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.

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Ben Hager, Custom Engineer, Jasper Library Furniture

What are the unique challenges of designing library furniture, compared to other products, do you think?

Furniture from the Ferdinand Public Library in Indiana, designed by Hager and his team.

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.

What are your time constraints?

It depends on the job. All jobs are given six weeks in production. Sometimes that cuts our time down, depending on when the dealer gets the information to our project managers, and then sometimes it helps when it is all standard. Jobs which are all standard items go quicker. You bring the items into Inventor, produce the cut sheets and drawings, and out to production they go. We have books of standard drawings in all areas of Production. Each style of furniture has its own book. Our layout and CNC guys have their books with drawings pertaining to their needs. Our Top department has their part drawings, and Assembly has both part and assembly drawings. Our other plant has copies of assembly drawings showing where all the different hardware is attached.

Custom is totally different. The time has to be adjusted to the size and scope of the project. Some are a couple years in design before they even get turned into a purchase order. On rare occasions, the job will wind up having to be squeezed in due to foot-dragging, but that just makes it more fun.

What is the most satisfying part of your job?

I love to see the end result. When we did the library in Statesville, NC (our local county library), I worked in all areas of it at the time. I was doing estimating and engineering, even installation. I even wound up getting involved more with local politics. My daughters were five when we did the job in 2004, and they love going in now and working on “Dad’s” furniture.

There are a few pieces from a line of children’s furniture I designed that we donated to the library after they let us photograph it there. I like seeing it used and knowing that it will be there for many years to come.

What do you think is the most exciting development happening right now with engineering? Have things changed?

The choices of 3D software have changed the way engineering operates. The ability to create a product and never have to cut a single piece of wood or metal to show the customer what they are getting, and how it operates, is very cost efficient. I have worked with Cabinet Vision, Pattern Systems, trained a little on Solidworks, and now work with Inventor. There are free downloads and other 3D software for purchase that anyone can use, and some work for basic layouts and presentations, but don’t give all the bells and whistles.

Now a customer doesn’t have to wait a couple of days for the paper work to be sent, then reviewed, then sent back in a few days. PDF files can be sent to them in a few seconds. If the customer wants something changed, maybe a little taller or shorter back panel, we make the change, and in a few minutes have the approval. There is still a little time involved, but the ability to connect with the customer through their computer monitors can cut that down also.

I thought when I started with AutoCAD that I would keep my drafting table at home available to do hand drawings. Now, I have a computer with a CAD program installed sitting on my drafting table.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the August, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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