototyping in 2D and 3D
The development process at LEMO USA revolves around digital prototyping in an Inventor- and AutoCAD Mechanical-based work flow in which designers digitally design, visualize, and simulate products at every stage — from concept through manufacturing. In this work flow, LEMO uses AutoCAD Mechanical as a design and collaboration tool to draw and visualize connector and cable assemblies and communicate with its offices worldwide. LEMO also uses Autodesk Inventor Professional to design and analyze connectors, as well as Autodesk Vault to manage its digital prototyping and drawing files and Autodesk Design Review software to share, review, and mark up digital prototypes with internal teams and external customers.
This AutoCAD Mechanical drawing of a panel-mount socket connector provides all the specifications that customers need to incorporate the connector into their designs.
LEMO USA has used AutoCAD since 1994 and Inventor since 2003. It uses only the 2D capabilities in AutoCAD Mechanical, relying heavily on the software to leverage its legacy data — more than 7,500 2D drawings. This vast library of DWG data can serve as the basis of new and customized 2D and 3D designs, significantly accelerating the design process. Historically, LEMO USA has used 2D for customer-level drawings of connector assemblies with bills of materials (BOMs) and dimensions and for inspection purposes. The company can leverage the DWG format because it is universally accepted internally as well as by customers and suppliers.
The company's design engineers are the primary producers and users of 3D models, which number more than 1,500. All drawings, whether they originated in AutoCAD or Inventor, are saved in the DWG file format, which essentially standardizes the CAD file format for internal and external purposes.
Because of physical geometry that is conducive to 2D layout and representation, LEMO's connectors are perfect for designing in AutoCAD Mechanical. For example, because its connectors are cylindrical, a 2D view of the top or side of a connector can be selected and the Extrude or Revolve command can be applied to quickly create a connector design. Features such as fillets or chamfers then can be added easily to refine a design. With its extensive experience using AutoCAD, LEMO finds that designing connectors in 2D is often faster than using 3D, Gammon explained.
Gammon said using a hybrid AutoCAD/Inventor approach provides increased efficiency and flexibility for the designers in his group, who often take 3D data from Inventor to perform design work with AutoCAD Mechanical or vice versa. They can work directly in the 3D software with the 2D DWG data imported from AutoCAD Mechanical, or they can manipulate 2D AutoCAD Mechanical data, incorporate it with 3D data in Inventor, and save the resulting 3D data in the DWG format. Whichever approach gets the design job done most quickly and accurately is the approach the team will choose for any given project.
Meeting and Exceeding Customer Needs
Although most LEMO customers purchase the company's mass-produced connectors, approximately 20 percent of business involves creating custom designs for unique applications. To be competitive, LEMO needs to turn those designs and associated drawings around quickly. LEMO connectors are modular, so interior parts can be customized to fit into existing shells. Designers can configure already available components to create more than 65,000 different connectors.
The design cycle for LEMO connectors can range from one week for custom connectors made from unique combinations of existing components to one year for new product lines that involve extensive design, manufacturing preparation, and marketing support from the ground up. The ability to deliver customized digital models and drawings so quickly impresses LEMO customers and helps separate LEMO from its competition.
The modular nature of LEMO connector designs, illustrated here in an exploded model in Autodesk Inventor Professional, makes it relatively fast and easy to turn around new custom designs.
LEMO also finds that digital prototyping and the interoperability of Autodesk software products helps to break down barriers between internal design teams. For example, the cable assembly team can easily insert portions of custom Inventor models into its AutoCAD Mechanical cable assembly drawings so everything does not have to be created from scratch. Depending on preferences and requirements, manufacturing and engineering teams can view a digital prototype in either 2D or 3D to minimize potential problems earlier in the design process. Previously, many problems were not discovered until physical prototyping or preproduction, which was an expensive proposition. Today, with the DWG drawing format, designs can be evaluated extensively with a variety of tools.
LEMO upgrades its CAD software every other year and plans to upgrade to the 2011 versions of AutoCAD Mechanical and Inventor soon to take advantage of new features and capabilities in the user interface (such as workspaces, ribbons, and the Quick Access Toolbar) and 2D/3D interoperability that continue to improve with each new version. New productivity tools in AutoCAD 2011 will help automate common design tasks and facilitate increased drawing productivity.
Looking ahead, Gammon said that AutoCAD would remain vital for sharing design data throughout the company. "Our headquarters in Switzerland speaks French, while our U.S. subsidiary speaks English. CAD data is our common, universal language for communication and collaboration via design documentation and visualization with AutoCAD and Inventor."
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