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Inventor is part of the furniture at InterFocus

01 June 2008

Autodesk reseller, Micro Concepts reports on an unusual application of Inventor that has seen one of its customers win new business thanks to the visual impact of 3D design software and its ease of assimilation by non-engineering professionals

James Cannon of InterFocus is the first to admit that the way his company uses Autodesk Inventor is unusual. As senior project manager at the Cambridge-based specialist furniture designer and manufacturer, his work is more closely linked to the world of architecture than that of mechanical engineering or manufacturing.

However, he is also quick to point out that Inventor is perfect for developing concept designs and presenting them to potential customers. Working closely with Autodesk reseller Micro Concepts he has found that the 3D manufacturing design software helps him to save time and offer a better service to his customers.

But, this isn’t all. It is also helping him to win new contracts. For example, InterFocus has just finished the design and build of new student kitchens at the University of Cambridge’s halls of residence – work which, according to Mr Cannon, Inventor helped to secure. Inventor is also playing a part in helping InterFocus expand the business, providing the lifelike images needed to develop an online shopping facility.

Communicating with customers
Although founded 20 years ago, InterFocus prides itself on its up-to-date design office and factory facilities on the outskirts of Cambridge. From here it designs, manufactures and installs specialist furniture and has, over the years, established a reputation in the office and education markets for all types of fitted and standalone furniture, from reception desks to complete turnkey laboratories.

As Mr Cannon explains, he was becoming increasingly aware that his company needed some form of 3D tool. He had created 3D models using AutoCAD, but this had taken him too long. He considered various kitchen design products, but found these rather rigid in what they could do. “After that, I really didn’t know which way to turn,” he recalls.

The answer lay with Micro Concepts, the Cambridge-based Autodesk reseller who introduced Mr Cannon to Inventor. “We’re not engineers so we didn’t really know anything about Inventor, but we could see it would give us total flexibility to design how we wanted,” he says. “We also recognised that its integration of 2D and 3D, and interoperability with AutoCAD would give us ideal design continuity. Our fitters and the architects we work with all use AutoCAD and, besides, we still planned to do much of our work in 2D to begin with.”

The decision was made, and after attending Micro Concepts’ training sessions, Mr Cannon was up and running. “I’d been designing in 2D for years and so thought it would take me a good while to get used to a different way of working. Instead, it has been really easy to learn.” He explains that it has also enabled him to work faster.

“I used to do a planned view and then spend a lot of time doing side elevations. Now I just pick out the angles I want to show and Inventor does it automatically. I mainly wanted to use Inventor for visualising initial concept designs in a way that would explain to the customer exactly what we could do. This strategy really paid off when we tendered for the work with the University of Cambridge.”

He explains that the design for 52 student kitchens was a complex one. For example it had a special seating layout and used expensive stainless steel worktops which had to be accurately specified as they couldn’t be trimmed on site. The design also has to be compressed into a very small space so he had to ensure everything would fit exactly.

“Inventor ensured that we stood out at the tender stage; we included rendered 3D Inventor images in our PowerPoint presentation and it certainly made us look very professional and impressive. Undoubtedly it helped us to win the work. Later, we noticed that the site office had pinned up copies of our 3D images all around the walls which was a great testimonial.” Mr Cannon is now confident in using Inventor and finds its visualisation capability perfect for his needs. “It gives us different light options and I can import different wood grains to make the design look as real as possible.

“Many of our customers are schoolteachers and you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be able to interpret a 2D CAD drawing. However, once you show them a realistic image, they can understand exactly what you are talking about.

“You can take a laptop to client meetings and – since when making a change in Inventor everything else updates accordingly – you can listen to feedback and show them the implication of making any change. Inventor also improves communication with the factory floor. I can discuss the 3D model with the factory manager, scroll around it and focus on parts that may be a problem.”

Now Mr Cannon is engaged in a different project – creating 3D images of the entire InterFocus range to feature on its new website, which is designed to enable customers to order furniture online. This avoids having to hire professional photographers and the difficulties associated with taking good shots of furniture fitted in a relatively small space. As Mr Cannon points out, it is always very difficult to get the lighting right under such conditions, and for the photographer to stand back far enough to create the right impression, even with a wide angle lens. “The website wouldn’t have happened without Inventor,” he says.

He is also working on creating an Inventor library of standard fittings and assemblies so that these can be quickly inserted into designs. “Also, some of our partners, such as the castor manufacturer, are already supplying 3D images of their products that we can include in our designs. This is certainly the way forward.

During this learning process, Mr Cannon has stayed in close touch with Micro Concepts and has recently attended its Inventor conference to hear all about the latest releases. “It’s an excellent opportunity for me to learn about the latest additions to Inventor and talk to others who are using the software. For example, the new frame generator – I probably would have missed this feature if Micro Concepts hadn’t pointed it out to me – has actually been very useful.”

Mr Cannon talks with a real enthusiasm about how Inventor is helping in both his day-to-day work and with the company’s broader business strategy. By taking a bold stand and trying a software package not necessarily associated with the furniture and kitchen design industry, he has seen his company gain an edge on the competition. Listening to him, you feel certain that InterFocus is ready for even greater success over the next few years.

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