Conveyor Manufacturer Keeps Things Moving

15 Oct, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Hytrol's Autodesk-based engineered-to-order system employs 12 rules to generate 25,000 product options

Which would you rather manage: 25,000 product configurations or 12 engineering rules? Unless you're inexplicably addicted to complicated spreadsheets, you'd undoubtedly pick 12 over 25,000. In fact, a dozen well-developed design formulas may be all you need to drive 25,000 product iterations. That's what conveyor manufacturer Hytrol Conveyor discovered.

Loberg's Legacy
At a friend's urging, Tom Loberg, a 30-year-old machine shop operator who had survived the Great Depression, built a modest conveyor system for handling bags of seed and feed. It was the first product of what would later become Hytrol Conveyor, founded by Loberg in 1947. Six decades later, the late Loberg's legacy is a thriving international business, with market presence in 13 countries in addition to the United States. Working behind the scenes, Hytrol equipment helps companies such as Barnes & Noble, Costco, FedEx and Office Max keep shipping and sorting operations running smoothly. The company produces a variety of conveying and sorting machines that can be customized according to their physical dimensions, set-ups (horizontal, incline or portable), the types of curves and belts involved and other specifications. That translates to a bloated BOM (bill of materials) archive of more than 1 million products.

Loberg never discounted the importance of the company's distributors. In 1997, on Hytrol's 50th anniversary, he remarked, "We're in the business of manufacturing conveyors. Our distributors are in the business of selling them. ... We form a unique three-way partnership between our company, our distributors and our customers." ("In Remembrance: Tom Loberg," Material Handling Tips & Info newsletter, November 2004, published by Cisco-Eagle).

Configurable Intent
George Williams, Hytrol's director of product technology, reiterates the founder's philosophy when he says, "We only go to market through distributors." The Hytrol sales army is 600 strong, representing 80 distributors (65 domestic, 15 international). And these distributors rely on an order entry system Hytrol developed to communicate with the company.

Stuart Shaw, Hytrol's manager of information systems, explained, "About eight years ago, we hired a consulting company to help write a CAD system that our distributors could use to do conveyor layouts. Over time, this system evolved into the order entry system used by both our distributors and our internal sales staff."

The outcome was HyCAD, a proprietary system that generates a 3D representation of the conveyor system in AutoCAD as a distributor filled out information in the electronic order entry form.

Hytrol's engineering division recently decided to consolidate all its manufacturing processes into a single CAD environment, AutoCAD Mechanical, away from another company's 2D design and drafting product. So it became necessary to take another look at the order entry system, the vital link between Hytrol's CAD data and its ERP (enterprise resource management) system.

When it became apparent that neither Hytrol's internally developed ERP system nor those in the market would provide what was needed, Hytrol asked Autodesk Consulting for input. This led them to Autodesk Intent, an engineered-to-order solution for mass customization.

Industrial Preservation
"We have many rules: design rules, engineering rules, business rules. They're in people's heads, in Excel spreadsheets, in notebooks," observes Williams. Many old-timers from Loberg's days are still around, but more and more of them are pondering fishing by the lake in retirement. "And, when they leave, we're worried that these rules are going to disappear with them," Williams says.

Having learned from trial-and-error over the years, an experienced Hytrol engineer can tell which models are suitable for conveying boxes and which are better for pallets. Moreover, that engineer also recognizes that if a client wants to move materials of special construct (for instance, pallets having sandstone in their makeup), the conveyor must employ certain types of bearings and sprockets. Otherwise, the operation might trigger unwanted failure due to environmental conditions. So Hytrol looked to the new order-entry system not only to streamline operations but also to preserve decades of hard-earned wisdom.

Shaw says, "We give Autodesk Intent system equations. For example, when a distributor inputs 'I want a support frame at this location with these options,' the system provides him or her with the required component. So essentially, we maintain 12 rules that drive 25,000 possible combinations for that product, a support frame. It's like file compression applied to our BOMs."

Think of these engineering rules as rules of thumb, Williams suggests. They inform the distributors whether the product configuration desired is within acceptable parameters, whether it is an ill-advised or impractical configuration and whether it's something that demands special handling.

Conveyor manufacturer Hytrol found a way to use Autodesk Intent to compress its ever-expanding BOM archive. Instead of juggling 25,000 product configurations for 1 million products, the company's engineered-to-order system is now driven by 12 engineering rules.

Autodesk Feng Shui
"If we'd implemented every piece of technology available, we'd have choked our processes," Williams reflects. "What Autodesk Consulting helped us see was that it's not just about implementing new technology but also about improving business processes."

Recommendations on how to rearrange your office may seem like a facility manager's job or a decorator's mission, but, according to Williams, similar advice from Autodesk Consulting leads to better workflow at Hytrol.

"They suggested we organize our front office differently in a simpler layout so that we get a cross-functional team," says Williams. "It's a lean manufacturing approach applied to office environment. It seems like a simple thing, but we believe it helps tremendously in our communication."

Under One Roof
Recently, Hytrol's vice-president of marketing decided it was time to update the company's technical manuals -- "a huge undertaking," Shaw notes, referring to the extensive process of updating and reprinting.

Autodesk Consulting proposed an alternative. Because Hytrol already has in its database all the AutoCAD drawings needed for the manuals, why not publish the manuals on the Autodesk Streamline Web site and give Hytrol distributors access to it? So that's exactly what Hytrol did. In a matter of months, Hytrol's Streamline site is up and running with all the updated product information.

Hytrol's manufacturing workflow is now managed using AutoCAD Mechanical, Autodesk Inventor, Autodesk Intent, Autodesk Streamline, Autodesk DWF and Autodesk Vault. "Putting our operations on the products from a single company has been extremely beneficial to us," says Shaw.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

More News and Resources from Cadalyst Partners

For Mold Designers! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the mold design professional. Sponsored by Siemens NX.  Visit the Equipped Mold Designer here!

For Architects! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the building design professional. Sponsored by HP.  Visit the Equipped Architect here!