Solid Edge

Switch to Direct Modeling Speeds Furniture Maker’s CAD Workflow

10 Jan, 2013 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

Kimball International moves to Solid Edge with synchronous technology and gains shorter design times and simplified reuse of legacy data.

If you're reading this article at work, odds are good that you're seated in an office chair — and possibly one created by Kimball International, an Indiana-based company that designs and manufactures furniture and electronics. The company's furniture segment provides desks, chairs, and the like under the brand names Kimball Office, National Office Furniture, and Kimball Hospitality.

Kimball's history stretches back to 1950, a time when the office and hospitality furniture market was much different than it is today. In recent years, Kimball has been faced with a business environment that's changing on every front; competition, materials, customer expectations, and even the office itself are all evolving quickly. 

"A few years ago, we had very little competition; now, the competition is global," said Ricardo Espinosa, R&D Engineering Services manager at Kimball, pointing to challengers in China and Latin America, as well as some closer to home. "The whole market is requiring shorter development times."

Globalization also affects the demand for new materials in furniture, he observed, as more exotic options are brought into the United States from around the world, and customers gain a greater awareness of the value of sustainable materials.

Changes in office technology and workflows pose their own challenges, as more workplaces migrate to an open floorplan intended to facilitate collaboration and networking. "The open office is the main driver for what we've been doing [design-wise] in the past three years," said Espinosa. "Cubicle farms are almost gone; there's a lot more interaction between people." And with the prevalence of technologies such as tablet computers and smartphones, far more employees are on the move during the day, he noted. "You need a lot more flexibility, you need mobility, [but you still] need privacy."


Transition Time

Espinosa believes that cost reduction is essential to remaining competitive in this volatile landscape, especially in the hospitality market. "For hotels, you have to provide something that looks really good for very little money," he commented.

Finding fat to trim, however, has become increasingly difficult. "A few years ago," Espinosa explained, "cost reductions came from materials and processes, but we have come to the end of that [strategy]; supply chains are optimized, and we are already using cost-efficient materials. Now we're working on the way we design products" — and that means turning an eye to new tools.

Kimball's designers had been using traditional, history-based Solid Edge 3D modeling software since 2004. In 2008, Siemens PLM Software released Solid Edge with synchronous technology — a history-free, feature-based modeling solution that simultaneously synchronizes geometry and rules through a decision-making inference engine. Created to accelerate design processes, synchronous technology helps designers reuse CAD data, incorporate data from multiple CAD systems, and make design changes quickly.

Complex curved surfaces and plastic cast parts (left), and a credenza assembly (right), all designed by Kimball product engineers using Solid Edge. Images courtesy of Siemens PLM Software.

Espinosa began evaluating synchronous technology a couple of years ago, using just one computer to experiment with it whenever he had a spare moment. He timed himself performing typical design tasks using the company's existing version of Solid Edge, followed by the same tasks using Solid Edge with synchronous technology. "It was some time before I was completely convinced this was the way to go, [but] it was faster for everything," he reported.

Convincing himself was only the first step, however. The next task was to convince everyone else at Kimball. Like any midsized company, Kimball was slow to embrace change, he said, "but I was able to prove [my case] with real products and real part numbers."

Training Strategy

The transition to synchronous technology began in the summer of 2012, with a carefully selected test group. Eight superusers were trained with the help of an external consultant, then spent several months designing products from scratch. Once the core group had uncovered any kinks in the training process, its experience and knowledge was shared with the rest of the team, Espinosa explained. The remaining product engineers were separated into groups of eight to ten, according to their job functions, for specialized training sessions.

Kimball completed the transition in mid-September, having trained all 50 engineers on synchronous technology, plus almost 300 employees on Teamcenter, Siemens PLM Software's product lifecycle management software. "I can't say that the transition was perfect ... but I believe all [the problems we encountered] are minor things, and we expected them."

Espinosa expected that it would take an additional three to six months to get all product engineers up to the same level of productivity as the test group, but he noticed benefits of the changeover right away. "The general population is getting happier because how they can do the work better," he said, reporting that design work is "less repetitive, less tiring, and more fun" with synchronous technology.

Not everyone shares that view, of course. Espinosa received complaints from about seven users, one of whom called the move to synchronous technology "the worst thing we ever did." The greatest resistance has come from longtime users — those with decades of experience in the company. "It's really hard for them to think differently," Espinosa observed. He explained that younger employees are helping their older counterparts understand the system more quickly, and Kimball is developing special training for the die-hard fans of history-based modeling. "It's less about [teaching] synchronous technology than about opening minds," he said.

Reusing Legacy Design Data

When Espinosa was evaluating synchronous technology, one benefit garnered particular attention: "[The fact] that we were able to reuse legacy data was ideal." Much of the company's CAD data was created using I-deas software, and although some of it is decades old, it's still valuable. With synchronous technology, Kimball's designers can easily reuse that data in new designs, instead of starting fresh each time.

Kimball designers can import legacy assemblies into Solid Edge with synchronous technology, and quickly make small changes or adjustments to dimensions. They can also create models without performing additional calculations. The import process, which used to take days, now takes just minutes. That's important, as the company still keeps thousands of components in legacy formats.

"We really work on reusing existing legacy information," said Espinosa. "We had it in the vault and never used it; now that vault is open, and we're saving a lot of time versus working from scratch." Although details and design concepts — such as ergonomics and sustainability — may change, the fundamental components of furniture design remain the same over time. "We're not reinventing the wheel; a chair is a chair, a desk is a desk," Espinosa pointed out. "Almost everything we do starts with a legacy component ... 90% of what we do is based on existing information."

This Kimball WaveWorks Workstation with Timberlane chairs was designed and rendered with Solid Edge. Image courtesy of Siemens PLM Software.

And it's not just a matter of translating legacy data; Kimball works with suppliers across Europe, India, and China, all of whom have their own CAD systems. "With synchronous technology, we don't even care if it's SolidWorks or CATIA. ... We just ask the suppliers to send us [files in] STL or IGS format, and we start from there," Espinosa explained. "Every single industry could take advantage of this."

In addition, the internal design team sometimes works with contract designers, architects, and customers who create designs using 3ds Max or Rhino — or even ballpoint pen and a napkin. "We have all kinds of sources," Espinosa said. "It doesn't matter where the idea comes from, we have to create a 3D model and specifications. ... This is where synchronous technology helps a lot."

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