Digital-prototyping software makes the old new again

I just returned from a very stress-free business trip (an oxymoron!) to A.T. Ferrell Co. Inc. in Bluffton, Ind. There was only three of us in the small commuter jet traveling to the Ft. Wayne airport, which was small, clean, and friendly. Bluffton is a pretty farming town with well-tended streets and seemingly endless two-lane highways that intersect miles and miles of cornfields.

A.T Ferrell Co. Inc. is an old-time factory that says it has reinvented itself using digital-prototyping software from Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, Calif. In business for over 140 years, the company designs and builds machinery to sift, grind, blend, dehull, steam, crumble, flake, and convey grains, seeds, and spices for customers ranging from local family farms to large cereal manufacturers and, recently, biodiesel firms.

The company uses tools including Inventor for 3D design, Vault Workgroup for data management, and Showcase for turning 3D models into realistic, poster-size (or even larger) images. A really neat feature of Inventor 2010: It has a programming interface that lets engineers interact with design files via custom applications they write in Visual Basic or Visual Basic.NET, says Allen Gager, A.T. Ferrell design engineer.

For example, important parameters of the roll feeders are the roller width and diameter. Previously, engineers had to open all the part files to change parameters. Gager says he Googled for VB code that generates equations to drive such changes. Other code he found on Google and implemented in an application to talk to Inventor goes into Vault and tells it to print batches of files without him having to manually open each one.

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