Spreadsheet Drives Design of Similar Parts
Jean Thilmany posted on January 28, 2016 |

Harry Irwin didn’t specifically set out to be an engineer. And he’s quick to say he’s not an “educated engineer.” But the profession found him, and many years later he works in product development at Schaefer’s Electrical Enclosures, Inc., in Scott City, Missouri.

As the company name implies, it makes customizable electrical enclosures from steel and aluminum for industrial markets.

Harry Irwin generates a spreadsheet-driven configurator for CAD models at Schaefer’s Electrical Enclosures in Scott City, Missouri.
Harry Irwin generates a spreadsheet-driven configurator for CAD models at Schaefer’s Electrical Enclosures in Scott City, Missouri.

Irwin’s roundabout career story started in high school, where he took two years of drafting classes. Following graduation, he moved to Houston where he spent four years as an electrical draftsman in the oil and gas industry.

“But then oil drilling slowed down, and that’s the industry I was in,” he said.

He moved back to his hometown of Sikeston, Missouri, where he landed a job as an electrician’s assistant. His next job was at the Golden Cat division of Nestle Purina as a designer.

“I started doing drawings on a drawing board, then around 1988 started using AutoCAD to design machinery and plant layouts,” he said. He eventually became a project engineer. In 1999, he started using AutoCAD in 3D. He started using Solid Edge, from Siemens PLM Software, in 2003.

For the past 12 years, he’s worked at Schaefer’s Electrical Enclosures where he’s long had a hand in designing the company’s electrical enclosures. And he’s thankful not to be drafting by hand anymore.

He was introduced to Solid Edge at work and recently spoke at Solid Edge University, the vendor’s user conference, held in Cincinnati last October. He explained how his company uses Solid Edge to help customize its enclosures. As soon as he used the software, he was won over.

“Just before that, I’d designed a few things in 3D in AutoCAD,” said Irwin. “AutoCAD had 3D capabilities, but to build something with it was a chore. With parametric modeling, like in Solid Edge, it’s so much easier,” he said.

Parametric modeling ties all features of a model together and automatically updates those features when any feature parameter is changed. The relationship between features is continually maintained as changes are made.

A Schaefer’s Electrical Enclosures engineer works with the Solid Edge CAD system to design a standard enclosure.
A Schaefer’s Electrical Enclosures engineer works with the Solid Edge CAD system to design a standard enclosure.

His favorite part of the job? Irwin’s answer mirrors that of many engineers.

“I like the problem solving, the coming up with a better mousetrap type of thing,” he said.

At Solid Edge University, Irwin told attendees how Schaefer’s uses the software to automate design. Automation is necessary, he explained, because, while the company makes standard enclosures, it offers custom options and can even create what he called “exotic” customized enclosures that go beyond conventionally customized offerings.

Schaefer’s Electrical Enclosures can be freestanding or wall mounted and can include a number of custom features such as the factory-installed enclosure door at the top.

Schaefer’s Electrical Enclosures can be freestanding or wall mounted and can include a number of custom features such as the factory-installed enclosure door at the top.

Irwin’s company also uses Edge Design Configurator software from Engineering Design Automation (EDA), which integrates directly with Solid Edge. EDA was used to leverage parametric data to help reduce time spent on sales quotes and on engineering, drafting and manufacturing.

The tool stores all possible design options and cost calculations in an Excel spreadsheet, which sales people can call upon when making quotes, without needing to know how to use the CAD tool. Users can also create 2D proposals and approve manufacturing drawings that have been created in the most popular formats, such as DXF or SAT.

Engineers can create configured 3D parts, subassemblies and assemblies from Excel and also print manufacturing files.

Schaefer’s uses EDA to streamline the creation of custom enclosures built from its standard base versions. Irwin told conference attendees how that looks in practice at Schaefer’s.

“Currently, our catalog lists around 55 varieties of standard enclosures,” Irwin said. “Six of those enclosures have a configurator engine to automate the creation of that style at a new size and with various optional hardware.”

Engineers create a copy from the master model stored in the spreadsheet and then make custom “swaps.” He showed an example, stressing that the example was just one of many combinations. For the example enclosure, the designer removed standard door clamps and padlock tabs from the enclosure and then cut out a part of the door to fit a handle and latch system. The designer also removed clamp flanges from three sides of the door.

In the standard model, one side of the enclosure could be removed, but was normally padlocked in place. In the customized version, the door could be opened through use of the handle and could also be latched shut, rather than padlocked. All those changes were then stored in the EDA system.

The EDA software resulted in a new workflow when it came to building models at the company, Irwin said. Previously, time was spent searching for an identical or similar enclosure to build the new enclosure, he said. If none existed, a standard enclosure would be used and the required components inserted and shop drawings created. Now, using the EDA Excel add-on, a fully-loaded model is copied, optional items removed or kept as needed, and shop drawings generated, all in a few minutes time, Irwin said.

But EDA is only as good as the CAD software with which it’s integrated. Thankfully, Irwin said, that CAD system is Solid Edge, which allow engineers and designers to seamlessly move from CAD design to EDA system for custom enhancements to existing CAD models.

The combination of stellar CAD and EDA systems is Schaefer’s Electrical Enclosures’ secret sauce. The custom enclosures keep customers happy while the CAD and EDA system’s ease of use and integrated features always make a designer’s day.


Siemens has sponsored ENGINEERING.com to write this article. It has provided no editorial input. All opinions are mine. —Jean Thilmany


About the Author

Jean Thilmany has written about engineering software and design, engineering and manufacturing issues for more than ten years. Her work has appeared in Manufacturing Business Technology, HR and Packaging magazines, among many others.

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