The drawn patrol

Are the days of the 6B pencil numbered? Sutherland Lyall talks to product designers who are being turned on by great technology

“The trouble with 3D CAD systems,” says head of IDEO Europe Tim Brown, “is that they are not good at being almost right. The breakthrough we’re looking for is when I can sit down in front of a big screen with a tablet and the system roughly knows what I’m doing and thinking, maybe as the result of an iterative learning process. Currently, there’s a chasm between what you draw and what the machine understands by that. There’s a need for computers to be a lot more intuitive. When that comes about we can be much less precious about the significance of final drawing.”

It’s a view which most graphic designers would have grave reservations about and which most 3D design people, with their different agendas and clients, would probably echo. In any case, that additional Z axis changes the way you think about the process of generating form. And in crude physical terms, because 3D files contain much more complicated information and are that much bigger, it means you have to use rather more powerful kit than the Mac. For example, 3D animator Roger Harris has been running 3D animation app LightWave under Windows NT on a Dec Alpha for the past year. Apart from the fact that LightWave won’t be available on the Mac for some months, the Mac is simply not fast enough. He takes a very robust view of the recent rash of QuickTime3D-aware apps which we have looked at in recent issues.

Probably the most widely used 3D surface modeller is Alias. It’s a Silicon Graphics app and product designers like to have something like an Indigo2 to run it on. The Indigo2 has become the well-off 3D designer’s standard workhorse. Alias is a surface modeller, and product designers who need to be able to output milling or stereolithographic instruction files automatically think of ProEngineer as the app which leads. A solid modelling engineer’s application, ProE can take Alias or other surface modelling files, convert them into solid image files and output them as machining instructions.

Sean Fortune of packaging and container design specialist Siebert Head explains that the way Alias is used at the consultancy depends on the designers. Some start off by sketching, others by making cardboard models. Others work directly with foam carvings. It’s not his function to make designers work in any particular way – although everybody has a Mac and the 2D app Vellum. Once an idea is firmed up it is modelled as a photorealistic image in Alias with such added qualities as sparkle and incandescence. It is then used by both the designers and the client and when everything is firmed up it becomes the final drawing, as it were. Chris Thompson at PSD (which also uses Vellum on Macs) talks about Alias as a computer-aided visualisation tool, which greatly speeds up the interaction between client and designer simply because there’s no need to make and discard dozens of models and prototyped images. Alias doesn’t obviate the need for somebody to hold a physical model in their hands at some stage of the process – and, using such a solid modeller as ProEngineer, intermediate prototypes can be put out by a bureau – and increasingly in designers’ own workshops.

Alias is more than that, points out Fortune. Providing the image data is entered in the right way, it’s possible to produce accurately scaled models. “Not everybody knows you can do that because it is so good at being a creative modelling and sketching tool,” he says.

Some major 3D practices are still wedded to the 6B pencil and are reluctant to take on computer-aided design, except as an increasingly necessary evil. Some are wildly excited about its possibilities. Tim Brown at IDEO is quite calm about the whole computing thing. He takes the view that it is not something special or even something to be used as part of the market sell. Many of his clients have their own CAD-CAM systems, frequently manufacture their own products and expect integration between IDEO’s computer systems and their own.

Brown is a bit rueful about this because it means that his people have to be conversant with a number of software/hardware packages. That’s not as bad as it sounds as there’s not an enormous market for solid 3D design apps, and so there aren’t that many of them. IDEO’s London office has Hewlett Packard UNIX boxes running, among other things, HP’s Solid Designer – a full 3D solid modelling package – with a second generation version of HP’s MEIO. Like PSD, IDEO uses CDRS, a UNIX surface modelling package which can feed IGS format files to ProEngineer, but it doesn’t much use Alias.

IDEO is in a special position. A lot of product designers mostly do casing design. Even Pentagram’s Ken Grange only got to wrap the mechanisms designed by the Kenwood engineers. IDEO, on the other hand, not only believes in the necessity of designing the whole thing, it also practices this belief and calls its top designers engineers, regardless of training and background. IDEO’s Ian Smith argues that the days of the one-stop shop are almost upon us. It is a situation in which a practice designs everything from the circuit board to the dies for the casing and then goes on to handle the client’s production line. The software to handle all this is not quite yet in existence. But, as Brown says, it’s going to need to be intuitive. And it will eliminate the “final”drawing for ever.

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