You don’t need to be playing professional sports or even Division 1 college athletics to enjoy the latest technology in stadium lighting. A much larger and often overlooked U.S. sports market is the tens of thousands of municipal-owned fields and arenas.
“If you look at your average hometown standard American ball field, that's a $5 billion market,” says Adam Rupp, co-owner of NAFCO International. “It is a massive market that people often forget because they get really focused on pro stadiums. The reason our customers, sales reps and distributors come to us is that we can do custom-engineered LED light pole, bracket and fixture assemblies on demand – in many cases, 50 to 80 feet off the ground.”
“Because many of the large lighting conglomerates are making thousands of units at a time in China and shipping them in, they’re very limited in what they can do for customization,” he adds.
Based in Wisconsin, NAFCO designs, manufactures and sells industrial light poles and high-output LED fixtures for factories, foundries, schools and universities, aircraft hangers, roadways and indoor/outdoor sports facilities. For the latter category, NAFCO’s flagship product is the Helios Olympia Series, rugged, aircraft-grade aluminum sports lights that operate in extreme conditions (-40 degrees F to +140 degrees F) and reduce energy use by up to 80 percent.
“It’s one of the toughest LED fixtures on the market,” says Rupp. “We just finished a dome lighting project in the Midwest and the customer received tens of thousands of dollars in energy rebates and tax credits back, while doubling their foot candles (level of light intensity) on the ground.”
“Plus, the Helios doesn’t overheat and requires zero fans and active cooling systems,” he says. "A special design and proprietary aluminum heat sink allows dust and air to pass through the fixture so you don’t get any build-up.”
Although Europe is still ahead of the United States in terms of LED adoption (versus cheaper but less energy-efficient HID and fluorescent lamps), Rupp says the price difference has dramatically leveled off and that all new construction he sees automatically opts for eco-friendly LED.
A Need to Be Nimble
According to NAFCO engineer Trent Burmesch, the product shelf life in the outdoor lighting industry is 2 to 3 years and there is an ongoing pressure to quickly make design improvements and create new offerings.
“We can't afford to have 20 different fixtures if we have to buy 2 million dollars in tooling, and designs are constantly evolving. So using metal fabrication for production has allowed us to be more nimble,” he says. “Making cast parts isn't feasible at that point unless you're making hundreds of thousands of them and selling that many a year.”
To speed up their design of the Helios, NAFCO relied on Onshape, a full-cloud professional 3D CAD system that runs on any computer, phone or tablet. “There’s now a more rapid pace to design and development – and from idea to creation, we need to do things very, very quickly,” says Burmesch. “We're not in the business of scheduling meetings to discuss problems. If we have an idea, in many cases, we'll pull up the design model, and we'll hash it out. I think that Onshape is a tremendous help with that.”
“While I’m meeting with our metal fabrication guys, I can just pull up Onshape on my iPad and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this? How can we improve it? How can we reduce costs?’” he adds. “I also like the flexibility of accessing CAD wherever I’d like. It doesn’t matter if I’m working at home or at the office. I’ve even designed things in the car (as a passenger). You can’t do that with other CAD systems.”
The Business Benefits of Modern CAD
Founded in 1973, NAFCO does all its LED manufacturing in Wisconsin and has done installations in all 50 states as well as overseas. Rupp said he was initially attracted to Onshape because of its affordable SaaS pricing model and that he prefers his business-critical software to be in the cloud.
“Nearly all of our marketing, sales and accounting software is based in the cloud. It makes sense that our design tools should be there, too,” he says. “Also, as a small business, it’s nice to be able to invest hundreds of dollars a month (on an annual plan) rather than a $10,000 to $30,000 investment in software, hardware and IT right out of the gate.”
“It’s also refreshing not to deal with any licenses or hidden fees,” adds Rupp. “We also use a specialty lighting design software that we’re very happy with. But they always have warranty subscriptions and other offerings that you may or may not need. Just from a consumer standpoint, it’s a little frustrating. I’m wondering if I really need a warranty or not and also why they don’t just roll it into the price. It’s almost like going to Best Buy when they try to sell you the two-year extended warranty and you’re thinking, ‘Is this thing going to work or not?’”
Burmesch, who had a SOLIDWORKS background at previous companies, experienced a short learning curve switching to Onshape and says he especially appreciates the rapid development of new CAD features and enhancements. All Onshape users get automatic upgrades in the cloud every three weeks, with no downloads or installs required.
“It's impressive seeing the constant progress Onshape makes with each new release,” he says. “I’ve been most excited about the new approach to sheet metal tools. Onshape is always improving its product, so we haven't had a need to venture out and get anything else.”
The Future of the Helios Looks Bright
So far, NAFCO has installed the Helios Olympia lighting system in more than 20 sports facilities around the United States – all of the business coming from a limited sales and marketing effort. The company is gearing up for a formal product launch in the summer of 2017, adding “SuperSport Optics” to the platform that are projected to increase delivered foot candles at the playing surface 30-40% without increasing wattage and/or lumens.
“Quality engineering and manufacturing is ingrained in our DNA,” says Rupp. “And our Helios Olympia series is the ultimate testament to our standards and values as a company.”
“Our team is passionate about developing great LED products and illuminating sports and recreation parks around the world. After a recent installation, one of our customers told us the Helios is ‘badass!’ We couldn’t ask for a better compliment and look forward to delighting more athletes and fans in the years to come.”