9 Apr, 2004 By: Cadalyst Staff

Figures 1-4. Seeking an integrated CAD/CAM system to handle its entire workflow, ACE Clearwater Enterprises adopted VX software. One of ACE's goals is to use a single CAD file to manufacture, inspect, and report inspection results for a part. Key stages in manufacturing the ducting system of a high-performance aircraft include the tooling (figure 1), half of a stamped metal duct (figure 2), the entire ducting system assembled and welded (figure 3), and the assembly being verified by ACE Clearwater's computerized measurement machine (figure 4).
It's 1951. The prop-driven DC-3 is the workhorse of the aviation industry. The first passenger airliners with pressurized cabins are introduced. The first fighter jets are still being refined, and helicopters are exotic. Computers are about as rare as a blue moon and weigh almost as much.

Aviation has always been a high-tech leader, and even in 1951 ACE Clearwater Enterprises was an important supplier to the leading aerospace companies. More than 50 years later, ACE Clearwater still produces customized components for leading aerospace vendors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The company's expertise in working and welding aluminum, steel, and titanium has generated an ongoing stream of metal skins, ducts, and components for commercial aircraft and more exotic birds such as the new Joint Strike Fighter.

In addition, the company produces components for large power generation turbines for key industry players such as GE. The company's broad metal-forming capabilities include hydroforming, drop hammer and press, thin metal welding, annealing ovens, CNC horizontal mills and lathes, hot press forming of titanium, stamping, and tube bending.

"The demands on our engineering and production resources have increased, and we need to continue to improve turnaround and productivity," says Steve Farentinos, engineering manager at ACE Clearwater. "So we began to evaluate new CAD/CAM software that could help."

Complex Surfaces Require A New Solution
Though exhaust manifolds and exterior skins for high-performance aircraft are a highly valued and visible part of ACE's production, Farentinos also notes that the heavily contoured ducting surfaces in a turbine generator system can be equally challenging. "These are high-pressure flows in constantly running systems, so the components must be rugged and reliable. At the same time, these are complex and precise surfaces that require a sophisticated CAD system. After careful review of the alternatives, we chose VX CAD/CAM software because we can quickly develop these kinds of surfaces."

Previously, ACE used Inventor and Mechanical Desktop. Those programs didn't handle machining, so ACE also had to rely on NCL and SurfCAM. Surface models received from customers had to move through IGES to Mechanical Desktop then through IGES again to SurfCAM. Changes made to tooling went through IGES again to Mechanical Desktop.

"This is a common kludge in so many organizations," says Farentinos. "A lot of time is wasted, and as surfaces become more complicated, the entire process gets longer. Our new approach using VX is simpler and more effective."

Integrated Capabilities Save Time
The initial phase of bringing VX online is complete, and now ACE is integrating VX with one of its five-axis waterjet cutting machines. ACE is also tapping into VX's ability to work with CMM (computerized measurement machines) to inspect tooling. ACE is writing VX macros to generate CMM code and evaluate CMM data. Unlike other CAD/CAM systems, VX has built-in reverse-engineering tools for importing point-cloud data from a CMM. At ACE, this capability helps create machineable geometry in projects that don't have existing parts or CAD files. VX can also be used with the CMM machines to inspect and verify the conformity of completed parts against the CAD model.

The company's plan is to use a single CAD file to manufacture, inspect, and report inspection results for a particular part. The goal is to eliminate as much file translation as possible and minimize the number of 2D engineering drawings.

"Unlike most systems, VX was built from the ground up to be completely integrated, so it can handle the entire process or just small parts. It's flexible. In an operation like ours, the integrated functions save a lot of time and improve our efficiency. We also didn't have to purchase a lot of add-on products, like you do with most CAD/CAM software," says Farentinos.

A As an example of VX's efficieny, a file received from a customer who uses MasterCAM as a design tool had a large number of overlapping edges and unconnected vertices. Using VX's native healing function to sew up the disconnects, ACE significantly reduced the amount of time needed to heal the part. In addition, some of ACE's biggest customers, such as Honeywell and General Electric, use Pro/ENGINEER and UGS, so ACE relies on VX's translators to handle those files.

Exceptional Ease of Use
ACE tool design engineer Javier Tenorio spends most of his time designing tooling for complex-formed aerospace ducting systems. Tenorio received formal training in Mechanical Desktop, but it still took him time to become proficient. During the transition to VX, Tenorio was immediately impressed with the friendly interface. "VX is almost self-explanatory. It seems to have all the right tools, and they're easy to find and use. In just a few days, even without formal training, I began producing parts."

Tenorio has also used SolidWorks and Pro/ENGINEER. He notes that ACE originally looked at replacing Mechanical Desktop with CATIA, Unigraphics, or Pro/ENGINEER. "When I was first introduced to VX, I thought it would be up in cost like Pro/ENGINEER or CATIA. Instead, it's priced like SolidWorks, but has sophisticated capabilities similar to CATIA. It's turned out to be an incredible value."

According to Tenorio, beyond ease of use, one of the key differences between VX, Mechanical Desktop, and SurfCAM is VX's sophisticated surfacing capabilities. He can now easily create the complex surfaces essential for the components the company produces. By his estimate, he can build surfaces two to three times faster with VX than with SurfCAM.

Figure 5. Aerospace components such as this sophisticated ducting system used in commercial and military aircraft require sophisticated 3D CAD/CAM systems. Compared to ACE's previous CAD software, VX produces complex surfaces two to three times faster.

In the course of Tenorio's day, he might work on weld and drill fixtures, create parts to be shaped on the company's two five-axis waterjet machines, and help a colleague with parts for ACE's many drop hammers and hydroforming presses. Between VX's IGES import capabilities and healing functions, Tenorio can save several hours on each project. Multiplied many times over the course of the year, these capabilities significantly boost his productivity. "VX has been a great addition to our company, and we expect it to contribute even more to improving our workflow and furthering our competitive advantage as we apply its many other capabilities," concludes Farentinos.

VX Corp.

About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

Cadalyst Staff

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