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Making sense of shade software

Advanced Textiles, Awnings & Canopies, Feature, Markets | January 1, 2013 | By:

Software is available for proposals and pricing, designing, and helping customers visualize the final product. Why not take advantage of this technology?

Faster, better, cheaper is an oft-repeated mantra in business. Software programs designed specifically for fabricators of awnings, shades and tension structures have shown that they can deliver these benefits.

Proposals and pricing

Awning Manager, developed by Don Sweitzer of U.S. Canvas and Awning Corp., Houston, Texas, is a sales management software and production tool introduced to the market two years ago. The software automatically calculates pricing and generates a professional-looking proposal based on input of style, dimensions, materials and other options. It generates easy-to-read fabrication sheets with instructions for production personnel with all fabric and metal needs listed. The program also produces editable 3-D drawings for customers, permits and shop personnel. It also integrates Google™ maps to assist sales staff and installers with finding the customer’s location, and it uses Cloud-based storage to maintain sales and jobs data. Because the software is Internet based, it can be accessed by management and sales personnel anywhere.

Sweitzer says it’s a paradigm shift in how the sales and production process operates. “Traditionally a shop representative would go out and measure, come back and manually work up a price and proposal, then present it. With Awning Manager, it can be done right at the customer’s place within minutes.”

Not only does it give a competitive edge, automatic pricing and fabrication sheets save time, reduce waste and make the production process more efficient and accurate. The program encompasses about 95 percent of what a typical awning company might fabricate and has 26 different awning and canopy styles from which to choose.

U.S. Canvas initially developed Awning Manager for its own use, but after using it for three years, Sweitzer realized it could benefit the industry as a whole and he decided to market it. Some awning companies are now using it a lot, he says; others sign up for a short-term trial offer but never get around to using the program, citing that they have been too busy. Given its ability to make work easier, Sweitzer says he’s puzzled about why more companies haven’t adopted it.

“We’re kind of scratching our heads; all we can come up with is the learning curve of software products. An older generation might have difficulty whereas a younger generation seems to be more computer literate and embraces technology more readily.”

Creative visualization

Consumers and business owners want to visualize how products look before purchasing them, especially expensive items such as awnings and shade sails. Trivantage in Burlington, N.C., continues to enhance its software, Awning Composer, to do just that—and help fabricators design and sell awnings.

Awning Composer allows a company to import a photo of the customer’s home or business and digitally present what an awning will look like on the structure. The software includes 150 prebuilt 3-D awning models, with complementary furniture and umbrellas, and features more than 1,300 fabrics and textures. Users can add graphics and valance styles and simulate the light and shadow effects from sunrise to sunset.

Product manager Mark Stiver thinks fabricators are increasingly interested in how technology can fit into their business. “There are some great tools that are out in the industry that specialize in certain aspects of the business,” he says. “Fabricators of all generations are finding new ways to take advantage of the efficiencies in technologies. We focus on usability and finding ways to add new features but making the experience user friendly.”

Trivantage introduced Version 5 of Awning Composer last year; the company is exploring other markets where this technology can be beneficial.

Julie Mowery, vice president of Rader Awning Inc. in Albuquerque, N.M., has been using Awning Composer for 12 years and has found it to be most valuable as a tool for pricing projects involving multiple awnings. “It helps us be more profitable, especially when we want to be more competitive on a national or regional level. It has become more user friendly over the years, and the ability to show a customer exactly what the end product will look like on their building helps close sales.”

The industry as a whole has been slow to adopt new software programs, she adds. Part of the problem is that each program does something different. It’s also difficult to get employees who are not computer savvy to operate them.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what advances are being made,” she says. “A lot of people are going toward shade sails; that seems to be the biggest trend, and I’m seeing programs on the market for that.”

Trivantage has integrated its software with Meliar Design’s MPanel Shade Designer to address the growth in the shade sails market. This new capability enables users to create 3-D shade sail models and superimpose them on a customer’s property to show exactly how the shade sail may enhance their outdoor space.

Design wizardry

MPanel Shade Designer is a wizard interface that requires no CAD experience. It was introduced in 2011 to address the reluctance of smaller shops to adopt a full-blown software program. Users can measure a site, type those dimensions into the wizard, choose fabrics, hardware and connections, and produce a 3-D model, flat panels and printable reports. And it automatically flags any errors.

“It is as simple as possible to use, and they’re very happy with that,” states Timothy Akes of CAD Effects LLC in St. Louis, Mo., which markets the software in the U.S. The difficulty, Akes says, is getting shops that still prefer traditional methods of doing things to see the potential return on the investment.

The company’s flagship MPanel software, on the market since 1995, is for designing tensioned fabric structures. The program will produce a 3-D model of a fabric structure that can be tweaked by applying different tensions and warp and weft stretch factors to sculpt the intended shape. The user can apply materials to show customers a realistic image of the end product. A flattening capability creates patterns directly from the 3-D model, which can be a significant time saver.

Meliar Design, based in Wales, U.K., also produces an engineering package called MPanel Finite Element Analysis (FEA), which allows users to apply wind loads, snow loads and rain dispersion to an MPanel model to see how the structure reacts, and import specifics from local codes, such as the pressure coefficient.

The software works on Autodesk® AutoCAD platform, used by 90 percent of architects in the country, and the newer Rhinoceros® 3-D system. “Many young people coming out of college as well as older ‘retrained’ individuals have experience in the base CAD platforms that our applications run on. This allows them to leverage their existing skills and become proficient with both MPanel and MPanel FEA in a very short period of time,” says Akes.

More architects or engineers are requesting and expecting a CAD file from the fabricator as part of an “as-built” deliverable. Having the 3-D model and the flattened patterns produced natively in the same CAD platform they are using to design the building is an added value. It also makes the transfer of files between the different disciplines nearly seamless.

Taking a cue from Apple, the company has generated a fairly sizeable user base by offering universities and tech schools free, unlimited use of the software for their architecture, engineering and design classes. The lower cost of computer hardware, the ability to use these programs and acceptance of them has finally caught up.

“Ten years ago, the people using our software were either large shops with large engineering departments or more progressive smaller shops. Then you needed an expensive computer to run CAD software, which was also expensive. Now a laptop for under $1,000 offers the same computing power. We’re seeing more and more excitement as people realize the time savings,” says Akes. “When you can achieve a 90 percent first-time fit, that’s worth everything right there.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer based in Woodville, Ga.

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