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Playing around with 3D: design analysis software speeds time-to-market.

Fun is the obvious endgame in playground equipment design, but when you're designing something for children, nothing is ever one-dimensional. Fun is second to safety. And don't forget durability--anything designed with children in mind has to be able to take a good beating, day in and day out.

Finland-based Lappset Group Ltd. has been designing playground equipment that combines fun, safety, and durability since Antero Ikaheimo opened the company as a one-man shop in 1970. Now, 200-employee Lappset sells playground equipment and outdoor furniture products in more than 40 countries. The company builds its playground equipment from tough Lappish pine bound by colorful metal forgings. Unusual modular designs develop children's motor skills and cognitive development by becoming anything from a space ship to a tropical jungle in their imaginations.

Lappset's design process is a balance between imagination and practicality. To create a new product, Lappset designers spend anywhere from two to four months churning out ideas. In the next phase, engineers weigh the concepts and determine which materials and production methods to use. Prototypes help identify structural weaknesses.

Designing safe equipment soon becomes second nature for an experienced designer. However, making new equipment durable enough for kids and the weather, while keeping costs in line, is a constant struggle, says Esa Junttila, Lappset research and development engineer. And it's not just children that Lappset designers have to consider when they're making new equipment.

"Adults will often climb on the playgrounds as well," Junttila said. "We have to make our spring animals light enough for a 30-lb toddler to use, but strong enough not to break under five adults." Junttila said. "An architect will often choose materials to achieve a certain look, but they don't always look at their usability. When we use a 3D model, we can see all of the potential safety problems--for example, a gap between 8 and 25 mm that can catch a child's fingers--and analyze the structure's overall dimensions. When I know the property of one material, dimension, profile or structure, COSMOSXpress helps me easily see if some other solution is better."

Prototypes have cost them around 200 to 500 Euros [~$250 to $625] apiece. More significantly: until recently, prototyping helped stretch the product development cycle out over several years. In 2002, Lappset replaced most of its physical prototyping with virtual prototyping using COSMOSXpress design analysis software integrated with Lappset's 3D mechanical design software from SolidWorks, Concord, MA. The analysis software enables Lappset's engineers to see how well new creations will hold up against the pounding from thousands of little hands and feet, while ensuring that none of those hands and feet becomes stuck.

The software is helpful especially in designing the cast pieces that bind the playground structures. Junttila uses COSMOSXpress to reduce the amount of material that goes into each cast piece without reducing it so much that it fails. With the company making tens of thousands of forgings each year, every gram it can shave off a design saves money.

While cost is an important consideration, Lappset's single biggest gain in using COSMOSXpress is time. "Where we could run two or three tests on a structure before, now we can do five or ten in half the time," says Junttila. "COSMOSXpress has made our design cycle much more efficient. We spend much less time making worthless prototypes because we can see weaknesses on the computer screen and correct them before manufacturing. Our time to market was between one and five years before we started using COSMOSXpress. Now I'm confident we can keep it consistently under a year."

"We usually only need one prototype now to make sure that a structure is strong enough," Junttila continues. "That's time we can use developing more creative ideas, instead of losing it on testing. We're impressed with what COSMOSXpress can do and its ease of use ... [We've] cut up to 50% off the design time for a new piece, and in the future we'll be looking to use it for more advanced analyses."


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Title Annotation:Tech Upgrade
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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