MCAD Modeling Methods-Beyond Design: Countless Uses for Engineering Data1 Aug, 2006 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
3D models add value beyond engineering applications.
You've spent hours honing your product design, the one that will put your company on the top of whatever heap it competes on and catapult you to that corner office (or at least out of your shared cubicle). But after you've finished modeling, what do you do with the data? It's a given that someone will want to see it—maybe even use it.
In recent years, I've trumpeted the inherent value of 3D models. People look at them and see pretty pictures, but they fail to discern the many uses for those models. To the various departments that need representations of the company's products, I say rejoice! I have what you need. If you've been reading this space for very long, you know about some of the more engineering-related uses of 3D models. But you may not be aware of some of the broader possibilities.
At my company, an art department is responsible for things such as user manuals and labeling, even a certain amount of advertising materials. They are artists, in the literal sense of the word. They are not as precise. They don't have to be. We were designing a new product that needed a manual. We sent the art department line drawings taken directly from the 3D models. The images were perfect, relating the exact shape and form of the product. We even arranged them at what we hoped were interesting angles (figure 1). We tried to make the artists' job easier.
Figure 1. 3D models can be used to create wonderful illustrations for manuals and other documents. You can rotate them to just the right angle and snap the perfect picture.
Imagine our surprise when we found out they were printing out our images and redrawing them! When we asked them why, they asked us how else would they do it? We were flabbergasted. They didn't know what they had. When we showed them, they were flabbergasted—they had never suspected. Now we supply them with all sorts of images that go almost directly into the literature. Those guys have it so easy.
3D Models to the Rescue!
Because a 3D model is inherently accurate, you can get a perfect view of your design from any angle (figure 1). You can export the view as a bit-map or as a vector-based image. Some software programs can use your 3D data to make whatever image you need. For instance, Corel DESIGNER Professional can import formats such as CATIA (v4 and v5), Pro/ENGINEER and IGES so technical writers can use the data to create illustrations for assembly manuals.
Your marketing and sales departments need 3D images for all sorts of things. Advertising is a big one. We've all seen those commercials where people are looking for a car on the Internet, and cars flip out of the floor or rush by as they stand there naming desirable features until they end up with the one perfect car. These commercials use 3D models of the cars to generate what you see. Any time you see a car doing something that appears difficult or impossible, it's most likely a computer model. Just like in the movie industry, advertising people want you to see their products doing fantastic things. 3D engineering data is perfect for that.
Marketing and sales can build a great Web site by using your 3D data to add just the right visual interest. Web sites can be great tools for familiarizing customers with product features. They can look at products up close and sometimes even rotate them. Companies can post images to generate buzz before the actual products are even available. Cringe as much as you like, but this strategy is a common practice and can make the difference between being first to market and being somewhere in the crowd of me-toos.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Obviously, you have to build the parts that make up your product. There may be one part, or there may be thousands—it all depends on what you make. In the old days, your data would go to the shop floor through a drafter. Machinists and assemblers would receive a 2D printed drawing that showed them how to do what they needed to do. The drawing had to fully describe the parts. Today, a growing segment of industry says drawings don't have to be so involved. The models go directly into the CAM software. That mysterious curve on the front of the model can be cut from the 3D data. No one needs to describe what the radii are. When machinists want to check dimensions, they can get all the information from the model file (figure 2).
Figure 2. When you send your data to the shop floor to be fabricated, CAM systems can directly read and measure the model.
When it comes time to assemble your product, you can create exploded views of how it goes together and publish them to a PDF (figure 3). More assembly lines are replacing hard-copy drawings with computer screens at each assembly station. These screens have many advantages, not the least of which is the ability to update assembly instructions at any time—all at once. Training time goes down because assemblers can rotate and pull the assembly apart on screen, thus increasing their understanding. Inspectors can see whether the assembly has gone together as it was intended. If not, they can determine quickly whether it's a design or an assembly issue. Changes can be red-marked and implemented accordingly.
Figure 3. Publishing an exploded view to a PDF illustrates how your designs go together. It's a wonderful way to create an assembly manual.
Procurement is another area that people don't think about when they build their 3D models. Companies send 3D model files all the time so toolers can examine the data and quote tool prices. That capability helps improve lead times. Having access to the actual 3D model also means you can query it for things such as volume and mass, so you'll know how much material to order for the parts. You also will know how much the product will weigh so you can design packaging that will be strong enough to hold it. No sense shipping it in a box that will fall apart before it reaches its final destination. You can use the model to tell you how big your packaging materials need to be. Then you know how many packing peanuts to order. All of these concerns may seem silly, but the product has to get to the customer.
Is That Legal?
One of the biggest concerns these days is IP (intellectual property) security. That's why we take out patents on our work. Patents need illustrations—what better way to get them than straight from the model? Most 3D modelers let you save vector-line art that will be usable by patent artists anywhere.
Animations of your product in action can be a great selling tool. Your salespeople in the field can use animations to show off the important features you've incorporated into your product. It can also provide insight into how it works or how to operate it. Animations can be wonderful training tools for customers. And they look great on a Web site or an e-mailed quote (figure 4).
Figure 4. Animations lose most of their appeal on a printed page, but they are worth their weight in gold on a Web site where they can move and shine. Potential customers can see what your product does at a glance.
Something for Everyone
The number of people who can reuse your engineering data will only increase as new uses for it are discovered, but that's a good thing. Everyone who sees your work will see the care and ingenuity you've poured into your products. That's going to fill them with admiration for your prowess with the mouse. Maybe that's putting it on a little thick, but when you consistently build great models that people can use, they will sit up and take notice. When you make other people's jobs easier, they appreciate it. As a responsible 3D modeler, it's up to you to make your models as easily accessible as you can.
Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an industrial designer, artist and author based in St. Louis, Missouri.