Case Study

Driving sales with high-tech analysis, new patents and rave reviews

KEF

NX enables easy exploration of new concepts in sound technology, resulting in reduced costs, greater innovation and amplified revenues

The quest for pure sound

Founded in 1961 and now part of GP Acoustics Group, KEF has a global reputation for introducing revolutionary driver concepts and radical new materials to achieve the clearest, purest speaker sound. Mark Dodd, head of Group Research at KEF, focuses on using technology to gain commercial advantage. This entails exploring new concepts and registering patents.

“We cater to demanding audiophiles who take notice of reviews and of each other,” he says. “Increased performance means better reviews. Good reviews drive sales and strong sales ensure that we retain and grow our market position.”

Siemens’ NX™ software is helping KEF maintain its lead at the forefront of sound technology for home cinema and high-fidelity speakers.

Surfing on the edge of a wave

Using both numeric and analytic mathematics, the KEF team works at the very edge of what is possible with sound waves. They develop the necessary software tools in order to create and refine an NX model, such as a speaker shape. “This process is crucial for innovation,” says Dodd, “and innovation underpins the business and its continuing success. We are doing really new stuff, spending from one to five years on research and development for design and production and then securing patents. That’s what we have to do to stay at the front.”

Finite element analysis (FEA) enables the KEF team to experiment with sound. “In the FEA domain we can do things really easily and quickly,” says Dodd. ”We can create an idealized and abstract situation to test our ideas and solve problems. It’s like saying ‘If everything was perfect, would this concept work?’ This type of conceptual modeling on very simplified models allows us to isolate particular aspects of the sound radiation so we can better understand the physics and produce a better product. The PAFEC-FE solver vital for our acoustical work requires Linux for optimal speed; NX not only allows us to export a neutral ‘deck’ file but conveniently it supports Linux.”

While FEA is the key to exploring sound waves, the NX model is critical to 3D FEA. Dodd explains, “The NX associated modeling and meshing capability represents an extremely powerful tool. It allows us to optimize through models, thereby getting fast results at a low cost. This means we are more likely to explore radical ideas. If we had to do the same thing with physical prototypes, we would have to be incredibly accurate to get consistent results, and the cost would be prohibitively expensive. We can also get a wealth of data that would be extremely expensive and time consuming to acquire. For example using a 3D model we can explore how varying the box shape affects its vibration as well as both internal and external sound radiation all around the box.”

This process often involves many iterative permutations, and the associativity within the 3D model is a critical attribute. Dodd points out, “NX is phenomenally good at associative geometry. The associative splines in NX allow sophisticated shapes to be defined, sometimes using mathematical expressions resulting in robust parameterized geometry. Using a sketch at the top level, we can define the geometry of the key parts and an abstracted geometry that we can then optimize with FEA.”

According to Dodd, he and his team often have an instinct that a new design approach will provide improved performance and will explore it within an FEA model: “If the idea appears worthwhile, we’ll make a real-world demo model or modify an existing one and measure the result. That model allows us to evaluate commercial potential and communicate its value to our management. When we have created a valuable idea, then we have to obtain a patent and most often this involves FEA to establish performance boundaries.”

From research to revenue

In May 2009, KEF showed its most accomplished loudspeaker – Concept Blade – in Munich. “The level of technology in this product has pushed the boundaries further than anything else we’ve done,” says Dodd. “NX has been key to waveguide design and enclosure design. The carbon fiber enclosure, the bracing and the surfaces were all created and meshed in NX. We’d have struggled with any other package to do what we did in NX. NX made the modeling achievable.”

As head of group research, he has a range of responsibilities including managing people and the patent application process. “The consistency within NX makes the program very accessible,” notes Dodd. “Unlike our mechanical designers I do not use NX all the time yet I can drop in, find my way around and use it whenever I need to because it is so intuitive. I have used the online tutorials, which are fabulous. And our supplier, TEAM Engineering, gives us excellent support, meticulously getting to the source of any challenges.”

KEF may introduce two or three new loudspeaker ranges per year, the equivalent of 25-30 new products annually. This level of production means that the design team is creating approximately 500 components per year. “The setup we have with NX and FEA together is an extremely good environment in which to innovate,” says Dodd. “It has allowed us to independently explore ideas, and then present a business case. Others can see clearly what we are doing because of the visualization aspects. If I can show a good solid model with some FEA results and explain a concept, it is much easier to make an informed decision.”

From black art to methodical

“Ultimately, we are reducing risk,” says Dodd. “In the past our type of research was a black art. More than once in my career I’ve had to ask for the equivalent of my annual salary in prototyping costs. The virtual prototyping we are now doing takes away that problem. Now that we can readily model what we are doing we can be methodical and ruthlessly logical with no leaps of faith or desperation. The more we know, the more we can do.”

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