Small Manufacturer Thinks Big

27 Sep, 2006 By: Michelle Nicolson

Family-owned Q-Lighting adopts 3D design and in-house rapid prototyping to compete with larger companies and win.

The owners of Q-Lighting know that being small has its advantages. The Lexington, Kentucky-based manufacturer produces portable and wearable lights for illuminating small items in poorly lit areas. The products are used by campers, boaters, professional musicians, electricians, mechanics and doctors, among others. With 35 years of experience and 40 employees, the company sells its products nationwide in specialty stores such as ACE Hardware and Eddie Bauer.

Selling a niche product to niche stores means that customization is the key to keeping the company profitable. "Because we are one of the last family-owned businesses in this market, we need every possible advantage to maintain an edge on our competition," explains Ira Cooper, Q-Lighting owner and president. Q-Lighting's management staff realized that the organization needed to improve design turnaround time so it could quickly address each vendor's customization requests.

Q-Lighting turned to Avatech Solutions, an Autodesk reseller and engineering systems integrator, to help it incorporate new technology to achieve these goals. Avatech staff faced two major challenges: shrink the company's time-to-assembly and reduce its parts-modeling costs. Most Q-Lighting products are made of plastic, and it turned out that its process of transferring 2D design data into a 3D model for moldmaking was wasting time and money.

Super Bil, a product from of Q-Lighting.

3D Transition
Carl Smith, an Avatech senior application expert, began by transitioning Q-Lighting's AutoCAD files to Autodesk Mechanical Desktop, and then to Inventor 11 after that program was released in April. Smith helped the company convert the geometry and provided customized title blocks and fonts using company standards. The in-house design team then spent a week with Smith, who helped them learn the new programs by working on actual production drawings.

Autodesk Inventor 11 displays an exploded view of Q-Lighting's Super Bil-lite product.

Transitioning to Inventor 11, the company could take advantage of the software's 3D benefits. Today, the engineering team can create designs and test them virtually instead of testing physical prototypes that were previously outsourced. Seeing these benefits, Cooper decided to take his company's process one step further: He invested in an in-house rapid prototyping machine from Stratasys so the Q-Lighting's 3D drawings could become physical 3D models without ever leaving the premises.

"Virtual testing and creating physical models allows us to easily see whether the assembly will work prior to creating new parts," Cooper explains. "Now, instead of spending $30,000 for a fully built-out working 3D model, it costs us around $700 in materials, plus our time. And we control the process."

Automatic Updates
Q-Lighting's engineering team soon discovered additional benefits of working in 3D. Because the company's products contain parts that snap together, designers had always needed to remember to change both a shaft diameter and the hole when modifying a 2D design. With Inventor 11, a change in a shaft automatically transfers to the corresponding hole.

"This lets us quickly adapt an existing part for a new product without having to do the math," Cooper says. These small advantages added up to big benefits for the company: faster turnaround time means happy customers and improved profit margins.

In a matter of days following implementation, the new technology and design process began to pay off for Q-Lighting. In addition to the thousands of dollars it is saving, the company has reduced the prototyping process from days or weeks to just hours. This reduced timeline gives the company more time to bring innovation to other products, making it more nimble in a highly competitive marketplace.

"This new process with virtual testing capabilities in Autodesk Inventor and the rapid prototyping machine makes us an extremely efficient design organization, helping us to get our products on the shelf before our largest competitors," Cooper says.

About the Author: Michelle Nicolson

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