3D Design Software Helps Dearborn Mid-West Stay on Track

The Dearborn Mid-West Company (DMW) started as a small fabrication shop outside of Detroit in 1947. The company has rolled with the punches of the automotive industry ever since, incorporating new technology along the way to remain competitive.

Today, DMW designs and manufactures major material handling systems, such as the kind of conveyors that pull cars down the middle of an assembly line, and has 200 employees working at full-service locations in Michigan and Kansas. But when the recession hit a few years ago, DMW was in just as precarious a place as any other Michigan supplier.

“2008 scared us pretty bad, so we realized we’d better be diversified,” says CJ Bagierek, vice president of automotive and industrial for DMW.

Part of DMW’s diversification strategy involved branching out and adding divisions in concrete and life cycle improvement, which includes product, engineering, inspection, maintenance, lubrication, and fabrication services. Part of it involved incorporating cutting-edge software into its design process. DMW heard from its customers that it needed to have the ability to “capture reality” and present its designs in a 3D format.

Enter Bay Area-based software company Autodesk and its Factory Design Suite software, which Bagierek describes as a better way for DMW’s customers to see what they’re getting. “Before, we’d lay out 2D designs and it would look like just lines on paper,” he explains. “Now we have a much more powerful tool. Autodesk is pretty invaluable to what we do.”

Stephen Hooper, Autodesk’s senior product line manager on the mechanical design team, says today’s volatile market has driven many companies like DMW to seek out a competitive edge through technology. He says there are also behavioral changes afoot, such as the increasingly tech-savvy nature of factory managers who run assembly lines.

“They’re a lot younger than before with access to lots of information,” Hooper says. “In today’s market, they can access an almost infinite amount of information before purchasing. That makes them more challenging to deal with and connect with.”

Bagierek says every job DMW does is custom. It fabricates large steel pieces in its factory and then ships them out to be assembled on the factory floors at Chrysler (its biggest customer), GM, Ford, and other manufacturers. It uses software to design its conveyor systems and then builds and tests them in-house. DMW stays on site anywhere from two weeks to two months after installation to make sure everything goes smoothly.

“Engineering is key to our success,” Bagierek says. “We can fix things using the software much cheaper than if we had to do it on site. These are complex areas—if we can do it and test it in our shop, we don’t have to worry about problems later.”

The heart of DMW’s business is replacing old assembly line equipment. Having a plant sit idle during the process is very costly, so DMW uses design software to do as much work prior to installation as possible.

DMW sends a laser scanner through each customer’s plant to capture three-dimensional, 360-degree images and uses those images to get a very accurate, 3D model of the facility. “You can plan with confidence,” Bagierek says. “It avoids problems and really saves money. We’re using technology to make sure we’re doing the job right and can deliver what the customer wants.”

Along with its new technical capabilities, DMW has invested $2 million in improving its Detroit location, which it opened in 2009. In the past, it would send its 2D designs to another fabrication shop to make the final product. Now, it designs the conveyor systems digitally and then uses a laser cutting tool to manufacture the final product in its Detroit shop as often as possible.

Bagierek thinks his company is more technologically advanced than its North American conveyor competitors, which is one reason it’s continuing to see growth. “We’re the only ones doing our own 3D design in-house,” he adds.

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