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Digital prototyping breaks the ice

01 August 2008

Value-added reseller, Micro Concepts introduced Autodesk Inventor to the British Antarctic Survey back in 1999. Ten years later, BAS continues to rely on the software’s accurate and easy-to-visualise digital prototyping capabilities to design a whole range of systems and tools for this demanding environment

When your window of opportunity to get new equipment into a site for critical environmental research is just once a year, time is very clearly of the essence. So it is for the engineering team at British Antarctic Survey, a UK Government organisation responsible for undertaking the majority of Britain's scientific research on and around the Antarctic continent. The engineering team’s remit is to produce or ‘ruggedise’ equipment for use in the Antarctic research and on its fleet of ships.

Key to delivering its vital support projects on time, and within limited government budgets, is the engineering team’s use of the latest technology. Specifically, it uses Autodesk Inventor to design and prototype the products it must produce to support the important work that takes place in one of the most hostile environments on the planet.

Andy Tait is a mechanical design engineer at British Antarctic Survey (BAS), within technical services in the Antarctic and Marine Engineering Group. “We support the scientific research being carried out in the Antarctic, and support all of BAS’s different divisions,” he explains.

At any one time, Mr Tait and his team could be working on half a dozen projects of varying complexity. Examples include a rugged digital camera system to monitor sea ice activity; a tethered stake to measure the movement of ice over sediments in glacial streams; a star-pointing telescope to measure the ozone in the atmosphere, and an ice core drill.

Autodesk Inventor software – which Mr Tait and his team embraced in 1999 - is a dynamic 3D package enabling highly accurate and easy-to-visualise digital prototyping. The models it generates are accurate 3D digital presentations of the finished article that enable users to validate design and engineering data as they work. This minimises the need for physical prototypes, and reduces the need for costly engineering changes that might otherwise emerge after the design has been sent to manufacturing.

Inventor also gives designers the freedom to integrate existing 2D designs into their 3D design environment, making it easy to reuse and share both AutoCAD DWG files and 3D design data with other Autodesk manufacturing applications and their users. Mr Tait takes up the story:

“The 3D modelling aspect is a huge advantage in dealing with the scientists. They come to us with ideas about what they want, but 2D drawings are very limited in their ability to get across what the finished article will look like. With the 3D visualisation capability, which is very realistic and highly accurate, they can interact with us on the design at a much earlier stage, to check the size is what they’d imagined, or the flexibility, for example.

“Sometimes it could be something simple, like the device being the wrong size to handle when wearing gloves, or that the device needs to be more modular and easier to assemble and take apart in the icy conditions. Having 3D has helped unbelievably. We can now call the model up and the scientists can investigate it and see how the components come together. Before, we had to make the item first and then the scientist might have said ‘Ah, it would have been better if we could have had X’.” The advantages translate very clearly into time and cost benefits.

“These factors are very important, as this is a government organisation, so funding is always an issue for projects. The scientists need to be able to come up with estimates, too, to get projects approved. Inventor makes this much easier, and brings in projects much more cost-effectively, because there is no need for physical prototyping and yet our finished products are much closer to what the scientists need. We are now probably close to 40% better at getting the product right first time, compared with before when we had to retrospectively improve a design further down the line.

“With Inventor, the speed of turnaround is very quick,” he adds. “It’s much faster than it ever was with 2D AutoCAD. We can take a project from concept to delivery, even using subcontractors for manufacture, in just eight weeks. This can be the difference between getting something out to the Antarctic when it’s needed, or missing the window of opportunity for what could be another year. There are very few opportunities to get ships in and out of Antarctica.”

In fact, it was only thanks to Inventor that Mr Tait’s team managed to turn around a very last-minute project to design a probe-based ground radar system, to be mounted on the front of a snowcat. Its purpose is to look for cracks on the snow surface and prevent the snowcat from plunging into a crevice. “This was an important project, but it came to us very late in the day,” Mr Tait explains. “Yet we were able to get it right first time thanks to Inventor, and deliver the device with incredible speed.”

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