Claudius Peters makes the machines that make cement. Applying agile processes to product design calls upon CAD systems to optimize those machines.
By Jean Thilmany, Contributing Writer
Once used mainly to speed up software development, the agile method — which proponents say can slash product development time and costs — is making inroads into product development and manufacturing.
The goal of an agile product development process is to explore as many design options as possible during the prototyping stage.
“The idea is to find and qualify myriad ideas quickly. Computer-aided design software is a boon to the prototyping stage, where designers use CAD to quickly generate potential designs based on customer requirements,” said Thomas Nagel, operations director and chief digital officer at Claudius Peters, which designs and manufactures large materials handling systems for the cement and other industries. “Agile replaces the siloed work done by engineers for the past decades and calls for collaboration at all steps in the agile process.”
Pioneered in 2001, the agile method is ideal for companies that want to develop products quickly. It allows for product development while simultaneously gathering requirements and information. The method calls upon a five-day “sprint” to quickly find a new product that can subsequently be designed and built.
“The design sprint is an example of how you can define a new idea or fail efficiently in five days,” Nagel said.
CAD software helps the “sprinters” isolate the best design within one day. And a feature in some CAD packages, which Autodesk calls “generative design,” is particularly useful here.
“The feature generates several potential models based on design inputs and pairs well with the agile method,” said Nagel. “Essentially, designers enter their requirements, and the CAD package generates a number of designs that fit that parameter. Engineers then choose the best design to move forward with.”
Cloud-based CAD packages allow engineers to collaborate and see others’ designs in real time. This is important for another part of the agile sprint, in which engineers bring their designs to the table and meet to discuss which ones to move forward with.
When designers find a “viable” design — noting that it doesn’t need to be perfect or fully realized within the CAD software — they present it to a five-member team of professionals pertinent to a given field. If reviewers give it the thumbs up, the prototype is presented to the customer, who vets the product’s feasibility for their market. Only if the customer chooses to go forward do engineers get to work fully designing and detailing the product in their CAD system.
“The idea is to find a prototype of a viable product, with no bells or whistles, then show it to your customer,” said Nagel. “Then you go through different iterations until you have a product that might be good enough to develop.”
But what if the product doesn’t get past the review stage? Or what if the customer doesn’t approve? The agile method allowed designers to “fail efficiently” rather than spending a lot of time designing a product that was bound to fail.
“Get the failure over with and start the agile process again,” said Dave Martin, a configuration manager for Elroy Air, which develops autonomous aerial vehicles.
Replacing the waterfall
Many engineering companies stick to rigid product development structures, such as the waterfall method. Traditional waterfall development is a step-by-step process like the automobile assembly line, where employees are situated along the conveyor line and add the individual part for which they are responsible. Eventually, the automobile can be driven off the line. But there’s a catch: The next step on the conveyor line can’t be taken until the previous step has been completed.
“Think of a Gantt chart, where you have distinct, heavily planned sequential phases, such as concept, design, prototype, test, and product,” said Martin. “A design review gates each phase.”
With the agile method, only a “realistic façade” is needed for customer testing. This is where CAD, and generative design, comes in.
“You define how you will build the prototype and then get good, validated feedback from the customer,” said Nagel. “If the customer understands the meaning or purpose of your product, then it’s good enough to get the first feedback. The product doesn’t need to be ready or do everything you think. You’re just making a realistic approach.”
Engineers use agile for more than physical products. They also create digital twins, 3D-printed prototypes, and virtual-reality demonstrations.
Collaborating on a clinker cooler
Could the agile method be used to make improvements to a vast structure? Claudius Peters found the answer when its engineers were tasked to modify a giant clinker cooler.
Clinker coolers are huge industrial machines — about half the size of a football field — that cool molten rock, called clinker, from 2,550° to 212° F. The molten rock is then used to make cement. The first step for the company is to scan the cooler, and the next step is to upload the file. Nagel’s team uses CAD, BIM, and analysis tools on Autodesk’s 360 platforms.
“We can upload this huge amount of data from all over the world directly to the BIM 360 platform. It could be a 20-gigabyte file from China, and the design engineer here in Germany can immediately start to work with this 3D scan,” said Lars Heidler, lead engineer at Claudius Peters.
“Today, when we start a new project, we normally start with a 3D scan of the existing plant. Those contain huge amounts of data that need to be transferred,” said Nagel. “Then we take what could be called a hybrid engineering approach.”
The engineers transferred the scans to Autodesk’s Navisworks simulation software. They then edited the designs within the Inventor 3D CAD software, also from Autodesk.
“All of a sudden, we could really measure and do everything,” said Nagel.
This information was vital, of course, when implementing an agile sprint to update and perfect a part of the system. The team could collaborate internally, and everyone could look at the 3D models and compare versions. Engineers could also background themselves using the 3D model as they prepared for an agile sprint.
“When I was an automation engineer, I could go into the model and see my switchboard and devices in the field and my cabling and know what I had to do before I rolled out another sprint for a client,” said Nagel.
For instance, his team performed a sprint for a client that sought a way to measure the effects of modifications to the cooler.
With internal tools, the engineers spent the week creating a prototype web page that allowed the customer to see how changing certain parameters would affect how the cooler functions.
“They could enter some optics and operational data into the web page and get calculations and clinker cooler flow sheets,” said Nagel. “The feedback included technical data about factors such as, ‘What fans do they need and then how much heat would be recovered and what is the ROI.’”
The web page also included a simple 3D CAD model through which customers could get an up-close look at modifications to the space to give them an idea if this modification would make sense.
The web information wasn’t completed on the back end before the team presented it to the client. The presentation comprised a mock web page, which designers knew could be populated with pertinent information. They’d developed the prototype on Thursday — the fourth day of the one-week sprint — which is typically handed over to prototype creation.
“A realistic façade is all we need for customer testing,” Nagel stressed. “If the customer understands the meaning or purpose of your product, then it’s good enough to get the first feedback. The product doesn’t need to be ready or do everything you think it needs. You just make a realistic approach.”
Claudius Peters also used a piece of the agile philosophy to reinvent parts of the clinker cooler using generative design. Generative design is a little agile, only the CAD system quickly finds design alternatives based on input parameters. Then, engineers select the best design to continue to work on.
While the transport bottom for the conveyer system obviously had to carry a lot of weight, Nagel and his team knew the part could be made lighter and smaller to reduce cost and material use. They had already taken a stab at redesigning the part and cut between 30 and 40% of its weight.
“After just one generative design session of a few hours, the team created a handful of new designs, including for one component they called ‘the alien part,’” said Nagel.
The CAD design for the alien part was up to 70% lighter than the model design department had previously optimized.
But the alien part would require 3D printing, which was not a production method for Claudius Peters. So, the team figured that they could implement key elements of the generative designs in a way that could be fabricated through casting and welding.
In the end, the team settled on a design that reduced the part’s weight by 44 lb through material reduction. The new design also translates into around $100 savings per part. Because there are often 60 to 100 of these parts in a clinker cooler, that weight and cost savings make a big difference.
“The generatively designed part was lighter, simpler, more easily available, and more cost-efficient,” said Nagel.
Claudius Peters was founded in 1906. Nagel points out that if a 117-year-old company that makes enormous products for traditional uses can undergo a digital transformation using agile and generative design, younger companies that make smaller, less complicated products can undoubtedly follow suit.