Building a system of complete contol

Clients and 3D designers are keen to follow the model set by desktop publishing, streamlining the production process and working practice, says Sutherland Lyall

There’s a general belief that, universally, the Mac is the designer’s computer tool of choice. That’s certainly true for some sectors of design, but in the 3D design world of architecture, interior design and product design, it’s a promiscuous mix of historical systems mostly predicated on the early availability of appropriate software on particular platforms. For example, there’s AutoCad on the PC for interior and exterior architects, whizzy 3D animation on Silicon Graphics machines for movie and special effects designers and CAD- CAM apps on high-end UNIX machines (including SGIs) for product and engineering designers.

Current conventions for architects and interior designers expect them to produce 2D drawings, hermetic lines on bits of paper, which the contractors and subcontractors have to interpret successfully to carry out their work. A great deal of computing power goes into doing more slowly what was formerly done quite speedily with a drafting machine and Radiograph. What outsiders don’t realise, however, is that this kind of designer spends a large proportion of working time making revisions and alterations.

The standard file format for moving around the construction industry is called DXF, and as every product manufacturer and sub-contractor uses PC/AutoCad, or something like it, this is where investing in a fastish PC and AutoCad makes a lot of sense. Once the essential model of the building or space is in the computer, making alterations is a piece of cake – the old way involved doing everything from scratch every time a revision was needed.

No one would say construction information technology was a beautiful or elegant beast, but for a deeply conservative industry, it is surprisingly, if shambolically, together.

There is a visionary argument rattling around this section of the design industry which says there is something slightly crazy about investing in heavy-duty computers for the relatively footling task of producing drawings. Why not go to the logical conclusion, runs this discussion point. Why not bolt on computer-aided manufacture (CAM)? Before you snigger at the idea of architectural CAD- CAM, it’s worth pointing out that some sectors of the construction industry are taking tentative and piecemeal steps in precisely this direction.

Where this is already a reality is in product design. A model is to be found in the recent history of publishing design and production, in which a whole fallible intermediate sector of the process, which is to say typesetting, was entirely eliminated.

It’s not a reality for all product design by any means. But bits of it have already gone through something analogous to the desktop publishing revolution, in which content and form are brought together, tasted for quality and relevance, approved by the client and then electronically squirted into the brain of the machinery which produces the artefacts. What has happened in the past year or so is that many product design clients with their own CAD-CAM and manufacturing set-ups are demanding that their design consultants are able to interface directly with the company manufacturing machinery.

Here is a situation which designers have always called for. It is one in which they are in total control, not only of the concept and visual and engineering design, but of the making process as well.

In the old days your client’s engineers could quietly scrap the very expensive tool they had “accidentally made” inside-out and no one was any the wiser. In this new regime of total responsibility, the designer has to get things absolutely right. You rather hope that their fees reflect that.

There is another nice analogy with DTP. It’s the introduction of relatively cheap desktop milling machines, the equivalent of A3 deskjet printers, for quick proofing in the office. Limited in size, naturally, they give designers the ability to rough out 3D representations of their design – a succession if necessary – until the design is sufficiently advanced for it to be sent for expensive rapid prototyping. In this arena the applications and equipment have to be robust and fast. As Mac graphics people have discovered, their beloved systems are not fast at rendering 2D images. And although computerised product designers use such Mac apps as Photoshop for surface images, the serious stuff, the 3D apps which output IGES transfer images to guide the machines, will normally be running on UNIX machines. This makes the current batch of 3D applications based on the new Mac API just a tad mimsy.

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