In a new series, the editors of NASA Tech Briefs magazine catch up with everyday engineers about their unique responsibilities and challenges. This week, we highlight fellow reader and custom engineer of Jasper Library Furniture, Ben Hager.
Ben Hager, Custom Engineer, Jasper Library Furniture
What are the unique challenges of designing library furniture, compared to other products, do you think?
Ben Hager: Library furniture does have to appeal to multiple users. It has to be durable for decades. It has to be economical yet appear of high value at the same time. Sometimes it has to be able to be completely changed by the end user with little or no effort. It has to be as appealing 20 years from now as it was when they purchased it. It has to be an heirloom.
How has metal manufacturing posed challenges for you?
Hager: I have been a wood worker the majority of my adult life. I tell people I have to get sawdust in my lungs just to breath properly. When we started working with metal, the closest I had come in the past was laminates with metal coatings. I had an entirely new area to learn. In wood, you work mainly with inches or feet, but with metal, you work with gauges, and the higher the gauge, the thinner the material.
I do keep in mind that the vendors we use generally don’t understand wood, but we have all learned this: both can be made into just about anything and any shape you want. And, just like wood, there are certain metals that work better in certain situations.
The use of acrylics and plastics has come into play as much as metal. Products like 3form have been integrated into our products right beside of, and sometimes into, the steel and aluminum. Where wood would have been used in the past for dividers on top of tables, designer acrylics and even stone veneers have taken their place.
You use Autodesk Inventor. How does that tool help you do your job?
Hager: Inventor gives us the ability to look through an assembled object and to be certain that mortise and tenons line up, screws and holes are where they should be, and generally just assure that the product is going to work. With the rendering environment, we can also send customers an image of their furniture before it ever hits the production floor.
Another part of Inventor is the ability to produce bills of materials and cut sheets for production. This is accomplished through the drawing abilities of Inventor. Our ship lists, hardware requirements, and drawings are all produced this way.
The old way of doing cut sheets was tedious. Until twelve years ago, all of our tickets were created by hand, copied, and filled out per job. Any changes to dimensions had to be done manually. When we started doing them in AutoCAD, it sped the process up, but the changes still had to be done manually, and the chances of missing a change in an item was still there.
With Inventor, when you go into a part and make a change (length, width, or material type, for example), the change is automatic in the cut ticket. You can make as many changes as you want, and it still keeps up. It has saved us a lot of time when it comes to prototyping. We are currently getting the catalogs for our new furniture lines put together, and a good part of the images are from Inventor.
Inventor also lets us, through the Vault, create new products based on an old design. If you are making a desk that is a modified version—one with a deeper top or one with less or more drawers—you can do a Copy Design, name the new parts, and your drawings, parts, and assemblies are done. You just go in, change the parameters where needed, and you are finished.
You work with five engineers. How is that work arranged between the five of you, and what are you responsible for?
Hager: All five of us work on standard items. The custom items are generally done by myself and one other engineer. This is primarily because of our experience, abilities, and knowledge of our software. All of us create drawings, either for standard product or custom. We produce DXF files for the CNC machines. (Inventor has the capability, but at present, our software on the CNC machines is limited by age).
Each of us do have certain furniture styles (Infinity, Versailles, Deveraux, etc.) that we are responsible for keeping updated. We are all encouraged to challenge ourselves to come up with new product designs, or improvements to existing lines.