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Geometrically Challenged?

22 August 2007

Innovation is no longer driven by lines, arcs and circles, says Dr Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk Manufacturing Solutions

The global economy is changing the dynamics of competition. When there is almost always someone in the world who can manufacture a product at a lower cost, quality and originality take on a new importance. The constant need for innovation is one of the many factors driving the growing take up of 3D design software. Solutions such as Autodesk Inventor can help create significantly more time for producing higher quality work. This is particularly the case when these solutions move beyond being simple modelling tools to become fully-fledged design tools which help designers translate ideas on to the screen.

Most designers and engineers keep their designs in their head but use software to document them in a form that can be communicated to others. Unfortunately, whether it’s 2D or 3D, most design technology is focused more on documentation of a design rather than the product concept.

To illustrate this, let’s look at a typical product – say a small portable heater. A designer would first see this as a whole, melding its capabilities with the actual design.

However, to move this idea onto the screen, they would need to break down the different parts, creating geometry and working out how they might fit together. If they are using a 2D design tool, they will need to translate this into lines, arcs and circles, all the time calculating how to make it work.

Sometimes, they will then make a prototype to test whether or not it does work. Of course, it may not – and then it really is “back to the drawing board” and the whole process needs to begin over again. With increasing competition and pressure to be first to market, there’s no need to underline how this particular stage can mean the difference between the success and failure of a product.

However, what if design software could actually help get those designs out of the head of the designer more rapidly, leaving them with more time to create better products?

The key to this is a new concept called functional design, incorporated within the latest 3D manufacturing software solutions. Using functional design tools, designers are no longer constrained by the need to think in abstracts, but can be true to their own ideas.

They no longer have to force their idea into a CAD model, but instead work in terms of mechanical relationships, designing products based on how they function in the real world, rather than on geometric descriptions and restraints. For example, an engineer could design a gear set based on loading and reduction ratios rather than size and placement – and the software would generate the geometry as needed.

In short, functional design features describe how parts work and what they do, not just their size. Because of this, designs are “smart” with a built-in intelligence that reflects the behaviour of the parts represented and their relationship with one another.

To go back to the gear example, when the appropriate components are brought into the model, the torque and speed characteristics are built in. These parts also contain the knowledge of how one gear reacts to another. The model becomes far more than just a picture with specific dimensions, it becomes a robust and dynamic knowledge store which can be tested, probed and generally experimented on, until exactly the right design emerges.

Breakthrough Usability
One of the main benefits of functional design is that it helps engineers make the right decisions the first time. A functional representation has the added benefit of instant utility as a virtual prototype. Some examples of functional design capabilities that users are starting to see in software now on the market include:

Conceptual design tools: When solving a design problem, designers lay out their ideas in 2D or quickly create a 3D representation without worrying about abstract modelling commands such as “sketch,” “extrude” and “cut.” In a functional design system, simple layouts are the foundation for complex 3D models, and basic shapes can be used to quickly define a complex part.

Intelligent libraries: Instead of lines, arcs, circles, extrusions, and patterns, functional libraries represent the design requirements of, say, a gear and how much torque it can support. While traditional modeling tools can describe the geometry of a gear, they don’t give any indication of how the gear will or should perform.

Relationships and connections: Today’s modelling systems rely on geometric relationships (flush, concentric, joined, and so forth) to describe how a model fits together. A functional design system performs in terms of joints, pivots, and sliders – the mechanical relationships and connections that drive how a design functions.
Intelligent Libraries: Functional libraries represent the design requirements of a component, instead of lines, arcs, circles, extrusions and patterns.

The right products to market, faster
Customers know what they want a product to do, and they ask for those functions – not the number of gears or size of belts required to make the product work, and they often establish relationships with vendors based on a core product design that gets modified for new applications.

Certainly, if software works the way designers think, it’s a lot easier to embrace the power of 3D. Functional design allows the engineers to address what the customer wants the product to do and so satisfy their market more closely. It also allows them to do it more quickly, leaving more time to innovate further; a double win, in fact.

It’s only through this intelligent use of digital design that established manufacturers will be able to compete with lower cost competitors from across the globe – and still maintain, and even enhance, the quality of their products.

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