3D modelling levels the playing field

A manufacturer of hydraulic valves can now produce new valve sections up to ten times faster than before, since moving from 2D to 3D modelling. Dean Palmer investigates

'Design engineers working with 2D CAD tools are at a discernible disadvantage compared to those using three-dimensional modelling packages,' is a statement one would normally hear from major software companies that are trying to sell more of their 3D solid modelling software packages to the unconverted. However, plenty of manufacturing companies these days would agree wholeheartedly with the statement.

Take hydraulic valve manufacturer, Hy-Pro, based in Devon. This firm works with both 3D solid modelling software (Solidworks) and 2D CAD. Barry Wynn, design office leader at the company, told Eureka: "Design is a three-dimensional function, so working with 2D CAD instantly puts designers at a disadvantage. Designing is all about 3D shapes; depicting them in 2D is in fact quite counter-intuitive. But it's a technique so ingrained in most engineers that they don't realise how cumbersome it is.

"Like most design engineers, I cut my teeth on a drawing board and have spent years working with 2D representations. Switching to [3D] modelling was a bit like relearning a long-forgotten language," he continued.

Wynn cited an example of a valve spool. He said that if you were to ask a non-engineer to draw one, they would start by sketching a cylinder. "Interestingly, a cylinder or bar is also where you start when making a spool," he argued.

Wynn has been using 2D and 3D CAD packages for some years and put forward his views on the restrictions of using traditional CAD software: "2D CAD was such an advance in its day that designers were bowled over by it. The transition to 3D is a bit more difficult because you are not only learning new computer skills, but also completely re-evaluating the intellectual design processes. It's when you go back to 2D CAD after a period that you see its restrictions."

Hy-Pro carries out all its design work using Solidworks 3D modelling software, but the firm also maintains CAD files for its existing products. The decision to go with Solidworks was down to Wynn, who said the software was now suited to small-to-medium sized companies. He explained: "The earlier [3D] modelling packages were very high-end. Great for global aerospace giants and such like, but far too complex for the majority of UK engineering firms."

The key benefit of 3D, as far as Wynn is concerned, is the ability to visualise designs, what something will look like, how its parts will assemble and how it will operate. "We produce prototypes that work first time, ones that are almost identical to the final product design. The other departments [at Hy-Pro] now think that we can do our jobs properly," he quipped.

Hy-Pro doesn't quite go straight from design to manufacture in a single step, but it certainly is far more efficient than before, said Wynn. "The time saved allows the engineers to be far more rigorous in their design and analysis procedures, while still reducing time to market for new products."

Wynn argued that 3D modelling now puts Hy-Pro on a par with far larger competitors. "Because we have everybody on a single site, we have the potential for very high internal operating efficiency and Solidworks allows us to realise this. We can go from design brief to concept and through the development stages very slickly. We regularly produce new valve sections in six weeks, up to ten times faster than a big company. And, as soon as we have the final design, we can convert the 'e-drawings' into assembly animations for the website and render them up for brochures, and so on."

Alan Wilson, sales manager at Hy-Pro commented: "In reality, investing in 3D modelling has enabled us to eliminate the costly prototype stage in our new product development process. All the fits and clashes in the design are designed out.

"Typically, we produce between five and ten prototypes per new hydraulic valve. I reckon the software has saved us around 10 weeks of prototype and tooling work per project."

Tom Shelley

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