Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Case study: SRP applies 3D heat to its design

Originally published in Plant Magazine, Canada’s Industry Newspaper

Patio lizards who pursue their outdoor socializing late into the fall tend to cluster near the outdoor heaters placed between restaurant/bar patio tables to protect patrons from nippy fall temperatures.

These gas-fired, high- and low-intensity infrared space heaters are among the products made by Superior Radiant Products (SRP) Ltd. in Stoney Creek, Ont., which makes heating equipment for commercial, industrial, agricultural and residential markets.

Engineers are taking note of gas-fired infrared heaters thanks to the energy cost savings they deliver. An indoor riding arena, for example, lowered fuel bills by 39% while increasing the total heated area.

Pat Caruso, SRP’s vice-president of engineering, and his colleagues rely heavily on innovation to distinguish the company’s products, so it was not too surprising SRP won the first place award for “Most Innovative HVAC Product” at Canada’s Ciphex trade show.

But awards don’t pay the bills. “When people called in with problems with our equipment, we could almost always trace the problem back to the installation,” Caruso explains. “Yet it was hard to say to the contractors who did the installation, who are our customers, ‘You didn’t follow the manual.’ So we decided to give them a better manual.”

By “better manual,” Caruso means less text and better graphics than line drawings or artist’s conceptions.

Competition among radiant heating manufacturers is fierce, to say nothing of the heating market in general. “The forced-air industry has a large marketing machine. Our challenge is to educate the people who make decisions, the people who pay the fuel bills,” he adds, noting North American market penetration for radiant heaters is about 15 per cent.

“The capital expenditure needs to be justified.”

When a trial CAD software package crossed Caruso’s desk, he installed it and rendered several drawings. Quickly realizing that SRP could better serve its key audiences using 3D diagrams, he embarked on a systematic quest to find 3D CAD software.

A 2D/3D package called Solid Edge was selected after speaking to representatives of CAD developers, visiting a trade show and trying demo versions. Without formal training and working from built-in tutorials, Caruso created an assembly model of SRP’s EvenGLO patio heater, a new product that had been developed in AutoCAD, and used the assembly for pictures in the manual.

Graphics, though, work on several levels in a manufacturing business, so Caruso “spread the wealth.” Pleasantly surprised at how photorealistic his images were, he massaged them some more and passed them to sales and marketing staff, some of whom thought they were photos.

His audience falls into at least two categories, according to Dan Staples, director of Solid Edge Product Development for Siemens PLM Software. “Both end users and people within the manufacturing company need to communicate information clearly.”

Curiously, the introduction of this 3D rendering package proved more of a learning experience than SRP expected. “Solid Edge is not doing something right,” was SRP’s design team’s first reaction.

The reason: folding sheet metal requires calculations for bend allowance. Sheet metal stretches as it’s bent, so unfolded, its dimensions are smaller than the final form.

“We stamp our sheet metal in a flat form to make our boxes,” Caruso says. “Solid Edge allows us to unfold a design and generate a flat.”
In the past, designers had to manually calculate bend allowance, and that’s subject to error. “In this redesign, we found that we were punching something incorrectly for the past 13 years. Initially, we questioned Solid Edge’s flat pattern generation. But then we realized, looking further, that there was an error made.”

A lesson unfolds

It wasn’t critical. The heaters still worked fine, but the error was small enough that it wasn’t detected, yet significant enough to make the box look like it wasn’t fitting properly. Now the box fits even better than it did before.”

These 3D models also help contractors reduce errors. For instance, the quality of rendered images makes manuals clearer. Caruso took advantage of the ability to rotate 3D renderings to position the heater assembly model to show the most advantageous angles for the installers during a given step.

He also uses balloon diagrams to zoom in on a specific part of the product with the rest of it in the background, or cutaways to expose areas within the heater—particularly for replacement part diagrams.

“As we get these manuals out for more and more of our products, they will elevate our company’s image in the minds of the buyers and installers,” Caruso concludes. In-house sales and marketing people can quickly grasp ideas from technical people, and the same is true for communications with overseas suppliers. “People understand these images easily and they overcome the language barrier.”

Parts lists are also communicated to purchasing once the final product is designed. Final design, however, presented one key lesson from the early forays into 3D rendering—the importance of subassemblies.

“I built everything the first time around without building subassemblies. I put all the parts into the thing and built it all together. That’s not the way we physically build our heaters.”

So from manuals and marketing, Solid Edge has found its way into design and has influenced the way heaters are drawn. Caruso says this year SRP designed a heater in the same way that it would be built.

Staples sees some Solid Edge customers taking the product to the next level.

“Internal staff won’t create manuals. They will create an animation instead. Many of our customers have set up an animation environment where you can take an assembly and set up a timeline where it will ‘explode’ the parts out of the assembly dynamically. It might rotate around to a different view to show three bolts twisting down, then move on to the next step. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, an animation is worth several hundred thousand.”

In the past, if SRP had an idea that was overly complicated to draw in 2D, it would have been put on the back burner or not attempted at all, says Caruso.

Now designing in 3D, SRP no longer compromises its creativity.