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Beyond hydraulics: transferring concept into design reality

01 July 2009

Industrial designer, Mike Turner describes an unusual project he undertook recently to apply methods other than hydraulics to power construction plant, and the impact they might have on vehicle styling. He chose various Autodesk applications to help him meet the challenge

When Mike Turner of Mike Turner Design was asked to undertake a design project for International Vehicle Technology magazine, he rose to the challenge. The brief was to look at big wheel loaders and to focus on the benefits that could be achieved by removing hydraulics and focusing instead on alternative methods of actuating dig mechanisms and propulsion systems. Turner has always had a real affinity for this kind of product and relished the challenge of putting his capabilities in industrial design to the test on a project that would allow his creativity free rein.

He decided to focus on an approach - currently been worked on by NASA teams in Pasadena, California - based on the use of ‘electro-active’ polymers (EAPs). Essentially, these are plastic muscles that respond quickly to small amounts of electricity by lengthening, bending or contracting. Mr Turner takes up the story.
“Such solutions might seem off the wall or avant garde now but might conceivably be up and running within the next ten to fifteen years. I didn’t think it would be a massive leap of logic to assume, if the technology keeps moving forward, that within this kind of timeframe EAP arrays could be used instead of hydraulics to power digging machines.

“Rather than making it look like an animated creation from the latest blockbuster science fiction film, I wanted to keep the look of the machine believable and realistic – rooted in the realities of existing machine design. The basic configuration, the linkages and the way it would perform needed to be along the lines of a typical, current machine. However, there would, of course, be no need for hydraulic rams, all the technology would need to be embedded into the dig arms themselves.” Mr Turner chose Autodesk software to turn this design vision into a reality; specifically AliasStudio to manage 3D surface data and Showcase to communicate form and brand character and to present and review the multiple design iterations in context.

“I am traditional in my approach, so this project started like most of my industrial design projects, with pen and biro sketches. I then scanned the pictures and started to modify and adjust them within the Alias embedded feature, StudioPaint, to ‘work up’ the colour. Once happy with the sketches, I used Alias to develop a preliminary CAD model that both defined the design and packaged the principal elements.” All the design surfaces were then developed in Alias, and at this point Mr turner used the tool to assess preliminary ideas for livery and colour splits.

“Alias gives you more direct control over the surface you are working on when you are NURBS modelling than any other engineering design software that I have worked with. You can play with the model and adjust it until it matches the precise way you want it to look. The other key benefit is that you can import image planes and work directly over the top of them, so it is easy to retain the character of your original sketch and build on this as required.

“Alias works in a natural, intuitive way. It is so easy to use. It feels a logical extension of physical model-making and follows exactly the same techniques and conventions. As a design tool, it understands what designers do and how they work. As a modelling package for industrial design work, I don’t think there is anything to touch it.” The later livery development work and the final stages of looking at the different variants of the design and tweaking and refining it were carried out in Autodesk Showcase.

“Showcase is such a powerful tool. The quality of presentation material you can generate and the way you can go into the system and change colours and swap liveries live, quickly and easily, or set up animations, turntables and fly-bys is excellent. It helps to give you confidence in the look of the final design. It is perfect for the review phase of a project. You can spin designs round, see the play of a highlight across a surface and communicate exactly how a design will look from all angles.

“Rather than just focusing on a static image, you can go in and explore details, pan-around geometries and answer pretty much any questions that the client has got. It is invaluable for putting digital data in a context that non CAD-based people can easily digest. The images that you see on Showcase look like a real design. It gives you a degree of realism that you simply can’t get from looking at a standard A3 print, for example.

“It also helps you to save money. The cost of producing a large-scale mock-up for design sign-off can be prohibitively expensive. Using Showcase allows you to do more with less and helps reduce the money you spend on prototyping.” But as this was not a live project and there was consequently no intention to take it into live commercial production, it was difficult to put a precise figure against the time and cost savings achieved. Mr Turner has his own ideas about this.

“On similar projects I have carried out in the past, I have always found the costs of producing full size computer numeric control (CNC) styling sign-off models for machines of this scale to be prohibitively expensive. It can cost upwards of £60,000 for the numerous CNC machined parts required to build a full sized, fully detailed exterior mock-up alone. If it was a live job, there would also be a large time penalty incurred when producing a physical mock-up. From the point at which surfaces are considered to be finalised and suitable for review, there is typically a two to three week turnaround time, at least, to get all the prototype components tooled, moulded, prepped, painted and delivered onsite.

“For these reasons alone, I’ve always been a strong advocate of using Showcase for styling reviews, as the costs to show a machine are negligible in comparison with a physical styling assessment mock-up. The obvious time-savings associated with being able to obtain instantaneous feedback from this kind of design are desirable for any project team, as it allows them to maintain their momentum on the job. While Showcase doesn’t negate the need for fully representative pre-production prototypes downstream, it can make a significant difference to the upstream costs and time investment traditionally associated with obtaining styling approval.” Autodesk Maya was used for the final renderings.

“The key benefit of bringing Maya into play on this project is that it can take Alias data files and work directly with them in a seamless manner. There was no need for any costly and time-consuming re-modelling and you can guarantee that the image that you end up with will be faithful to the original data.” A key benefit of the Autodesk software was the way in which it could be used to support high productivity levels and rapid workflows. This project had a tight time scale and, in the end, the whole process took less than a week to complete.

The resulting digger design is the first in a series of similar projects under the brand name ‘Antares’ that Mr Turner is planning over the coming months. He is already using the Autodesk software to try out new ideas. How the brand ultimately develops is still an open question; what is more certain is that Mike Turner will continue to rely on Autodesk software to achieve successful design projects long into the future.

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