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Look What 3-D Design Software Is Cooking

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2003-01-01 Print this article Print

A 3-D recipe for savings.

Gary Millard used to have a standard recipe for cooking up new kitchen designs for his clients.

The chief executive of Wooden Thumb, a Milwaukee full-service kitchen design and construction firm, would typically sit down with clients and go over their shoe-box full of ideas.

His design team would then take those ideas, draw up sketches, look up cabinet and fixture prices, and, days or weeks later, present clients with a proposal. Then, more often than not, the clients would ask for modifications, resulting in new sketches, measurements and pricing, which could add up to another week depending on the modifications required. "It was a very time-consuming and costly process," Millard says. "It also placed limitations on our ability to grow the business."

Wooden Thumb threw out the old kitchen-design recipe about two years ago and brought in a new tool called 20-20 Design from Montreal-based 20-20 Technologies.

Now, every kitchen the company designs is drafted in 20-20's Windows desktop software. Kitchen measurements are plugged in, and cabinets, sinks and plumbing fixtures—with prices—are pulled up from a database built by 20-20 that consists of products from more than 180 suppliers. Within an hour or two, customers are able to look at a simulated 3-D rendering of their future kitchen. Changes or modifications to the design can be made on the spot by cutting and pasting in different products, and associated changes in pricing are automatically calculated. Once everyone is happy, a button is pushed and the designs and order forms are printed. If Millard chose, he could also have the orders automatically placed with suppliers via the Internet through a network maintained by 20-20, but for now he prefers to negotiate his own pricing directly with suppliers.

Wooden Thumb is just one of the many kitchen and office furniture-makers that has embraced 3-D design software. But manufacturers in other markets, such as bathrooms, education and health care also are increasingly joining the fold. The ability to shave hours off normal drafting and design phases is a key driver behind the software's broad adoption, says Jerry Laiserin, an architect and author of a 3-D design column that's published on the Web. But Laiserin believes the biggest factor in the software's adoption is the ability to place products in context for customers. In other words, the data behind the 3-D design software, which tells customers whether products can work with one another and how much it will all cost, is a winning combination.

Laiserin says putting products in context works in other ways. Manufacturers of products for specialty areas such as furniture for a doctor's office, or a university lecture room, are creating simulated patient rooms, waiting areas, or conference rooms, so customers can "see" how their proposed purchases would look in those settings. "Looking at a 3-D rendering of a chair isn't enough," he says. "Being able to see that chair and the rest of the furniture in the context of how they'll be used is where the benefits are generated."

KI Inc. (formerly Krueger International), a Green Bay, Wis., manufacturer of office furniture for business and specialty markets such as education and health care, also employs 3-D rendering software, but in a more custom fashion. The degree and sophistication of the rendering depends on the stage of sale, the potential size of a sale, and the customer relationship. For instance, in lower-end sales the company uses an inexpensive package called Giza (acquired by 20-20 in July 2001) to produce office furniture renderings. For larger sales, the company will use a package called Studio Tools from Alias Wavefront, a division of Silicon Graphics Ltd., to produce office furniture renderings. The sophisticated design software allows companies to produce animations showing how to assemble a product or its functionality. Automobile manufacturers such as General Motors and Nissan use the same software.

The renderings are made available for viewing on extranet sites the company has created for its largest customers. Dana Vanden Heuvel, manager of KI's Internet operations, says that about 900 such extranets have been created to date. KI does not sell its products via the Internet—it tried Internet sales for about 18 months but canceled the initiative in the spring of 2002 due to sales-channel conflicts and poor results.

Vanden Heuvel couldn't provide a figure for the return on investment the company believes it is gaining for its use of 3-D technology. But he believes it is significant. "Our win ratio when we do produce a rendering for a client is exponentially higher than with customers who don't get that level of engagement," he says.

20-20's CEO Jean Mignault says 3-D design software is not a good fit with all areas of manufacturing or construction, particularly in areas where the design or materials being used are not complicated, such as drywall or flooring. There also has been some reluctance in the industry to use the software, primarily because of training and resistance to change.

But at Wooden Thumb, Millard says 3-D design software has basically revolutionized his business. "Back when we were doing things by hand, we were only doing 10 to 12 kitchens a year. Now we're doing five to 10 a week."

Wooden Thumb pays a software license of about $350 a month for the use of the system for four installations—a sum Millard found difficult to swallow at first, but now feels is well worth it. "The cost was made up in the first two or three kitchens we designed," he says, calculating the savings based on hours shaved off design times and increased productivity.

The key benefit in this case isn't so much the 3-D design, says 20-20's Mignault. The real benefit is in the ability to call up actual products from hundreds of suppliers, complete with pricing and associated installation guidelines. For example, if designers attempt to combine a sink with fixtures that don't match or fit, the software flags the conflict. If a designer attempts to create a layout that doesn't meet National Kitchen and Bath Association standards (such as not providing at least 16 inches of preparation space on either side of a stove), the software identifies the violation.

"It takes care of so many things automatically that we've come to rely on it," Millard says.

And, says 3-D design expert Laiserin, the software provides the kind of savings and streamlining that will propel more manufacturers to reach the same conclusion.

Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.

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