The rebirth of design

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New tools and techniques are removing hundreds of years of design and fabrication limitations
Never in the field of human creativity has so much been designed, by so few, for so many. I hope Winston doesn’t mind me remixing his timeless tribute but I have come to the conclusion that today’s designers have never had it so good. Release after release, we look at the latest technologies for product designers and, without a doubt, the past five years have provided more revolutionary CAD technology than the previous twenty.

Thinking back to the early days, when drawing lines on a computer was the height of modern design, we were still limited, not only by the processor speeds but also by the preconceived notions and traditions of how products came about. CAD was all about the documentation, not about solving problems. Sure, products were still created and buildings built but the computer didn’t act as an ‘amplifier of intelligence’, merely productivity saving within the same old process.

The move to 3D, accelerated by the adoption of automotive and aerospace firms, led to digital mock-up and parametric where the computer provided the environment to build and perform basic tests, as well as do the old document thing. Over time, the price of the hardware and software dropped with desktop tools democratising 3D, which led to an explosion of adoption.

While you may think today’s 3D modelling applications are expensive, in real terms they are actually relatively cheap – back in the 90s a decent 486DX4 PC for CAD used to cost in excess of £4,000 plus, on its own.

With advances in hardware (multi-core, 64 bit, GPU acceleration etc) workstations can do a lot more beside model large assemblies. The software firms are rapidly developing analysis and simulation tools that make use of all this extra power. The next stage is to utilise supercomputers that reside in the ‘cloud’.

These internet-based server farms will be able to give multiple results in the time it takes to make a cup of tea, as opposed to days. As the CAD tools enable ever-more complex geometry and are tagged with real-word attributes and intelligence, designers can increasingly liberate themselves from managing the data or the geometry and think more about function.

We will bite them on the features

Talking about the geometry, old limitations of CAD systems, which generated much blood, toil, tears and sweat, are slowly being vanquished too. Feature-tree modelling can, in some circumstances be an unnecessary burden. With SpaceClaim, Siemens’ Synchronous Technology, Autodesk Inventor Fusion (which is free) and PTC Creo Elements, direct modelling is allowing easy access to legacy data and enabling easy push-pull design interfaces.

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There have also been advances in laser scanning and feature recognition to capture complex real-world objects ready for repurposing. Also in generative form design, where forms can be defined in real time with scripts and flow diagrams. Products like Rhino Grasshopper from McNeel & Associates are providing tools for engineers to experiment with self-generating designs based on algorithms. The software manages user-defined geometrical relationships as you interact with the model. Thinking about it, another benefit of products like Rhino is that now it’s possible to do Class A surfaces (as in high-end car body design) in a product that costs less than €1,000.

The tools to finish the job

As the software from all the vendors has matured the breadth and depth of technology has mushroomed, covering most aspects of the design process, from conceptual design, to management, modelling, analysis, simulation, rendering, animation and digital distribution. One designer, with a seat of today’s CAD could conceptualise, detail, optimise and produce lifelike images for marketing or to get funding. Luxion Keyshot and Luxology’s Modo 501 can provide stunningly real results.

For the times that an image doesn’t make 1,000 sales, there’s always a rapid prototyping device, which have drastically come down in price for desktop use (from $500 for a RepRap or £11,500 for HP DesignJet 3D). The materials available are also constantly being improved, ranging from plastic or foam for office machines, up to bureau services that have laser sintering machines, which can go direct to metal.

Conclusion

From my vantage point and looking historically at the design market, the majority of these technologies and price points have come to the main market only in the last three to five years and the process of enhancement appears to be accelerating.

Looking ahead the promise of infinite cloud computing may remove any processing bottleneck. Autodesk is already talking about its analysis tools providing a variation of viable solutions to a design problem, not just giving the results of a single test.

It’s clear that 2D CAD was not an end but was the end of documentation-based design. Today’s 3D CAD systems empower individuals and teams of designers in a way that is really only just sinking in. The requirement is that we explore the capabilities of our design tools and embrace the applicable innovations in technology that happen on a yearly basis.


Martyn Day celebrates a design renaissance
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