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From the farm to the factory

Oct. 13, 2009
Machine builder stays in step with the future and in touch with the past, through digital prototyping.
A.T. Ferrell has been supplying the FlakeMaster machine for decades, and now it can develop new custom designs on a digital drawing board.

In the countryside near Bluffton, Ind., seemingly far from the stress of global competition, A.T. Ferrell is secure in its legacy of expert machine design. Skilled engineers with dynamic design capabilities keep the 140-year-old company in the vanguard of product development.

A.T. Ferrell designs and builds machines used by farms and food processing operations to process, condition, and convey grains, feeds, chemicals, minerals, seeds, spices, and other powder and bulk materials. The company develops new machines from a series of proven designs, though most are custom-built to suit the site and function.

One of A.T. Ferrell’s current developments is a high-capacity “cracking” mill — a large machine installed to process raw grain and separate whole-grain kernels from their hulls. Like tooling components, the mill’s work rolls have to be precisely designed and machined to achieve the proper meshing action, to deliver the proper force to the raw grain, and to continue cracking consistently while receiving raw material and evacuating the processed product.

Design Engineer and CAD Manager Allen Gager and his colleagues use an Autodesk program and digital prototyping technology to explore potential designs and to draft different options. Organizing and reapplying different designs is possible with Autodesk Vault Workgroup software.

According to Gager, the software capabilities accelerate A.T. Ferrell’s design development. It allows them to validate design ideas cost-effectively, without errors. And, it improves communication between designers, customers, and others during the development process.

Their work with the software recently earned A.T. Ferrell recognition as the supplier’s Inventor of the Month, in a program that recognizes innovative design and engineering advancements among Autodesk users.

Digital prototyping allows engineers to review and test every detail of a machine’s design, for customized installations of A.T. Ferrell’s specialty processing mills.

Autodesk Inventor is a comprehensive suite for 3D mechanical design, product simulation, tooling creation, and design communication that helps users to optimize their time and cost investment in product development by creating a digital prototyping workflow.

In process, the software establishes a single model that engineers can use to design, visualize, and simulate their products. Inventor creates a digital prototype, so Gager and the machine designers at A.T. Ferrell are able to try different approaches, customize machines for their destination or process demands, or address design concerns — all without creating physical prototypes, so their designs can be finalized, built, and installed much faster.

For A.T. Ferrell, this is consequential. Its customers are located around the world, and their processes involve an extraordinary variety of grains, seeds, sugar, flour, cereal, and similar bulk products. The machines they order may be tabletop models, or as big as a house.

The working rolls and gears are not the only design issues. Every component and fitting has to be engineered for the final installation, so factors like weight, pressure, vibration, as well as maintenance and repair, have to be addressed in the design phase.

Considering the variations in scale, some projects involve not merely machine design but system design, and even plant design. With digital prototyping, these are not limitations.

“Our products are engineered to be reliable and perform year after year,” Gager stated. “One of the challenges we face is to deliver higher-capacity machines while maintaining close tolerances, high standards, and overall consistency.”

He said using Autodesk Inventor and Autodesk Vault Workgroup software to develop products and adapt or improve existing machines makes A.T. Ferrell’s designers more competitive, because it improves their efforts and accelerates their development time.

The design capability is also important for A.T. Ferrell’s legacy. For a company that’s 140 years old, decades of design details can be brought up to date even if the original engineers or builders are long gone.

With digital prototypes, even machines designed for installation on a massive scale can be developed and tested quickly and efficiently.

Gager said A.T. Ferrell does not need to build physical prototypes to prove their designs’ feasibility, so machines and/or components can be redesigned or updated easily. A recent example saw the designers identify a problem, test the existing design, and develop a new design all in one day.

The high-capacity cracking mill is being designed using Autodesk Inventor according to core parametric equations; so, subsequent customer orders can be based on original designs in new sizes or with other adjustments. It will be a new family of machines, developed quickly but with only a modest volume of electronic documentation.

“Digital prototyping is playing a major role in getting the cracking mill and other products on the market and in meeting the challenges of our clients’ needs,” according to Gager. “It would be safe to say the design cycle of these projects is cut in half as a result of working in 3D.”

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