Conceptual Design Software Tools22 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.
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.