One strategy for manufacturers threatened by aggressive competitors and falling prices is to increase the payback on assembly and packaging equipment. Matrix Automation Group, North Billerica, Mass., which designs and fabricates custom automation machinery, needed to find innovative ways to reduce its production costs so it can pass those savings on to customers. "The key to keeping our machines affordable is speeding up the design process," says Richard Higgins, vice president of engineering for Matrix. Engineering typically represents 30% of the cost of the job. Design time also is probably the biggest factor in making or missing a delivery schedule. In the past company engineers working in a 2-D design package called AutoCAD from Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, Calif., often exceeded the number of hours they had allotted to project design. "The process of turning a layout into detailed drawings would often take two or three times the amount of hours we initially estimated," says Higgins. The reason: Any design correc-tions necessitated changing every drawing individually. Matrix needed a better way to make design changes. The company evaluated several 3-D solid-modeling design software systems, ultimately choosing SolidWorks from SolidWorks Corp., Concord, Mass. According to Higgins, SolidWorks simplifies the process of moving from design to detailed drawing. "If it took eight weeks to complete the process with AutoCAD, we now do it with SolidWorks in one week," notes Higgins. He says the savings in engineering resources has improved the company's project cost margins, giving Matrix more leeway in competitively pricing its services. Moving to 3-D solid modeling has improved Matrix's production costs and on-time delivery by eliminating mistakes that are difficult to detect in 2-D drawings. Higgins reports that engineers used to spend days visually checking 2-D detailed drawings for interference or colliding parts and still miss problems, leading to costly delays. With the dynamic motion-assembly and collision-detection capabilities in SolidWorks, "It's like having a great spell checker," explains Higgins. "The whole process of finding flaws in the design takes a matter of seconds. And those few seconds save days in the shop." Because it was hard to change existing drawings in AutoCAD, Matrix engineers usually started from scratch rather than attempt to rework a previous 2-D design. With the SolidWorks configuration functions, however, engineers now can easily take a product they've already designed, enter new parameters into the database, and let SolidWorks automatically generate the revised drawings and views. "In reality, SolidWorks is rede-signing the product for us to somebody else's specifications," says Higgins. "We can take 16 weeks of design time and cut it down to a few days. With the savings in engineering costs, we have a bigger margin to play with when pricing our equipment." By transitioning to a 3-D design approach using SolidWorks software, Matrix Automation was able to save on engineering and production costs, enabling it to pass along savings to its customers.