Software Switch Cuts Project-Cycle Time by 75%

25 Sep, 2008 By: Cadalyst Staff

FRICK moves from AutoCAD to AutoCAD Electrical and dramatically improves the design process for its control panels.

Since the early 1990s, FRICK, a designer and manufacturer of control systems, process-cooling solutions, and heating systems, has depended on Autodesk software to design its products. An early adopter of 3D technology, the company used Autodesk Inventor to deliver digital prototypes to manufacturing and improve its ability to fill orders. For several years, the company also relied on Autodesk Vault and Productstream for data, revision, and product-lifestyle management (PLM).

However, the company continued to use basic AutoCAD to design control panels until it became clear that the software was no longer able to deliver the kind of efficiencies that the company needed to remain competitive. After experiencing substantial benefits with other Autodesk manufacturing solutions, FRICK decided to adopt AutoCAD Electrical to help revamp and accelerate its process for designing electrical control panels.

"Retrofitting old panels was particularly tedious," said Brian Hess, a FRICK electrical project engineer. "We'd have to hunt for panels close to the existing one or start from scratch and build all the symbols. During the design process, we might pull parts and pieces from as many as nine different drawings. It would take a week just to do the initial drawings.

Even after they thought a drawing was complete, engineers often found mistakes. "We had to use plain lines to do all the connection points on an electrical control panel. A design might look good on the screen, but when printed out, sometimes lines wouldn't even touch. Then we'd have to go back and fix them. It wasted a lot of time," Hess said.

In addition, compiling a bill of materials (BOM) using basic AutoCAD was a tedious, manual process. Engineers and designers had to hand-type BOMs for each design, a process that significantly impacted design-cycle time. "We really wanted to automate BOMs," said Samuel Cox, FRICK electrical designer. "We knew that if we could create BOMs more efficiently, we'd save tons of time."

Leverage Built-in Intelligence
Rather than using lines, circles, and squares, AutoCAD Electrical provides the company with a menu-driven system for inserting intelligent representations of specific electrical and pneumatic devices. The symbol library includes devices such as electrical systems, push buttons, selector systems, pilot lights, relays, contacts, and fuses. "With AutoCAD Electrical, you insert a symbol from the library or that you've created, and it breaks the line and attaches itself," Cox said. "You select the part you need out of the parts library and AutoCAD Electrical puts it on the wiring diagram. You don't have to go back in and do trim or extend lines."
When a design contains errors, engineers know before they print. The software alerts them when there's a mistake, using its built-in error-checking capabilities. "If we're doing a wire diagram and create a shortcut, AutoCAD Electrical tells us — it actually flags it," Hess said. "The software handles a lot of the engineering work, helping reduce errors significantly, if not completely."

Numbering Automatically
Another manual process that's been eliminated is numbering wires and component tags. Engineers now choose a configuration and the software places sequential or referenced-based numbers on all wires and components in their control-panel design. The software knows if an inserted number will overlap and automatically searches laterally along the wire for a clear spot for the wire number. If it doesn't find a spot, it searches for a spot away from the wire and draws a ladder back to it.

Numbering the title blocks on all the sheets of a drawing is another manual process that the company has shed. Some control panels are 40 to 60 sheets long, which, when manually inserted, is time-consuming. Now engineers use a template that can be reused through all their drawings.

Generating Quick Reports
Engineers and designers no longer labor for a week to create BOMs. Instead, they run the BOM report function to receive information automatically. They can also create From/To wire lists, or generate multiple reports with a single command.

The company can also print terminal block ID tags more efficiently. "Before, someone had to manually type in every terminal block number into the sticker-machine software, which took up to 20 minutes," Hess said. Now, numbers are extrapolated from the wiring diagram or panel build. "We save them to a text file and send it to the sticker machine. It takes approximately 60 seconds."

Reusing Existing Drawings
Although FRICK reused designs with AutoCAD, the process was flawed. "It wasn't easy to reuse designs. There was a lot of manual effort involved," Cox said. But now engineers and designers can make a copy of a specific part or reuse an entire drawing set when starting a new design. It is also possible to save commonly used circuits for reuse in future designs.

In a recent retrofit project, Cox experienced AutoCAD Electrical's design reuse first hand. He had to retrofit two panels for a refrigeration system -- one panel handled the compressor system package and the other was a condenser control panel. Cox started with a control data sheet that detailed the older package, then began his retrofit from an existing drawing. The software gave him a list of all the parts in the wiring diagram that needed to go in the new panel. "It's so much easier than having to hunt around for components in different projects and drawings," Cox said.

Integrating with Other Autodesk Solutions
Autodesk Vault helps the company manage work-in-progress through a central repository that is accessible at all times. Productstream enables the company to automate the management of engineering changes, BOMs, and the process for releasing engineering data to manufacturing. "Productstream creates an item master and we attach our electrical control-panel drawings to that item," Hess said. "Then the software controls the item master for review and release, managing the entire revision process."

AutoCAD Electrical enables both electrical and mechanical teams to work collaboratively on a single-digital model by making it easy to share the electrical intent from the controls design. In the future, the company would like to integrate its AutoCAD Electrical designs directly with Inventor. "It would be a huge benefit to move from a 2D to a 3D world," Hess said. "When you build a digital prototype, you can actually see the complete package before its built -- you can get the big picture."

The company's electrical engineers and designers are already comfortable with digital prototyping. "In the past, to design a new product for the food and beverage refrigeration line, you would do a drawing and then actually go build the panel. You'd then check your work, make changes, and only then would the panel go into production. With AutoCAD Electrical, I feel confident that we could go right from the design into production without building a physical prototype," Hess said.

The Results
For the company, simple tasks no longer drain design time. Engineers now print terminal-block ID tags 95% faster than before. They also produce electrical-control panes 80% faster, compressing a three-week-design cycle to three days. And when the design is done, so is the BOM.

"Everything is now completed when the design first goes to the customer for approval," Cox said. "We're saving a tremendous amount of time and reducing manual work."



About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

Cadalyst Staff