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Is this the future for consumer product design?

01 November 2008

Unusually for someone in his profession, Cameron Treeby uses the words ‘people’ and ‘human’ far more frequently than he mentions the word ‘product’. He wants his design consultancy to set new levels of excellence – and to him this means creating products that are easy and intuitive to use. He calls it ‘human-focused’ design

As you would expect from someone who sets himself high standards when it comes to design, Cameron Treeby also has strong views about CAD. His consultancy, Hyphen uses a range of different products depending on the client and their brief. However, it has also just added Autodesk Inventor and Showcase to its repertoire and Mr Treeby is inspired by the idea of a connected application that enables the seamless transfer of data between the two.

“Inventor and Showcase will get us closer to the end product straight away, enabling us to better communicate our designs to our clients, presenting them with what is actually a digital prototype for their comments and input. We no longer have to convince customers that this form will look great in this material – they can see for themselves. It’s generating much interest amongst our clients, making them feel more involved and in more control of the end result.” Mr Treeby is conscious of the fact that Showcase is more frequently used for concept design in the automotive industry than for developing products. However, he is keen to pioneer its use in this area. “There’s a lot of excitement surrounding this way of working at the moment. It is definitely the way forward for the future,” he says.

The human factor
Mr Treeby poses a common question. “How often do you get frustrated when using a device or product? Many people blame themselves when they can’t fathom how something works, but in reality good design is not just about how good something looks. For example, ever had sore eye sockets after wearing swimming goggles? We don’t have to live with these problems, we can design them out. Having compassion for the end user, and knowing how to translate this when designing a product, is vital to getting it right.”

Re-designing swimming goggles and masks is something Hyphen knows a thing or two about. It was commissioned by Speedo International to create a new range - with the brief that the products must offer unprecedented fit and comfort. The first ever Virgin Mobile handset was a Hyphen design; power tools for B&Q, Hasbro and Tomy games and toys and new surgical devices for the NHS have all originated from its Bethnal Green, London premises.

Although the team’s priority is to make these products and devices easy to use and comfortable for the consumer, it is obviously also committed to being as responsive as possible to its clients’ ideas, goals and needs. Consequently, communicating its ideas and interactive reviews with clients is very high on the agenda from initial concept design onwards.

Visualisation is an obvious and straightforward way to do this – but until now it has had its drawbacks. As Mr Treeby recalls, his consultancy has done a lot of rendering of 3D models in the past, but it can be a cumbersome process and it takes up a lot of time. “However, Showcase is a great tool, as you don’t have that time overhead and clients can quickly give you feedback as well, which means we work more closely with them.”

Showcase enables designers to present and review design options that represent real-world materials, lighting and environments and interact with these in real time. This streamlines the design review process and helps key decision-making. “It also saves time, in that you can give a dynamic, live presentation without the need to prepare and possible print pages of layout boards which can be very time consuming. So you get to spend more time on the fun part, designing the product,” he adds.

Mr Treeby is well aware that he is breaking relatively new ground here: “I am very excited to see how this works in the product design sector. After all, it’s not too difficult to make a new car design look glamorous and sexy with the right lighting and background – but smaller consumer products are probably more of a challenge without showing them in context. However, I believe it will offer us valuable benefits; not least it will mean we can get to the best possible design option in a shorter time frame.”

It is the area of digital prototyping – and the connectivity of visualisation with design engineering packages such as Inventor – that he thinks holds the key to future quality and competitiveness.

“Without this, the whole concept design phase is separated from engineering and manufacturing. Using Showcase and Inventor together provides a straightforward path to creating a single digital model which can be then taken right through the production process without having to re-create data. For example, Inventor enables us to test the functional parameters of the design, telling us straightaway where weakness lie and automatically update the digital model. In turn these can be fed back to the photo-realistic image in Showcase.

“We have facilities for rapid prototyping and like to test our products as physical prototypes. However, by being able to create accurate and easily communicated digital prototypes that can be quickly changed and refined until they are just right, will eliminate any unnecessary stages and get us to a viable product far faster.”

With his wide experience of CAD, Mr Treeby is a good person to test the usability of the Autodesk application. “At Hyphen we like CAD packages that are flexible and quick to use and fast to pick up and Showcase is so simple, we’d mastered it in around half a day at most. Autodesk has been clever in acquiring lots of exciting software such as the Alias products. They’ve signalled the direction they are going in – the integration and communication of live data – and I think it’s an extremely interesting and effective one. It’s becoming clear that this is the future of CAD.”

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