Horsham, PA —Remember those large, glowing Lucite store signs from the 50s? Today they're collected as nostalgic symbols of a past era.
Now think about the last time you were on an airplane, and peeked into the cockpit at the impossibly complex control panels, glowing with scores of dials and gauges. These two products seem no more closely related than the salamander and the dinosaur. But over the past half-century, one company has transitioned from making simple signs into custom-designing illuminated cockpit displays, mostly for military jets and helicopters.
Oppenheimer Precision Products Inc. supplies these control panels for everything from submarines to the M1-A1 Abrams tank. And when you ask how they've been able to transform themselves and stay atop this competitive market, their answer is simple—3D CAD.
"I think we're just scratching the surface of using 3D models," says George Fesmire, a project engineer at Oppenheimer. In more than a decade at the company, he has seen the design time needed to create a basic light plate fall from three weeks with paper blueprints, to 10 days with 2D CAD, and finally to a day and a half with 3D CAD.
He designs cockpit displays with all the bezels, dials, knobs, lights, and labels that a pilot needs to fly. The display boards are made of acrylic, polycarbonate, or aluminum, and range in size from a pressure gauge the size of a quarter to a 2 ft2 board on a battleship. But one thing is constant—a trend toward greater complexity, as more buttons and switches are crowded into limited space.
In fact, Oppenheimer had been using the Anvil 1000 2D CAD program since 1989, but eventually found they couldn't fit all the features on a flat diagram. The control panels are layered above circuit boards and lamps that run the displays, and they increasingly feature not just punch-holes but also 3D items like push-buttons, switches, and tiny awnings to prevent the light of each lamp from illuminating its neighbor.
So in the late 90s, Oppenheimer switched to Solid Edge, from Unigraphics Solutions. The extra dimension of 3D CAD allows them to better organize their space, and to generate countless drawings and perspectives from a single file, instead of redrawing them every time, Fesmire says.
But how about the fabled difficulty in graduating from 2D to 3D? The program's intuitive commands and the well-organized Mid-Atlantic Solid Edge User Group have enabled the Oppenheimer engineers to quickly learn the technical changes, he notes. But the conceptual process took a little longer.
"One of the hardest things in going from 2D to 3D is that you have to think differently," says Fesmire. "On paper or 2D CAD you want to make sure everything is perfect, but in Solid Edge, you can just sketch it down, and then plug in the numbers later."
After designing a control panel, the engineers create a custom circuit board with a program called P-CAD, by Accel Tech. Then they send the panel to MasterCam for CNC machining (the panels are machined in- house, but not the circuit boards).
Since the company's usual production run of these custom panels is a mere 10-50 units, 3D CAD allows the five-person engineering department to test each item before building it.
"It allows us to avoid last minute mistakes," Fesmire says. "It's almost like creating a prototype. The only thing we can't do with it is see if the lights work on the board, but I can imagine that will be available next."
In the race for better control panels, the former storefront sign makers don't need a road map to see that their path to engineering success is in 3D.