Conceptual Design

Conceptual Design Software Tools

22 May, 2014 By: Sanjeev Pal

Cadalyst Labs Report: Whether it's a bridge or a ball joint, every design must be roughed out before designers can tackle the details — but a growing group of digital options is making that process a little smoother.

Regardless of industry or application, every design starts taking shape at the conceptual stage. Architects, designers, engineers, and other project stakeholders sketch out the germ of an idea, then refine the design by constricting the broad-brush initial concepts into a precise virtual design that meets project requirements.

View a Sampling of
Conceptual Design Tools

The latest software tools are helping designers to produce more concepts and complete this process more quickly, resulting in reduced costs and increased customer satisfaction. Whether a stand-alone tool or an integrated part of a primary CAD software application, in the office or on the go, conceptual design software is becoming an indispensible tool for projects that span the design spectrum.

SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual offers motion analysis for concept designs. Image on tablet courtesy of Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks. Background and tablet images © Collection & popartic. Art direction by Gwen Rhoads.

Conceptual Design Defined

Wikipedia defines conceptual design this way:

Conceptual design ... is the creation and exploration of new ideas. It is distinguished from conceptual art by closely relating to function; it is distinguished from design in general by not necessarily being actually functional, but as illustrating a design that may show an idea that may potentially be functional.

Exploratory in nature, conceptual design promotes the generation of creative output by eliminating the constraints that define general design. One of the most effective ways to explore design with freedom from constraint is by sketching, an approach that has been around as long as design itself. Although modern tools provide a far more sophisticated sketching experience than rough drawings on coffee-shop napkins, the goal is the same: Enable designers to brainstorm and apply their creativity in developing new ideas. This contrasts sharply with CAD tools designed for detailed design, which require specific dimensions, tolerances, finishes, and material specifications, as well as constraints that are mathematically precise, accurate, and performance based.

Changing Face of Conceptual Design Tools

Technological advances in recent years have changed the conceptual design process dra­matically. Pencil and paper have been joined — and in some cases, completely replaced — by software tools that convert digital scribbles into geometrical lines and arcs and, as work progresses, into 3D models that can be used to evaluate the design in its working environment, create renderings, and even analyze design performance well before the design is final.

Conceptual design software tools facilitate collaboration. For example, in SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual (shown to the left and on p.20), users can message each other in real time to discuss a design.
Conceptual design software tools facilitate collaboration. For example, in SolidWorks Mechanical Conceptual (shown above and on the tablet in the opening image), users can message each other in real time to discuss a design.

"What has changed significantly [in recent years] is that the time to market has shrunk, and with that, the time allowed for the conceptual design phase," said Colin Smith, Fusion 360 product manager at Autodesk. "This means that design teams have to be as efficient as possible and still create great products for their company or customers."

That efficiency depends in part on the ability to work and collaborate anywhere. The latest software tools allow conceptual design to take place in the office — using stand-alone tools or those increasingly found inside full-fledged CAD programs — as well as on the go, at work sites, client meetings, or anywhere inspiration strikes.

Conceptual design software can help produce better-performing designs.
Architects and engineers use Bentley GenerativeComponents to explore what-if scenarios and design more sustainable buildings.


How It Works

Before the process of detailing a product or structure design can begin, project collaborators must determine its shape, form, and aesthetics; they must create the conceptual design. Conceptual design software supports this process, fostering creativity by enabling users to try out shapes, curves, fillets, surfaces, or colors that would be constrained in detailed CAD design due to complexity or cost to produce.

"The key is the free­dom to explore new con­cepts, and [the] software allows ideas to flow," said Mark Dodd, head of Group Research at GP Acoustics. Dodd uses the conceptual design tools within Siemens PLM Software's NX software to explore various design concepts for KEF brand loudspeakers. "[It enables] the user to check out possi­bilities with speed and ease," he continued.

Conceptual design software tools offer a broad range of functionality, from simple digital sketching and automated design iteration to social tools that facilitate collaboration and behavior modeling that helps designers predict whether a design will move and function as desired.

Mobile options. With touch or stylus-based tablets and powerful, mobile phones, designers can start a design anywhere, then place it on a background photograph taken by the device's camera or from saved images. This feature is especially applicable in the AEC domain, where architects are better able to visualize ideas in context at the earliest stages of design.

Cloud technology enables designers to access designs from any location with an Internet connection, and to share their work with project stakeholders within and beyond the enterprise. The union of cloud and social computing has improved collaboration, decision making, and idea sourcing.

Application areas. Conceptual design software has a multitude of uses, from mechanical and industrial design to architecture and interior design, graphic arts, and other creative endeavors. In general terms, designers call on it to support the following types of tasks:

  • Design development focuses on incorporating requirements and specifications into the conceptual design and easily converting it to the next stage of design;
  • Generating new ideas or adapting existing ideas for launch into new markets. In the AEC industry, the growth of smart or sustainably designed buildings is an example of how conceptual design has been used to support innovation;
  • Capturing strategic vision and saving those ideas for future development or research purposes. A concept car developer, for example, might capture ideas that are not yet ready for production but could move into mainstream use in the future, such as self-driving cars and collision avoidance systems; and
  • Creating design visualizations and marketing collateral based on conceptual designs, allowing marketers and salespeople to communicate with customers and clients before a project is complete — even before a bid is approved.

Plant designers use conceptual design software, such as Bentley PlantWise, to evaluate various layouts of piping and machinery for process plants.

Designing KOR Hydration Vessels

There is not much one can change when designing a humble product such as a water bottle — right? RKS Design took the challenge to make a simple water bottle into a vessel that not only looks like a piece of art, but is also environmentally friendly and can be operated with one hand without losing the cap.

KOR Hydration Vessels

The RKS design team used PTC's Creo Direct to generate multiple design ideas at the conceptual design phase. Although the iterative process could have been performed with pen and paper for such a simple product, that approach would not have afforded designers the same opportunities to collaborate with stakeholders, an important factor in producing the appealing final designs. RKS designers achieved a more innovative end result by concentrating on the conceptual design process and using software that provides much more flexibility than sketching on paper.

KOR Hydration Vessels
Images courtesy of KOR.


In AEC applications, conceptual design requires architects to address scale, mass, form, and bulk, and to address the aesthetics of a building. They also have to produce the context within which the structure will stand, ensuring that the design is feasible and acceptable to the clients. Engineers, architects, and even marketing professionals that are on the customer site can create and modify existing 3D models to quickly respond to the requirements in the bid and proposal process.

Plant designers use conceptual design software to identify the best layout of machines and structures to optimize production in a proposed facility. Civil engineers may need to share concept design visualizations with citizens, city councils, or other stakeholders to get initial approval before proceeding with a transportation or utility project design.

Manufacturers create virtual models of products that appeal to consumers with their aesthetics, materials, and ergonomics. Given the complexity of machining processes required for manufacturing a product, a conceptual designer can determine the time and cost that will be associated with producing a product.

Once the conceptual design stage is complete, detail designers — professionals who use CAD to define exact geometrical form, tolerance, and constraints on various subcomponents — can then use those conceptual designs as templates to create geometric models, which in turn are the blueprints for creating physical objects.

Critical Part of the Design Process

Firms in every market today are challenged to reduce design project costs and the time it takes to bring designs to fruition. The ability to create innovative products, shorten the design cycle, and control costs can have a huge bearing on a company's success. Conceptual design software can improve the design process — and design results — in numerous ways.

Minimized rework. Competitive and cost pressures can force firms to condense entire projects, including bypassing conceptual design and working on design details from the get-go. This approach has severe consequences later in the project, when slight modifications to the design become time-consuming and expensive, and even lead the designers to deviate from the customer specifications to meet project deadlines.

The cost and time required to modify a design are lowest at the conceptual stage; it becomes increasingly more expensive to change a design as the project matures. "The costs of having the wrong design carried downstream can be very high if issues arise during later stages in the product design process," Smith affirmed.

This is even more true as design projects of all kinds become increasingly technically complex. Buildings are integrating more sensors and energy-conservation features, and products are incorporating embedded chips and software and wireless capabilities that make design rework complicated and expensive. Identifying and addressing design problems at the conceptual stage has tremendous benefits for the project overall.

Tesla's Experience with Conceptual Design Software

In the past, electric cars have been stereotyped as slow and unattractive, with a shape and design that are very different from conventional cars. When electric car manufacturer Tesla set out to design its Model S, the company's goal was to produce a vehicle that is efficient, as fast and fun to drive as conventional-fuel cars, and — last but not least — beautiful.

Tesla designers had to meet the specifications of an electric car, while making its styling match that of an attractive conventional car in order to build confidence in its customer base. The electric car produced by Tesla replaces the bulky conventional engine, drive shaft, exhaust pipe, and other standard equipment with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

Tesla designers used Autodesk Alias Surface to visualize, render, and surface the Model S, replacing old-fashioned paper drafting and tape drawing. They used an iterative process of rapid prototypes designed in Alias and computer numerical control (CNC)-produced clay models, which were scanned back into Alias for the addition of finer details, and then milled again to formalize the final design.

Tesla believes that conceptual design software streamlined its entire design process; in addition, it has also helped the company quickly produce 3D models for its designs that are geared to provide performance and the look desired in the final product.


Images courtesy of Tesla.

Agile project management. Conceptual design also supports the current trend of agile project management techniques, which focus on breaking down a project into smaller deliverables. Conceptual design tools often allow users to tackle a complex design by separately addressing its shape, materials selection, physical and environmental impacts, and other factors — yet another way to identify and solve problems early and improve overall design.

"With the outside pressures of the compressing timeline, it is critical that designers can be as effective as possible by having tools at their disposal that will help them make early design decisions quickly and easily," said Smith.

Enhanced collaboration. Improved collaboration with customers and other project stakeholders in the early phases of design results in less rework, higher customer satisfaction, and shorter project cycles. It also reduces changes late in the design process, including change orders. Conceptual design tools improve collaboration across and outside the enterprise by opening the design process to all stakeholders, rather than limiting it to designers, engineers, and architects. Conventional CAD, in contrast, is more technically oriented to conform to geometric and engineering constraints, presenting a significant barrier to collaboration with stake­holders who are not CAD users.

The free-form, nonconstrained geometric functions, intuitive user interface, improved collaboration, and free or affordable price point have all contributed in making conceptual design tools accessible to stakeholders within and beyond the design department.

In addition, conceptual design tools are exploiting the current IT trends of cloud computing and mobile app development, further improving collaboration by moving the design process beyond the walls of a company.

Optimized design. Nearly all conceptual design tools facilitate design iteration — and in some cases, even automate it — in ways that most conventional high-end CAD tools do not. This results in more and better options to consider at the earliest stages of development.

Parts recycling. Like most full-fledged CAD solutions today, conceptual design tools enable engineers to incorporate existing models (such as parts, subassemblies, and products) from their own design archives or obtained from third parties, improving reuse, shortening the design cycle, and reducing costs.


Integrated vs. Stand-Alone Tools

Although conceptual design tools and traditional CAD tools aim to fulfill two very different functions in the design process, they need not come in two separate packages. Many CAD vendors have started to integrate conceptual design capabilities into their mainstream CAD applications, blurring the lines that separate conceptual design and detailed design.

Integrated solutions. An integrated application helps in transitioning a concept to detailed design without any loss in functional or aesthetic intent. In such a system, designers import the sketch directly into the engineering environment with all the initial design details, such as surfacing, color, true geometric shapes, and so forth. Such integrated systems also enable users to reuse existing models — that is, open an archived model in the CAD program to add new details, then bring the model back to the conceptual stage for easy rework. Finally, working with a single software vendor may lower the total cost of ownership.

Despite the advantages that integrated CAD tools can offer, some designers view them as technically complex systems that hinder creativity. And, integrated platforms can entice designers to cross into detailed design too soon, abandoning creative opportunities as their focus turns to engineering requirements. Examples of products that offer integrated conceptual design functionality include Autodesk Revit, Graphisoft ArchiCAD, PTC Creo Parametric, and Siemens NX.

Stand-alone solutions. On the other hand, stand-alone conceptual design software programs offer great flexibility to designers in a package that's singular in focus and therefore comparatively easy to learn and use. Stand-alone solutions focus on providing the designer with the flexibility to design in a free-form manner and collaborate on an idea quickly, without being hindered by strong engineering constraints.

In addition to quick geometric modification functions, these solutions support rendering, engineering analysis, space and motion of shapes, annotation and markup, etc. Stand-alone conceptual design solutions should not be mistaken to be sketching tools, however; they include 2D and 3D functions based on both direct and parametric modelers. Most products offered in this category are based on a direct modeler that offers unrestrictive modification of geometric features in the design — a necessary feature to quickly create multiple design variations.

In comparison with integrated solutions, stand-alone tools are built for ease of use, collaboration, mobility, and light engineering analysis. They're not intended for stronger constraints, deeper engineering analysis, and exacting material tolerances.

These tools typically save files to a nonstandard format, so their output does not always translate well when a design is brought into a CAD system for advanced modeling. This deficient interoperability often results in incorrectly translated geometry and loss of design intent that necessitate rework.

Also, as Smith noted, "Product design is a collaborative process, and working between different departments using different software can slow communication down."

If you're already using a CAD solution that offers integrated conceptual modeling tools, it makes sense to adopt those. Otherwise, consider adding a stand-alone solution to your design workflow to gain the functionality you need without unnecessary complexity or expense. Examples of stand-alone conceptual design tools include Autodesk FormIt, SpaceClaim, IronCAD DRAFT, and PTC Creo Sketch.

If your CAD solution does not include conceptual design tools, consider adding a stand-alone program to your toolbox. IronCAD DRAFT is one such tool; users can work in 2D (top) and 3D.
If your CAD solution does not include conceptual design tools, consider adding a stand-alone program to your toolbox. IronCAD DRAFT is one such tool; users can work in 2D (top) and 3D.

If your CAD solution does not include conceptual design tools, consider adding a stand-alone program to your toolbox. IronCAD DRAFT is one such tool; users can work in 2D (top) and 3D.

What's Next

The transition from rough sketching on paper to digital sketching has been a dramatic one thus far, and we can expect further evolution as developers refine these relatively new tools and users become more capable with them and begin to demand more realistic rendering, surfacing, and illustration capabilities; better side-by-side comparison of various design iterations at the conceptual stage; improved support of design reuse, edit preview; and larger materials libraries.

To close the gap between conceptual design and detailed design and streamline the design workflow, software developers must find ways to bring specific tasks, such as design for manufacturing or design for sustainability, into the conceptual stage without stifling innovation. Doing this well will increase design quality, shorten the design cycle, and improve customer satisfaction.

About the Author: Sanjeev Pal

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Re: Conceptual Design Software Tools
by: Direct CAD Guy
June 3, 2014 - 10:28am
Sanjeev covers the broad top well. But concerning moving from conceptual to detailed design, there is one point that I see very differently. If you are using a Direct CAD modeler like KeyCreator Direct CAD or one of the others Direct modelers mentioned, there is no need to import your model into another (hisotry-based) software. The CAD design with all of the exact tolerances can be completed within Direct CAD. The fact that the history-based modelers are now getting religion on Direct CAD proves the utility of Direct CAD, not just as a conceptual modeler, but as a complete design to manufacturing tool which in some cases includes full Analysis/Simulation, CAD Comparison and NC programming functionality.
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