Criteria for the selection of furniture design software
When choosing furniture design software, furniture manufacturing companies typically consider several alternatives. Unfortunately, the decision to choose one over another software system is often based on price and what program the company’s construction designers already know how to use. These two aspects are undoubtedly important, however, giving no thought to other criteria means that the likelihood of picking software that is less than optimal is very great.
A company must choose its software based on how the design software will be able to meet two principal business objectives:
– reduce design time, i.e., increase design output
– reduce the number of design errors, i.e., cut losses incurred due to defects and the cost of fixing them.
All specialised furniture design software seeks to fulfil these objectives, but their main difference lies in their characteristics and the possibilities they offer.
Companies that manufacture furniture are also different – they have different clients, products, scope of production and business models. Different companies require design systems with different capabilities. This is precisely why there are several systems available on the market – certain systems work better for some companies and other systems work better for others.
In order to determine which system is a better fit for a specific company, one has to take into account the kind of tasks the company has to deal with and how the design system can help them in their business endeavours.
The following are the criteria that a furniture manufacturer has to consider when purchasing design software.
Proportion of complex and non-complex products.
This does not refer to general company production, but to the proportions of time spent by furniture construction designers who design complex and non-complex products.
If construction designers allocate a substantial amount of time to designing complex products, then one must take into consideration how a design system designs such products:
- Can it be used to design products of complex structure and form?
- Can it be used to model various materials (panelling, metal, glass, wood, etc.)
- Can the system automatically transfer the design to manufacturing documentation?
When a design system fails to meet these requirements, the following cases of CAD use can be observed:
- Specialised CAD software is incapable of modelling complex geometry, thus AutoCAD or mechanical design systems such as Autodesk Inventor or SolidWorks are used alongside CAD software to design furniture. These systems to do not provide the possibility to generate documentation for the manufacturing process, thus documentation is produced manually with reference to a 3d model, and frequently with the additional assistance of MS Excel.
- Specialised CAD software can model complex geometry, however, the materials that it can manipulate are traditional furniture manufacturing materials such as wood panel or wood. After a specification is generated with such a system, it must be adjusted manually to the properties of the missing materials.
- All production – both complex and non-complex – simply uses a universal or mechanical design system. This means modelling possibilities are limitless, however, production information is generated manually.
Such tools allow companies to design and manufacture complex furniture, however, this requires a lot of manual work on the part of the design staff. Experience demonstrates that design staff typically spend 30-40% of their time designing the product itself, and the remaining 60-70% is spent on preparing the information necessary for production.
Designers spend virtually half of their time documenting their designs. Because everything is done manually, this leads to an unpredictable number of errors, which goes against the objectives that the business requires of its software systems, i.e., speed and accuracy.
Some companies even employ an extra staff member to deal with the preparation of documentation. This allows a construction designer to concentrate on creative work, but does not reduce errors and error-related losses.
Orientation towards serial production (ratio of standard and custom-made production).
It is now rarely the case that a furniture manufacturer only produces furniture of standard design. A manufacturer must be able to design and produce furniture according to a customised order as well. The documentation for a standard piece of furniture has already been prepared and thus production time corresponds to the duration of the manufacturing process. On the other hand, the production of a customised piece of furniture entails designing the piece, preparing its information for manufacture and the manufacturing process itself, which means that the execution time is not limited to the duration of the manufacturing process alone.
In other words, design and documentation can take up the largest part of the production process for a non-standard piece of furniture. In some cases it might take up to 75-80% of the entire execution process.
If custom orders make up a large part of company production, the time spent designing and documenting a product for manufacture is especially critical.
This is best illustrated by example. Let us say that standard furniture makes up 80% of a certain company’s production, and the remaining 20% is custom-made output. The company employs 15 construction designers, of which 3 work with the company’s standard production and the remaining 12 work with customised furniture. Everyone uses the same design system – Autodesk Inventor.
In this company, a designer of standard production services ~27% of all company output, whereas a designer working with custom-made products services only 1.7%.
This example demonstrates the difference in the output of designers – designers of custom-made products produce at least 16(!) times less output than designers managing standard products.
Manufacturer’s dream of increasing production of standard products, however, the tendency towards personalised products creates greater demand for custom production, and the drafting process takes up an ever increasing portion of the product execution process and becomes an even greater limitation for the company than the manufacturing process itself.
In such a situation, it is important that a system allows efficient modelling from scratch, easy adjustment, modification and use of previous work in the development of a new piece of furniture and, of course, full and automatically generated documentation without the need for manual input.
Ability of the system to cover all types of product.
Presently, more and more companies manufacture furniture for various segments: offices, hotels, household furniture, upholstery, kitchens, ships and so on. If different systems are used for producing products from different segments, operational costs automatically increase as compared to the situation when only a single system is used.
When the designers employed by a company are of universal profile, i.e., capable of working with both standard and custom-made products, they should be provided with the possibility to design all types of products with the same system and replace each other in their work. If different systems are used for different types of products, the exchange of information and the replacability of employees becomes impossible.
Thus, if a company manufactures furniture for various segments, it needs to have a system that would enable it to design all products with the same software and automatically prepare all necessary information for production.
Possibilities for the integration of the newly chosen system into the company’s ERP system.
Efficient and accurate transferral of structural design information to the ERP system is critical to company operations because the preparation of structural design information is a large part of the production process. If the structural design information of a product is not effectively reflected in the ERP, then the business management system will not be able to carry out one of its most important functions, i.e., presenting information for efficient management, as opposed to simply storing historical data. Thus it is crucial that the CAD system is open to integration with the company’s IT systems.
Possibilities for the development of prototypes.
Product prototypes save design time when designing furniture with similar topology to that of an older project with different parameters. This possibility is offered by all design systems. However, their principal differences lie in the methods and expenditure of effort that the development of these prototypes requires. Systems can be classified into three groups:
– Systems that allow any product design to immediately be used as a prototype;
– Systems that require additional work, special skill or even tools for the development of a prototype;
– Systems where a prototype can only be programmed by the developers of the system, by the manufacturer’s custom order.
Today’s furniture production series are increasingly smaller and there is increasingly more demand for custom products, thus it is much more efficient to use work from a previous design rather than to create new templates from scratch. Such a method allows a company to avoid the prototype development stage, which requires time and, in the case of certain types of systems, additional funding as well. Another shortcoming of prepared prototypes is that they quickly become irrelevant or need constant supervision and adjustment as the product range changes.
Installation and the competence of the installer.
Last but not least. This is one of the most important criteria because installation is a crucial part of software operation. The transition to the new system means involvement from two sides – both the company and the system itself. If a software supplier limits its assistance to training courses for the staff, the entire burden of change rests upon the shoulders of the company. As a rule, the company does not have sufficient competence and knowledge to take the task on independently because the company’s business is to design and manufacture furniture and not install software systems.
Of course, this means that the installer should not only be a software specialist but also be acquainted with the nature of the furniture manufacturing business.
If the software provider does not get involved in the installation process and simply resorts to providing training seminars, at best, the software will not be used to its fullest potential, and at worst, the software will not be used at all, with construction designers opting to work with older tools.
These are, of course, not the only criteria that are worth considering when selecting design software. Every company will find that it has different criteria it has to take into account. Most importantly, before choosing a software provider, every company must identify the criteria that would allow it to select software that could satisfy real needs and help resist outwardly impressive features that are not critical to company operations. Clearly identified criteria will also help service providers understand a manufacturer’s priorities and find the most suitable solution.