On the Job: A New Twist on A Classic9 Feb, 2006 Cadalyst
RKS Guitars uses Alias StudioTools to revolutionize its electric guitar design.
Revolutionizing a product that hasn't changed in more than fifty years is a daunting challenge. But that's what RKS Guitars LLC has done with the electric guitar. A five-year journey by top designers using Alias StudioTools software has culminated in an award-winning product line. These innovative guitars have everyone from product designers to musicians singing their praises.
RKS Guitars evolved from a design consultancy, RKS Design, founded in 1980 by Ravi Sawhney. "It started as an in-house inspiration project about five years ago," says Sawhney, now CEO and president of RKS Guitars. "We spent the first year in conceptualization and visualization and then another three in modeling, prototyping, testing and refining."
Alias StudioTools played a major role in the development and refinement of the complex surfaces that give the guitars their cool look. Sawhney admits there was a lot of discovery and learning along the way. There is no design manual for making a guitar, he adds.
RKS Guitars feature a "neck through body" construction, aluminum or wood ribs and molded body shells. Though guitars in the past have had either hollow or solid bodies, RKS models are the first open-ended hollow-body electric guitars and basses. The open body structure allows body shells and ribs to be changed to suit anyone's preference for color, materials, finish, shape and even sound.
Sawhney says his team faced three main design challenges.
"We not only wanted to create a breakthrough look, but we also had to focus on ergonomics and tone," says Sawhney. "The tools we use are very important in ensuring these three areas are perfected and then ultimately transcended."
RKS Design and RKS Guitars used Alias StudioTools from sketch to surface model as well as for marketing materials. The original brochure was created before it was possible to do product photography, using StudioTools renderings.
Just as seasoned musicians don't focus on each individual note they're playing, Sawhney and his designers often go about their work without paying attention to the underlying processes, alternating between Alias for surface development and MCAD software for engineering. "We actually rarely think about StudioTools because it is so laced into the process," says Sawhney.
With a revolutionary product like this, moving from concept to reality poses another major challenge. "With sketching, it's so easy to have false perceptions about scale, proportion and dimension," adds Sawhney. "StudioTools ensures we move successfully from the creative sketching phase to the reality phase. If you're not modeling around real components and dimensions, your design will fall apart."
Fortunately, RKS Guitars has a fail-safe method for ensuring the designs meet the demands of reality. Co-founder guitarist Dave Mason, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, provided input every step of the way. For the three-year prototyping and testing phase, Mason's feedback was essential. It wasn't until he was satisfied with the products that RKS Guitars was ready to release them to the public.
Back to Business
On top of the pressure of creating an ingenious design are the financial concerns common to all businesses. Mundane concepts such as the bottom line are never far from Sawhney's mind. He credits the design process and tools like Alias StudioTools for helping keep costs down.
"It's all about speed, from renderings to physical object," says Sawhney. "StudioTools lets us do thirty iterations, where other products may do three, allowing us to refine and perfect in much less time." Sawhney is a firm believer in the value of incorporating feedback into the design. "There is a direct link between the number of iterations and the success of the product," he says.
RKS Guitars has been hitting the high notes recently. Its guitars garnered two silver IDEA awards, and a neon-green Pop Series model made the cover of the July 2005 issue of BusinessWeek magazine. Projects now underway include developing a sub-$1,000 guitar, tackling the acoustic arena, creating a way of learning the guitar in a quarter of the time and branching out internationally.
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