Designing an innovative air distribution system to transform home building
Demand for homes in the US is surging. As residential home builders rush to capitalize on this, they’re grappling with material shortages and intense competition for skilled labor. Simultaneously, builders want to streamline system installation processes to increase consistency and quality while driving down cost.
Our innovation strategy and design team at Essential Design, part of PA, joined up with Rheia, LLC, to address the challenges associated with designing and installing the air-distribution component of residential heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Prior to the collaboration, Rheia had developed several prototypes of what this air-distribution system might look like but sought to leverage Essential’s engineering and design expertise to drive the creation of a production-ready system.
We created an air-distribution platform that uses modular, snappable engineered thermoplastic parts, a novel concept for the industry. In just eight months, we took this platform from concept to production launch, including the support of tooling construction and securing regulatory approval. The system is designed for high volume, cost-effective manufacturing; and is easily installed without relying on specialist labor. Builders and HVAC contractors have increased control, flexibility and cost savings throughout installation. The system replaces current ductwork with a simpler, more efficient kit of parts comprising only 14 SKU’s while reducing HVAC job site waste by 75 per cent.
- Accelerated product development going from concept design to manufacturing and commercialization in just eight months
- Analysed customer journeys to identify ways to develop a product that simplifies installation
- Worked with suppliers and regulatory agencies to address product safety requirements
- Helped Rheia with a product portfolio that will position its brand for innovation and growth
Keeping up with consumer demand
In the US, a confluence of factors is creating heightened market demand for new housing. Ultra-low interest rates have increased consumer buying power, while the pandemic has spurred urban residents and other remote workers to seek cheaper housing in less-congested areas.
Millennials are also helping power sales growth; the median age of a first-time US home buyer is 31.
Rheia, LLC, a spinoff of the Integrated Building and Construction Solutions (IBACOS) organization, is playing a leading role in driving innovation in the housing industry. They recognized that while home building has benefited from digital and technological advances, HVAC design and installation has not kept pace.
Providing end-to-end innovation expertise at speed
Working in close collaboration with Rheia, we built a multi-disciplinary team with expertise in mechanical engineering, industrial and product design and regulatory compliance to turn this innovative idea into a commercially available product.
We began by learning more about the customer journey and product requirements. “Builders rely on third parties who use custom processes and expensive materials to design each HVAC system, while installation conditions often vary from design plans, impacting quality and efficiency,” says John Devlin, mechanical engineering expert at Essential Design, part of PA. “It’s not uncommon for customers to call back HVAC specialists to address temperature imbalances from room to room or challenges maintaining comfort in all seasons.”
“These callbacks inconvenience customers and harm their satisfaction with the home buying experience,” Devlin continues. “They also impact contractor profitability on system installation. So, all of these challenges point to a need for innovation.”
Designing for simplicity to ramp up production
To address these challenges, we created an air-distribution platform that uses modular, snappable thermoplastic parts that enables HVAC engineers to flexibly design systems within well-defined limits, increasing consistency across jobs.
As we designed and developed the Rheia platform, we considered features, geometry, and design elements that would ensure the system could be configured and installed intuitively, without specialized labor. The platform includes flexible ducts to cover long spans and short and curved connectors to navigate corners and other transitions. Each part is designed to be fit-for-purpose, eliminating redundancy.
Another key step in pushing the Rheia platform toward production was completing a material selection process to identify plastic resin grades that meet required mechanical, thermal and regulatory requirements, while also achieving cost goals. The Rheia system is well-suited for high-volume manufacturing, enabling the start-up to rapidly ramp up production to drive sales during the ongoing building boom.
Providing technical expertise to ensure compliance
“As the Rheia system was so unique, there wasn't an Underwriters Laboratories standard that completely covered it,” says Watts. “Ensuring compliance with UL standards is non-negotiable, as the organization sets global standards to ensure worker and consumer safety. The Essential team provided us with the technical arguments to support our work with the regulator. This helped us to meet UL’s new stringent standard designated for these types of systems. With Essential’s help, we managed to achieve this on our first attempt.”
Finally, we supported beta testing of the solution with builders at several homes across the nation. We used inputs such as system commissioning, airflow testing feedback, and installation observations to further refine the product. By so doing, Rheia increases the likelihood that the product will be embraced by builders and contractors when the HVAC solution is introduced to the market, leaving them well-positioned to build a successful product portfolio that builds its brand for innovation.
Creating a new way to heat and cool houses
A snappable thermoplastic air distribution system is obviously a first for the industry. Rheia is now a patented new technology.
With fewer SKUs, easily integrated parts and a single-pallet kit, contractors can tap less-specialized labor to install the Rheia system accurately and quickly. By leveraging access to a broader base of workers, builders can increase project speeds, while reducing installation time by up to 50 per cent.
Installers can more easily route ductwork wherever it is needed, improving homeowner comfort. While traditional HVAC systems often produce temperature swings of over 7°F between rooms, Rheia can reduce that variation by up to 50 per cent. This reduces the likelihood of call-backs and increases customer satisfaction.