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SolidWorks helps Thule tackle sports gear transport challenges

Supplier: Solidtec Solutions
10 August, 2011

Virtual prototyping reduces time and cost of physical tests.

Thule, the premier brand in multipurpose roof racks, has standardised on SolidWorks software to quickly introduce smart innovations for transporting bicycles, boats, skis, snowboards, luggage, and more.

Thule challenges itself to offer a "perfect fit" across a staggering range of gear and vehicle brands whose rooflines vary across models, styles, and years. In every case, Thule tests its racks to be strong enough to carry the appropriate cargo, plus whatever the customer has loaded on top of it, at 90 mph, in buffeting crosswinds, and on bumpy, twisty roads. Carriers must last for years under such conditions, and preferably outlive the car. They must lock the gear down, yet be simple for anyone except a thief to unload. And, in the tradition of the brand, they must look great.
"We face a lot of design challenges, and SolidWorks helps us meet them with intuitive software for designing products, configuring them for all kinds of vehicles, shortening the prototyping cycle, and collaborating within and beyond the organisation," said Joe Flaherty, technical design manager, new product development, for Thule’s North American vehicle solutions business.
A recent breakthrough product developed in SolidWorks is a new "foot" – the piece of the carrier that attaches to the car. The foot includes an integrated AcuTight Tensioning Tool, a built-in torque gauge, to ensure the rack is tight enough without over tightening.

"When a customer asks how tight is tight, we as engineers should provide the answer," said Flaherty. "Now we do."
Thule has a rigorous protocol for testing new products. Engineers attach the physical prototype to a vehicle, take it out on a dirt track, fill the rack with the gear it’s intended to carry, then add more weight to simulate customer overloading. Then they speed around the track, aiming for holes and bumps until the rack proves it will do its job. It’s time-consuming and expensive when a prototype fails, so Thule engineers use SolidWorks Simulation software to help ensure the prototype passes the test with minimal renditions.

"In its ability to predict behavior and save work, it’s like a time machine on your desk," said Flaherty.
Thule also saves time by sharing designs with business areas around the world in the SolidWorks native file format those units use. At its headquarters in Sweden, Thule’s product development department has used SolidWorks since 1996. In fact, they were one of Sweden’s first SolidWorks users. Thule’s manufacturing partners globally also use SolidWorks, so there’s never a need to spend time translating files and repairing the ensuing damage.
"We cooperate very closely with our U.S. product development department," said Peter Karlsson at Thule’s Swedish BU OES product development department. 

"The new foot that attaches the carrier to the car for instance, was basically developed here, and is now adapted to different car models by both our U.S. and Swedish engineers. The communication between our departments is very smooth and easy thanks to SolidWorks."
Thule engineers further ensure quality by efficiently communicating with product managers and other non-CAD users by creating animations in SolidWorks and by sharing designs over email using eDrawings® software. eDrawings also enables easy design review in conference rooms and other settings where CAD workstations aren’t available, but laptops are.
"At Thule, we are all aware of the brand we’ve built and the need to continually strengthen it at every opportunity with smart products that always fit," Flaherty said. "SolidWorks is a big part of that."