Stepping Up: Using Interactive Simulation for Custom Stairs and Railings

How Keuka Studios uses ANSYS Discovery Live in its architectural metalwork.

Keuka Studios’ monumental stair and cable rail in Niles, Ill. (Image courtesy of Keuka Studios.)

Keuka Studios’ monumental stair and cable rail in Niles, Ill. (Image courtesy of Keuka Studios.)

In 2002, Dan White was working as a design engineer for Xerox. Throughout his 20-year career, he had learned the ins and outs of machinery design, manufacturing techniques and industrial design. When Xerox decided to close down White’s division, he had the knowledge, skills and drive to embark on his own path. White began Keuka Studios, a company focused on high-quality architectural metalwork specializing in stairs and railings.

Why Keuka Studios? White wanted to start a company that tapped into his decades of design and manufacturing experience, but he also wanted a creative outlet. By providing bespoke architectural elements like stairs and railings, he would have a chance to use his aesthetic eye in addition to his engineering expertise. The name Keuka was borrowed from Keuka Lake in upstate New York, where White’s family had roots.

Keuka Studios Meets ANSYS Discovery Live

Dan White working in ANSYS Discovery SpaceClaim. (Image courtesy of Keuka Studios.)

Dan White working in ANSYS Discovery SpaceClaim. (Image courtesy of Keuka Studios.)

One of the first design decisions White had to make for his new company was the choice of which modeling software to use. He settled on ANSYS Discovery SpaceClaim, a direct modeling tool he thought would provide more freedom for the company’s industrial design projects than parametric modelers.

White also invested in a laser scanner, which the company uses on certain projects for a more accurate understanding of the constraints of a design. For customized staircases and railing, it’s essential to adapt to the existing plans.

“No one designs their house around our railing.We have to design our stairs and railings around whatever they have built,” he said.

White has since added another application to his company’s software toolset: ANSYS Discovery Live, a simulation tool introduced in 2017. Unlike other simulation software up to that point, ANSYS Discovery Live enabled real-time, interactive simulations on CAD models. This was a big shift from the traditional tools of simulation, which required users to set up studies and run simulations after the fact. With Discovery Live, users could make changes to their geometry and have the simulation update in realtime. The goal was to make simulation as accessible as a different model view—as easy as switching to wireframe or turning edges on or off.

Performing a structural analysis on interactive geometry in ANSYS Discovery Live. (Image courtesy of ANSYS.)

Performing a structural analysis on interactive geometry in ANSYS Discovery Live. (Image courtesy of ANSYS.)

There are two competing values at Keuka Studios that ANSYS Discovery Live is optimized to mediate: safety and aesthetics. Clearly, a set of stairs or a balcony railing must be able to support the weight of its users. Keuka Studios makes the safety of its products a top priority. At the same time, Keuka has a commitment to aesthetic excellence.After all, the company’s stylish staircases and railings define the brand.Sometimes, the values of safety and aesthetic excellence can play tug of war on a design.

For example, White recalled one project where Keuka Studios designed a spiral staircase for a customer. However, the customer thought the design looked too heavy and wanted him to make it lighter. White agreed. It was only after the staircase was built that he discovered the design lacked material, which made the staircase wiggly. Keuka Studios had invested 200 hours into the project at that point.

White was reluctant to start from scratch.Instead, he brought the design into his newly acquired simulation tool, Discovery Live. He was able to perform a structural analysis of the stairs and interact with it in realtime, which allowed him to discover a relatively simple change that would solve the problem. The customer was happy with the result, and White was secure in the knowledge that the product maintained a high standard of safety.

A Keuka spiral staircase. (Image courtesy of Keuka Studios.)

A Keuka spiral staircase. (Image courtesy of Keuka Studios.)

Before Discovery Live, Keuka Studios didn’t have a way to analyze its designs.Furthermore, in the bespoke stair and railing business, it’s not practical to create a prototype of a design. Keuka has to get the design right the first time. Before Discovery Live, this forced the company to err on the side of safety.

“It’s got to be one and done,” White said.“We can’t afford to make mistakes.”

This fact made some of Keuka’s pre-Discovery Live designs bulkier than they needed to be, as White soon discovered. The company’s signature Keuka Style cable railing, for instance, was designed before the company began using Discovery Live. In fact, it was overdesigned. When White ran simulations on the railing, he discovered it would be possible to reduce the thickness of the railing by a significant amount. Not only could this improve the aesthetic of the railing, it could also reduce material costs.

“It goes to show how much money I have wasted over the years,” White lamented.

The Keuka Style cable railing. (Image courtesy of Keuka Studios.)

The Keuka Style cable railing. (Image courtesy of Keuka Studios.)

This wasn’t the only time Keuka Studios managed to save money and improve aesthetics thanks to Discovery Live. White recalled another project that involved a staircase for a high-end home. The customer wanted Keuka to reduce the thickness of the stair stringer members, but White was concerned that doing so would undermine the stability of the structure.

He had just started using Discovery Live and decided to simulate a 3D model with thinner stringers. To his surprise, he found that the thinner stringers would provide sufficient support.To double check his findings, White enlisted the help of a professional engineer to verify the results of the simulation. The engineer agreed with the results, so Keuka Studios reduced the stair thickness stringer from 7 inches to 2. This saved material costs and pleased the customer.

Without Discovery Live, White wouldn’t have felt comfortable accommodating the design change.

“There is a big risk for a fabricator to go in to a design and start to make material thinner and shapes smaller to try and get it lighter,” he said.

Simulating stair thickness stringers in ANSYS Discovery Live. (Image courtesy of ANSYS.)

Simulating stair thickness stringers in ANSYS Discovery Live. (Image courtesy of ANSYS.)

The Confidence to Design

Since adopting ANSYS Discovery Live, White has been pleased with the benefits afforded to Keuka Studios. For one thing, the interactive simulation tool has given Keuka greater design freedom than ever before.Add to that the ability to optimize designs and save on material costs, and Discovery Live has significantly impacted Keuka’s workflow.

“It has given us the confidence to try more complex designs and reduce costs by optimizing designs more,” White said.

Another benefit of the tool is simple but critical: peace of mind. For a company that has the safety of its products as the top priority, having a tool to confirm and enhance that safety is a gamechanger.

“Now I can build a product and be rest assured that it will be safe,” White said. “You’ve got direction on what’s going to work, and you build your product based on that.”

If you’re interested in learning more about ANSYS Discovery Live or testing it out for yourself, you can obtain a free 30-day trial of the software.

ANSYS, Inc. has sponsored this post. They have had no editorial input to this post. Unless otherwise stated, all opinions are mine. —Michael Alba

Written by

Michael Alba

Michael is a senior editor at He covers computer hardware, design software, electronics, and more. Michael holds a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Alberta.