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Sheet Metal: Looking for Better Airframe Design

I have been perplexed by Sheet Metal solutions available in CAD software for, well, as long as I have been involved in the design side of things. I spent considerable amounts of time creating these structures in airframe applications and to be quite frank, I have seen little in the grand scheme of enabling sheet metal efficiency in airframe design. Why? Because airframe designers are all using Siemens NX and Dassault CATIA.

Extruded Piano Hinge Airframe

The problem is that the rest of the industry just seemed to stop short. If you are designing steel electrical boxes, you are set. Just about every vendor out there has you covered. Automotive applications, which are generally steel, are well covered by some vendors, excepting a few situations. Airframe on the other hand is largely aluminum (rapidly being overtaken by composites), and the semi-monocoque application creates some real challenges:

  • Aluminum in airframe design is quite unforgiving – it cracks while being stretched and it cracks in flight due to cyclic loading and vibration
  • The sheets are thin and in many applications, require countersunk rivets
  • Sheets have to overlap each other in certain areas then suddenly not

Sheet Metal Bad Corner Treatment Cracked

We deal with these limitations with some manipulations that are not employed in mainstream sheet metal design. Dimples and joggles are two that come to mind. We treat corner radii differently. Another example is that parts on the aircraft are rarely built from sheets that are measured in gauges. Sheet aluminum for aircraft are shipped and spec’d in thousandths of an inch: 0.040”, 0.050” 0.063”, etc.

Thin Sheet Metal Dimpled Nutplate

General design software does not provide much in these areas. There are little in the way of rivets, rivet sizing, or fastener dimples. Moreover no standardized solid and blind rivet libraries exist with grip sizing. I have never seen gang channel in any vendor’s software, although I did put some together for Inventor.  Joggles for the sake of lapping sheets I have only seen in one vendor’s application.

CherryMax Blind Rivets Countersunk CherryMax Blind Rivet Grip Gauge

We develop workarounds to help us get the most accurate looking parts, within the limitation of important design constraints. These workarounds rarely update well after changes, and a large part of it involve specific workflows handled by flat pattern detailing and notes applied in drawing specifications and leaders.


Software Vendors

My intent here was not to point out specific vendor applications. Each vendor does certain things extremely well, and this is why we stick with this one or another, taking the good, and working around the bad.

Some examples of automation we need is:

  • Applying a Hole Feature, select Blind Rivet, whereafter identifying the sheets that will be joined, the application stores the appropriate grip for the selected rivet in the hole. When it is time to apply fasteners in the assembly, the intelligence to fill the pattern appropriately is already there.
  • Corner Treatments and setbacks that ACTUALLY WORK, even in the simplest situations.

I started investigating software updates this year, and to my surprise found nice sheet metal enhancements in almost every platform I reviewed. I have not found a solution to many of these simple problems, but I’d like to take some time in the next few weeks looking at some of the improvements that do benefit airframe design, and explain these here for everyone’s benefit.


I’d really like to get some comments here from people in the industry. Things you need, want, software that has really helped, and equally important, why. It would help us to dig in the right places, ask the right questions, and tell vendors exactly what is needed by people that use the software.

Sheet Metal

Work Outside the Box: 3 Simple Ways to Boost Design Creativity

Is the traditional business world at war with creativity?

Your software, hardware and skills in CAD determine a large part of your design success—whether internally at your firm or during client-facing work. But another factor plays a huge—and undervalued—role in engineering, architecture and design achievement: creativity.

In Adobe’s State of Create report, 80% of 5,000 respondents said creativity was key to driving economic growth. But only one in four say they live up to their creative potential. And 75% say their employers prize productivity over creativity.

We clearly need to be more creative. But how? By using these three simple tips to boost your design creativity.

  1. Use Resources to Generate Better Ideas

Creativity doesn’t simply just happen. It’s motivated by your environment, the content you consume, and dozens of other inputs. Fire up the following tools regularly to generate more creative ideas, more often:

  • Inspiration Grid — This website provides inspiration via stories and photos from creatives in every industry.
  • Behance — Showcase your creative work and discover the work of others using this engaged online community.
  • Design Snack — Design Snack takes online inspiration to a whole new, customizable level. This tool gives you the power to create your own inspirational portfolio. Simply curate your favorite images and most inspiring work—the perfect way to jumpstart creativity when it flags.
  • SketchFab — SketchFab allows you to view inspiring models, and upload, embed and share your own.

What’s your favorite site or source of inspiration? Let us know in the comments!

  1. Adopt Tools to Manage Design Projects

When a project is poorly planned or disorganized, it’s extremely difficult to be more creative. Juggling overdue tasks or tracking down missing work doesn’t inspire your best work. However, using tools to better brainstorm and manage projects makes creativity much more likely to flourish. Try the following on for size:

  • XMind — Mind mapping tools help you brainstorm, communicate and capture creative ideas. XMind is available in three different versions: a free version, a plus version and a pro version.
  • Lucidchart — This tool makes it dead easy to develop mind maps and organizational charts that keep your creative ideas flowing.
  • TT, WeTransfer and Dropbox — These cloud file-sharing tools make collaborating on 3D files quick and easy. They offer numerous storage plans for larger files, and will save you a ton of time.
  • GrabCAD — Similar to GE.TT, WeTransfer and Dropbox, GrabCAD allows 3D professionals to collaborate with coworkers through an easy-to-use CAD file manager. This tool enables you to sync local files and collaborate on projects, revision rounds and brainstorming sessions.
  1. Hack Yourself to Improve Creativity

You can actually hack your brain and body to enhance creativity. It’s safe and easy, too. Seriously, science rules. Here are a few ways to do it:

What are your favorite creativity tools, tips and hacks? Let us know in the comments!

More Free Hacks, Tools and Habits to Boost Creativity

Over at 3Dconnexion, we’ve created a free guide specifically for 3D professionals who wish to improve their creativity. With 25+ pages of expert creativity advice, The Creativity Handbook for 3D Professionals is help you improve your creativity and career!

Download The Creativity Handbook for 3D Professionals today!

Feature image credit: opensourceway via photopin cc

Education and Inspiring Design Innovation at AU2014

Innovation is a common theme at Autodesk University each year. This year the company brought together presentations and displays of some wonderful examples of the company’s involvement with outreach and enablement of young people.

Autodesk Software Free to all in Education

Chris Bradshaw, Autodesk’s Chief Marketing Officer discussed our near future population and how their needs will not be diminishing. “We need to support 10 billion people on this planet with 2 times the energy production that we have now” he remarked. Autodesk is trying to help the world solve some staggering statistical possibilities like this one and many more.

The company has taken the position that the best way to solve these problems is to enable the next generation of thinkers, and one part of that solution is to put design software in every educational institution in every part of the world for free. Their intention is to remove the barriers stopping young people from exploring new ideas and new ways of solving problems that we face every day.

Autodesk software is in use by 192 million students in 82 thousand institutions around the world.  Access to those design tools is giving these students the ability to explore new ideas that they didn’t think were possible before, including capturing and reusing energy in innovative ways.

That accessibility is being delivered to more than simply educational institutions. Chris noted that Autodesk has 218 million consumer product accounts, with 1500 new accounts being added every 10 minutes.

Chris Bradshaw Autodesk University

Project H Design

One presentation that was truly inspiring and absolutely enjoyable was Project H Design. Emily Pilloton, its founder wanted to help the world reconnect with the joy of building things. Project H Design provided an amazing way of bringing design to students, with realistic impacts and goals.

Emily Pillonton founder of Project H Design

Emily discussed various projects including a new library challenge, where students were challenging what a library should be, and capturing modular design possibilities. Autodesk CEO, Carl Bass invited the participants to Pier 9 and use some of their tools in order to complete the student’s concept design requirements.

Her presentation went beyond that to show how Project H was reaching communities, and having a much larger impact, which inspires students to continue to solve their problems locally. She went on to say that Project H was capturing the capability of students that have been underestimated.

“Project H is more amazing than I can capture here; really exciting possibilities that are being developed” she said. Emily went on to say something that I thought was absolutely paramount:

“We are responsible to provide a pathway, not just an opportunity for these students.”

She closed out the discussion by highlighting a team of young ladies performing numerous tasks including welding. I remember how amazing it was to complete my first structural airframe class, and gain that understanding of manufacturing and fabrication processes. For every bit of education you give a person, you suddenly get substantially better solutions and results. That person sees the issues in a whole new light, and are no longer afraid to tackle them.

As Emily closed her presentation, she displayed a sign that contained an inspiring statement, a motto if you will:

“I am a 10 year old girl and I can weld. What can’t I do?”

You print that on a shirt and I’ll wear it. Men’s Large.

Project H Design Students

Image courtesy of Project H Design and Emily Pillonton

DMLS: 3 Reasons Why You Should Jump in Now

Recently, we discussed the history and processes associated with Direct Metal Laser Sintering. Maturity in the technology of 3D printed metal, and Carl Dekard’s SLS patent expiration have spurred a new surge of research. I want to point out 3 reasons why you should get involved with this technology now…or really soon:

  • The Materials
  • The Innovation
  • The Ground Floor Opportunity

EOS Sintered Part in Metal Powder Residue

Stainless steel powder residue being removed from EOS DMLS “3D Printed” part (Courtesy of Solid Concepts).

Reason 1: The Materials

In the last 8 years I have witnessed the expansion of materials being offered by SLS machine vendors. The following is the list of metals that EOS machines are prepared to use commercially:

  • Aluminum AlSi10Mg – Light weight
  • CobaltChrome MP1 & SP2 – High heat and Strength
  • MaragingSteel MS1 – Hardness
  • NickelAlloy HX – High heat and strength
  • NickelAlloy IN625 & In718 (Inconel) – Moderately high strength and heat
  • StainlessSteel GP1 & PH1 – Corrosion resistant steel applications
  • Titanium Ti64 & Ti64ELI – High strength and light weight

These materials are robust and in some cases can take temperatures as high as 1200 °C. EOS’ thinner powder application has increased sintered densities to ~100% in almost all cases.

A materials comparison chart is available in our Engineering Notes section for your benefit, sourced directly from EOS and Solid Concepts.

Morris Technologies Swirler Printed from SLM

Morris Technologies’ combustor swirler (Courtesy of EOS GmbH)

Reason 2: Innovation

General Electric and NASA are spending a lot of money and time innovating the additive metal processes including DMLS, and how ‘3D printed’ parts can be used. GE made a brilliant move by acquiring not only the DMLS and EBM technologies in 2012, but also by purchasing Morris Technologies, one of the most experienced service providers.

“Our ability to develop state of the art manufacturing processes for emerging materials and complex design geometry is critical to our future”

Said Colleen Athans, vice president and general manager of the Supply Chain Division at GE Aviation in a press release.

To further reinforce the point about the fitness of the additive manufacturing of metals, I offer this statement, taken from one of GE’s Leap program announcements:

“Fuel nozzles additively manufactured from direct metal laser melting are 5X stronger that previous nozzles with 5X fewer brazes and welds”. Applications such as these will push engineers and manufacturers to be competitive by either developing better alternatives, or jumping headlong into additive manufacturing.

GE SLM Printed Fuel Nozzle

General Electric’s DMLS printed fuel nozzle (courtesy of GE)

Competition Breeds Innovation and Cost Reduction

Expanding adoption of this technology is spurring materials and machine technology improvements. The choice is becoming which tool fits my needs better instead of which tool is cheaper.

My discussions with Solid Concepts indicated that cost was tied to production speed, rather than mass. The cost of a 400 – 1000 Watt laser running adds up. Morris Technologies provided a comparison of DMLS and EBM wherein they compared EOS’ M270 and M280 DMLS machines with Arcam’s A2 EBM machine, and the run-time cost relationships thereof:

  • EBM and DMLS appear to be mostly tied to run-time
  • Newer A2 and M280 machine runtimes and costs were almost identical
  • Older M 270 was 2X slower at almost 2X cost.

Morris Tech’s paper is being mirrored on D&M Engineering Notes, as website is gone.

Additive Manufacturing Providers

The following list was compiled during my web based research, as well as discussions with vendors and service providers; it is by no means complete or exhaustive.

Machine Manufacturers

DMLS – Hands down EOS GmbH.

EBM – Arcam is the provider (and to the extent of my knowledge the originator) of the EBM technology. They hold multiple global patents on the process.

SLM – SLM Solutions is the lead dog in this industry, and seems to have been the initiator of the manufacturing solutions in this process.

Experienced Providers

Solid Concepts, a Stratasys company in Texas – SLS, DMLS, machining, molds, and more.

Their experience and assistance with information relating to the DMLS materials and high temperature applications was invaluable and is referenced in this article. Kent Firestone, a former project manager at DTM is the company’s Vice-President of Additive Manufacturing.

Solid Concepts 3D Printed Metal 1911 Gun Components

Solid Concepts manufactures world’s first functional ‘printed’ steel 1911 .45 caliber handgun.

Morris Technologies in Ohio – SLS, DMLS, & EBM

Note: Morris Technologies may be out of commercial business after the GE purchase

Directed MFG in Texas – SLS & DMLS

TurboCAM Aero in New Hampshire – DMLS and just about everything!

New Blood

After the recent expiration of the SLS patent in January of this year, various DMLS start-ups and initiatives have begun. People are bringing new ideas together to reduce the size and expense of the DMLS process, and bring the technology to the forefront and make it more accessible.

Reason 3: Ground Floor Opportunity

One of my favorite speakers, Simon Sinek discussed the “Law of Diffusion of Innovation”, where he noted “the early majority will not try something until someone has tried it first”; we all get that. If you listened to that discussion, you know he went on to define the gap that lies between those ‘early adopters’ that want to be on the cutting edge, and the ‘early majority’.

We stand in that gap right now.

The ‘Innovators’, people like Carl Deckard and companies like EOS, have laid the additive manufacturing of metal ground work. The ‘Early Adopters’, such as Morris Technologies and GE, have paved the way to successful adoption of the technologies.

Now it’s your turn.

Innovation and cost stabilization will increase alongside adoption. As the technology advances, new thoughts and applied sciences will evolve better processes, far beyond DMLS. The main factor driving adoption at this time will be light-weighting of components due to previously impossible part geometries. DMLS (and other additive processes) will be the way to go. Those companies that become entrenched (and more importantly, experienced) now will be the ones that engineers will turn to for expertise in the upcoming years.

As you move to invest in this process, whether as an end consumer of components or a service provider, it would be wise to develop a good relationship with a DMLS provider experienced in developing applications for your industry. Consider their advice before completing your designs or buying equipment, it will help you avoid many pitfalls and save you a lot of heartache.

Note: Beware of which machines a company is using. If they are using older machines, your bill might look similar to having a taxi driver taking the long way to your destination.

My Closing Thoughts

We believe that successes in design and manufacturing are provided through passion and imagination. Additive manufacturing is the next step in the evolution of metals manufacturing, and a very powerful one at that.

D&M Early Concept Combustor

Our R&D turbine and combustor’s upper target temperature is >1000 °C. DMLS’ high temperature Inconel and Cobalt have been essential in making the design possible, by providing a realistic safety margin as we work through the fluid dynamics involved in reducing those wall temperatures. (Early prototype of combustor at right is an example where additive manufacturing is the only method of production)

We can build components far closer to ideal design parameters than was ever possible before; and at reduced scales that are impossible to mill and turn. The other really cool and truly inspiring part of the equation, is so many components that needed to be manufactured separately and assembled, can now be ‘printed’ as a single unit. Cooling channels and fuel systems can be integrated in truly creative ways.

DMLS, SLS, EMB, and SLM are only the beginning. Now that certain patents have expired, we should see some incredible advancements in cost reduction and new ways to build safer, lighter, and cheaper components… without the waste we associate with manufacturing in the past.

If you want to be on the cutting edge of component engineering, and are looking for the opportunity, here’s your sign.

Pacific Thunder 2012 gets jump start at Osan

(Courtesy of SSgt. Sara Csurilla)


Eos GmbH and Solid Concepts have been quite helpful in numerous areas of my DMLS research. I want to extend this as a personal note of appreciation to their respective companies, and all the resources that they provided, as well as their research and professionalism in the field of metals manufacturing technology.

Additional sources include:

Carl Deckard’s key SLS patent

Arcam Electron Beam Melting website

Renger’s (Morris Tech) EBM vs. DMLS comparison pdf

University of Texas at Austin article “Selective Laser Sintering, Birth of an Industry”

Selective Laser Melting on Wikipedia article “Direct Additive Fabrication of Metal Parts and Injection Molds”

General Electric acquisition of Morris technologies news release

3D Printing Industry ( “Many 3D Printing Patents Are Expiring Soon: Here’s A Round Up & Overview of Them

Ft. Walton Machining: Company Profile

Ft. Walton Machining – a company profile

I had the opportunity a few years ago to visit Ft. Walton Machining and to meet its owner, Mr. Tim McDonald Sr., a great business man with some amazing toys: One amazing machine facility, and one really cool WWII-era T-6 Texan training aircraft. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to spend more time with him before his passing in 2010.

I decided to return to Ft. Walton Machining, for a better look at the equipment and teamwork that makes company so successful. It really is an amazing company and has built an incredible reputation that has landed them some of the best contracts in multiple industries. Timothy McDonald Jr., runs the operations center, and agreed to see me and show me around.

Ft Walton Machining Front View

General Profile

Ft. Walton Machining was founded by Mr. McDonald in 1997. Since then it has been housed at 2 locations, and has increased from 35 employees to more than 210 team members at this time. The company houses more than 50 machine spindles, including fifteen 5-axis milling stations. They supply major corporations regularly with various components, including names such as Boeing, Gulfstream, Locheed-Martin, NASA, various military units, oil production companies, and more. The most exciting contract that I was permitted to mention was that Ft. Walton Machining is the largest supplier of F-35 airframe components in the world. Awesome!

The 65,000 SF Manufacturing facility is divided by process as follows:

  • CNC Milling
  • CNC Lathe
  • Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM)
  • Engineering
  • Fabrication
  • Finishing
  • Lean Manufacturing
  • Quality Assurance
  • Waterjet
  • Welding

One thing I learned since my last visit was that the company has purchased another facility in order to expand its materials finishing division. Now that location handles 100% of the finishing, giving more room to the machining facility, and streamlining their overall process.

The 42,000 SF Material Finishing Division facility is composed of process divisions as follows:

  • Anodizing
  • Assemblies
  • Chem-Film
  • Passivation
  • Prime & Paint
  • NonDestructive Testing (NDT)

This new addition includes a conveyor drying paint line, a gas curing oven, paint booths, and a PLC controlled custom chemical finishing line.

Manufacturing Walk Through

After I hefted out from under the enormous non-disclosure agreement the company’s kind receptionist ‘encouraged’ me to sign, I was issued a guest pass, and reacquainted with Timothy McDonald, Jr., who took the time to chat with me about this article, and to furnish some background on the company that I didn’t know. McDonald is the Program Manager, as well as the company’s Secretary/Treasurer.

It is difficult to get a grasp of the scope of the facility without a map; it’s huge. It’s not to the magnitude of say the Lockheed facility in Marietta, with cars on roads with named streets inside the oversized building, but you could spend a week at Ft. Walton Machining trying to figure out where everything is. A fun question to ask is, “what’s beyond that wall over there?”  The answer was usually “more!”

Immediately I happened upon these beautiful oil well drill drive shafts. 4’ long and 8” in diameter, with the finest looking bearing journals. I asked about the processes involved and was surprised to find that while the entire part was turned, the journals were not ground. McDonald went on to explain that they are roller burnished, using a peening-like process that rolls the journals into submission under great pressure [30,000 psi], delivering superior bearing strength and trueness. McDonald noted “As you can image, being a mile down a hole, the components will experience a great deal of vibration. That ultimately converts into fatigue stress and cracks, and this process extends the life of these shafts significantly.” I was however not permitted to take one home. That’s my kind of art!

Ft Walton Machining Oil Well Drill Shafts

The precision on the drill shaft turning and burnishing is held to 0.0005 in.

McDonald continued “If something goes wrong down in that hole, it costs $4 million an hour to pull that drill. That’s when feelings start to really get hurt, so you have to make sure your product is spot-on correct.”

As we moved, what I could observe was numerous aircraft parts including flight critical components for C-17’s aircraft and CH-47 helicopters. I was escorted through all the departments and given time to chat with the team members. We discussed everything from manufacturing processes to strategies, most of which could not be mentioned in this article. One topic that was approved was the oil drilling components, which turned out to be really interesting as well. The team explained, in detail, the ingenious strategies used in oil well drilling, as well as the processes used to manufacturing these tools. It was pretty awesome.

I found a dedicated team of individuals that know their machinery and products. When engaged about different approaches to specific components and techniques, everyone was eager to share their experiences and methods used to successfully get the components out the door. Everything from their adoption of High-Speed Machining to advanced materials was discussed; where things worked and where they didn’t. When I’d ask about the tolerances of a component feature, the technician’s would stop to explain what these were, and various strategies that paid off in maintaining them.

Ft Walton Machining Haas CNC Mill  Ft Walton Machining Milling

The two silver boring bars in the turret are 2 in. solid carbide DeVi bars. These are tuned to bore chatter free at extended depths. I just priced them out at over $2000 USD each, plus inserts. Pricey; I’ve never used one, but the industry swears by them. “We had Iscar make us a 4 in. slam drill that will chew metal like you would not believe. It took us 4 months to get it. It will pop a 4 in. hole, 5 in. deep in about 5 minutes. That’s a massive insert.” McDonald said. The technician pulled the turret down for me to inspect. “The savings were instantaneous.”

Ft Walton Machining Iscar Drill on Lathe

Ft Walton Machining CNC Water-Jet  Ft Walton Machining Inspection

While discussing the merits and problems with waterjet, McDonald mentions, “we used it once to cut 8 in.-thick titanium. We called the manufacturer and asked how it could be done. They said you couldn’t do it; that presented a challenge. It took 28 hours, but when talking titanium at 80 bucks a pound, it was worth it in the end.”

I was able to inspect some beautifully crafted components. High precision, small components and very large scale multi-process assemblies. Unfortunately I was only permitted to show a small sample for the sake of security.

Ft Walton Machining Multiple Processes

This Navy ship exhaust duct was one component that was extremely tedious to manufacture. The processes involved include sheet metal fabrication, water jet, welding, and finish machining. The mating flange surfaces have to be flat within 0.005 in. The team welds the processed components first, and then after substantial blocking, the custom jigs are removed, and the flanges are surface milled within tolerance.

Another really nifty gizmo was the Iscar Matrix tool vending machine. Sounds funny, right. Instead of Twinkies, this cool cabinet dispenses inserts. The team members enter their employee password, and then scan the scan bar on the job order. The Matrix is tied in with the ERP system, and after the scan is made and the insert is selected, the cost of the insert is automatically applied to the project for cost analyses. The vending machine then unlocks and opens the appropriate drawer. “It’s like a giant Pez dispenser”, one technician said. McDonald added “When the last insert is removed, an email is sent to the tool crib notifying them that the drawer needs to be restocked. We never run out of inserts this way. These are used throughout the industry in various ways, we use them for inserts… and subsequently the occurrences of having ‘missing’ cutters has dropped dramatically.”

Ft Walton Machining Medical Parts  Ft Walton Machining Medical More Parts

McDonald escorted me through every area of the shop. As we passed by their Blue Streak department, I pointed to the sign and asked about it. He told me that department is comprised of machines that are ready to work with low volume to handle their client’s emergency needs. This way when a problem arises, they don’t have to shut down an operation to accommodate the need.

As we were wrapping up the tour, Glenn Larson, Ft. Walton Machining’s software guru caught up with us and we began discussing some CAM issues and strategies in parts as McDonald took us by components and tooling. We looked at their R&D changes to the AccuView contact lens palettes (my wife wears those!), and the intricate detail required to accomplish their needs.  Moving along we passed by a FARO portable CMM unit and the discussion turned to inspections, and how they use it when they can’t check the parts in the QA Lab. They mentioned that a laser scanner can be attached to the unit and McDonald added “We are quite interested in light scanning, it’s the next wave and the direction we are going”.

I wanted to give their Haimer Power Clamp a try. The unit heat expands the milling collets in order to fit the tooling inside, and then cools the collets back down which clamps the tolling down tight. No screws, no clamps. McDonald said it absolutely kills the runout associated with collets. They showed me one application where they needed a small diameter tool in this arrangement. They had a tool, heat shrunk into a collet, heat shrunk into another, and into another.

After making it to the QA lab where all the components are inspected, the pair noted that the part being inspected had a variable radii developed in Autodesk Inventor with some special love from Glenn Larson’s team added in. McDonald noted, “Once we’re done welding, we verify the positions before adding that bottom fillet radii in the mill. The top surface has a 0.002 in. tolerance and is a bit tight to hold throughout on a mill. What we’re going to do is make a special arbor on the lathe; we’ll mount two of them to it to counterbalance, and turn the top profile. This part is very complex in the sequencing we had to go through, but I’m happy with it thus far.” The two were confident [if not a wee bit squeamish], as they reflected on the prospects of the final surface turning process. That’s a lot of time and money invested in a process that only gets more difficult and precise. By the time of this article, they should have completed that process. I’d love to hear how it went.

One thing I found odd but didn’t inquire about was that the company doesn’t do any plasma spray buildups. They outsource the process to favored companies when needed.

My thoughts

I always enjoy hearing about the progress of this company ever since I first met them and toured the facility years ago. Their continued expansion and successes have stemmed from staying on top of the technology, knowing the trade, thinking far beyond the norm, and building exceptional relationships. I never think twice about referring companies to them to handle any component manufacturing needs.

It’s an awesome team and facility, and I’m going back as soon as they get over my excitement during this past visit.

Check back in soon for the follow-up interview article with Tim McDonald and Glenn Larson, and their discussion about the company’s successful transition to CATIA.

Small Business Design Management Needs

Creativity and CollaborationWe have been reviewing our options for collaborative space and data management needs for business, design, and simulation. I wanted to take a look at how the cloud is enabling the lightweight collaborative design data management needs of some SMBs, and later, try to point out what to watch for in the near future.

Summary of the SMB Design Management Review

SMB Design Management at Autodesk

SMB Design Management Vendors and 2015

Why Collaborative Design Data Management?

Product Lifecycle Management – PLM

Product Design Management – PDM

Enterprise Resource Planning – ERP

Customer Relations Management – CRM

Document Management System – DMS

…and on and on.

The list is endless and quite likely you need some form of most of these in your day to day work. The problem is that the really useful tools are part of very large expensive systems developed by only a handful of vendors, who by virtue of their vast market share, have defined the way we are expected to behave around design data.

New collaborative needs and incredible cost have forced many small businesses to rely on less capable systems, terrible data workflows, and limited features.

Which Features are Important?

That is the crux of the entire issue, and being asked by the wrong people, namely you. In this market it should be the other way around.

Data management software is typically either too vague about how it organizes data, or too specific to one particular industry or another, and all of them require some tuning and programming to get the software to match the way you work.

…and no one wants to do all the customization.

If you are still playing ‘Hansel and Gretel’ data discovery with MS Office and Windows Explorer you are not alone. So why don’t we all just jump out and get some data management?

One important factor is the short period between the emergence and focus on SMB PLM needs, and the sudden upswing in collaborative possibilities. “I need some PLM and PDM, but how do I include collaboration?”

Team Lift, Design, Collaboration

Let’s take a moment and completely jumble everything up. Growing trends in collaboration and market globalization, fueled by accessibility of the internet are pouring in data from all angles and unthought-of workflows. We don’t quite know how to deal with it all yet, and neither do the data management vendors.

I need to catalogue…:

  • Information, instructions, correspondence, and specifications for clients, subcontractors and manufacturers
  • Proposals, agreements, and correspondence
  • Design and non-design data, including iterations, versions, and revisions
  • Industry / company standards and compliance
  • Visualization data
  • The almighty BOM(s)
  • Subcontractor orders, inspections, and correspondence
  • Deliverables
  • Municipal and organizational review comments
  • Supplies
  • Analysis data and reports


This scenario represents the least common denominator of many company’s needs, regardless of size. All of this information must be tied together in a project type relevance, but also permitted to associate with other data inherently. This information needs to be discoverable in a myriad of ways, and it needs to be accessible, and easy to use.

The trick is that we also need this data to be compiled between multiple collaborators that are all part of the common design process, on a globally accessible, but relatively light-weight framework.

So, which software serves SMB design firms best? 

Take a look at how Autodesk is changing their management and collaboration software solutions.

We’d love to hear from everyone about what has been going right for you, and what has not. Are there holes in your data management setup, or do you have the magic balance of management and collaboration? Leave a comment and let us know what you’ve discovered.

Image Credit: Norman Lear Center – Flickr


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