Manufacturing

MCAD Modeling Methods-The 3D Way

1 Dec, 2006 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth

The 3D Way: With digital tools, industrial design has never been easier.


Some really cool consumer products are on the market these days, products with all sorts of swoopy curves and complex surfaces that 10 or 20 years ago no one would ever try to make. Products are also getting easier to operate—look at an iPod's controls. Products are less expensive to make and buy. We are in a golden age, very similar to the Art Deco era in the early years of the twentieth century. Why? Because manufacturers have begun to realize an age-old truth: when given a choice between two products that do basically the same thing, consumers invariably choose to buy the nicer-looking one. Companies are seeking talented artists who can create the next generation of products with the style and flair that they hope will endear them to the hearts of the marketplace. Who are these artists? Industrial designers.

 Figure 1. The Wacom Cintiq is very much like drawing with paper and pencil. You see right what you're working on without the parallax of looking up at a screen.
Figure 1. The Wacom Cintiq is very much like drawing with paper and pencil. You see right what you're working on without the parallax of looking up at a screen.

Ask industrial designers to define their job, and you'll get a variety of answers. It changes according to the company they work for, the industry they work in and the individual designer. Industrial designers wear many hats. They deal with industrial processes, different materials, ergonomics, styling, international symbology and demographics. They often build mock-ups and prototypes of their designs. Industrial designers must design products and graphics that reach out to people and make their lives better, not an easy task when you need to accommodate end users ranging from infants to the elderly.

I have been an industrial designer for more than 20 years now, and I can tell you that it's a great career. I have to strike a balance somewhere between an artist and an engineer. It came pretty naturally for me. I was always a little too controlled to be an artist—and way too freeform to be an engineer.

A Little History

Industrial designers study all sorts of topics when learning how to design products people will want. They learn about human anatomy so they can design products that can be operated intuitively and with the least effort possible, a discipline called ergonomics. They learn about the processes by which things are produced, so they don't design things that can't be made. They learn about materials. A glass hammer might look good, but it won't make a good tool. They must learn how to accurately describe their concepts in words and in renderings. Industrial designers learn the iterative method of design. It's not all about styling, although that is a big part of what we do. In the old days, industrial designers did a lot of marker drawings and foam models. Those were the fastest ways to present concepts to customers. Today, we still create drawings and models, but the digital 3D model has all but taken over.

Figure 2. By applying a bit-map to some simple surfaces and tracing right over them, you can rapidly build representations of complex models in Autodesk AliasStudio. In the time you save by not modeling every little thing, you can explore multiple iterations and design directions.
Figure 2. By applying a bit-map to some simple surfaces and tracing right over them, you can rapidly build representations of complex models in Autodesk AliasStudio. In the time you save by not modeling every little thing, you can explore multiple iterations and design directions.

Digital Toolbox

Today's industrial designer has a huge toolbox of digital tools. Software and hardware available today make designing products so much quicker and easier than it used to be—Wacom's Cintiq tablet, for example, lets you design as if you were drawing on paper (figure 1). One of the most popular software tools is Autodesk AliasStudio. It's the big dog in industrial design. AliasStudio is a 3D surface modeler par excellence. It's used by most of the major car companies to get those smooth, sleek surfaces we've come to expect on our automobiles. One of the things that I think makes AliasStudio so popular is its ability to model incredibly realistic things with amazingly few real surfaces. You can create hand-drawn views of a product and scan them. Then wrap the images over a surface that cursorily resembles the side of your product. In just a few steps you end up with something that can be rotated like a real model (figure 2). It's really slick. From there, you model what you need. The downside to AliasStudio is that it doesn't do solids.

AliasStudio isn't the only player in the industrial design arena. Rhinoceros (figure 3, p. 42), from Robert McNeel & Associates, is coming on strong. It starts at less than $1,000. Rhino is fairly easy to learn and use, and it designs just about everything you need, even solids. Another good option is IronCAD. It's a high-quality modeler as well. One of its nicest features is that it runs on two modeling kernels cooperatively. That's a nuts-and-bolts consideration, but important. If one kernel is more adept at a job you're doing, it steps up and takes over. When it's done, it lets the default kernel resume control.

Figure 3. Rhinoceros software offers a range of very accurate surfacing and solid options. The company s customer support is second to none.
Figure 3. Rhinoceros software offers a range of very accurate surfacing and solid options. The company s customer support is second to none.

But 3D tools are only a portion of what a good industrial designer needs. Sometimes you need to use 2D images. Adobe Photoshop (for bit-map editing) and Illustrator (for vector-based art) pretty much rule the roost in the art world. I think that's mainly because so many artists use Macintosh computers. But coming right alongside Adobe's offerings is the CorelDRAW Graphics Suite (figure 4, p. 42). I've found it to be a great value. For the price of Illustrator or Photoshop alone, you can buy the whole Corel suite, which fairly well duplicates the functionality. You can even use Photoshop add-ons in Corel PHOTO-PAINT. One of the more-or-less humorous things I've seen is when you produce a high-quality rendering of a design to show a vendor, and the vendor takes your image to mean you have parts already available.

Hardware Wars

Everyone knows there's more to design tools than software. Having a good computer is important, but you must also consider a few peripherals. I mentioned the Wacom Cintiq tablet earlier (figure 1, p. 40). It's essentially a touch-sensitive LCD screen on which you draw directly. It's a wonderful tool for sketching and arranging your artwork. It's also good for markup. The only drawback (pun intended) is that it's wired to your desk. To get untethered, you'll want to go with a tablet PC. These little beauties are definitely what the doctor ordered—I'm completely sold on them. With the right software, such as Autodesk SketchBook Pro or Corel Painter, you can become a conference room sensation. As people discuss ideas, you can jot them down graphically. Changes and what-ifs can stream out in near real time.

Figure 4. CorelDRAW Graphics Suite, and CorelDRAW in particular, produces very good graphics. It s useful for labels and electronic overlay art.
Figure 4. CorelDRAW Graphics Suite, and CorelDRAW in particular, produces very good graphics. It s useful for labels and electronic overlay art.

Last but certainly not least, you need physical models. In the old days, and even today in some older agencies, industrial designers made mockups, both functional and not, by hand. Designers figured out early on that nothing added weight to your ideas better than a physical model. You can't say it won't work when staring in the face of a prototype. Those models took long hours to make and were generally one-offs. Consequently, they were quite expensive both in materials and labor.

Nowadays, RP (rapid prototyping) technologies make designers' jobs so much easier. Designers can produce parts in a fraction of the time handmade models took, and they're more accurate, too. That's one of the biggest advantages of 3D digital design. We can also produce multiple copies or iterations of designs quickly and fairly cheaply.

RP equipment comes in two flavors: additive and subtractive. STL (stereolithography) is an example of additive. CNC (computer numerical control) machining is an example of subtractive. Both create physical models directly from your 3D digital model. Both can get the job done, but each has its advantages. Additive can create any shape you can model, but resolution is often an issue. It's usually necessary to hand work the model to obtain a finished appearance, thus negating some of the aforementioned savings. And the materials aren't quite what the final product will be made of. Subtractive has fewer resolution problems, and it produces models from actual engineering materials. But subtractive machines can cut only so many shapes. Undercuts and interior features are limited to what the end mill can reach. Both technologies are available as desktop units that require no exotic environmental arrangements. Both can do great things. Both are worth a look.

In this Article
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Golden Age of Industrial Design

It's never been easier to practice the art of industrial design. The tools we have at our disposal are fast and powerful. We can do much more for our clients than ever before, which they appreciate. We can explore many more options in less time and home in on designs that are more than just good enough.

Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an industrial designer, artist and author based in St. Louis, Missouri.


About the Author: IDSA


About the Author: Mike Hudspeth


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