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.
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.
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.