Moving Beyond 3D to Digital Prototyping

By Richard Blatcher, head of marketing – Manufacturing Industry Group, EMEA at Autodesk

Many manufacturers today face a key challenge: their product development process is characterised by islands of competency, each presenting its own technical challenges. In the conceptual design phase, industrial designers and engineers often use paper-based methods or digital formats that are incompatible with the digital information used in the engineering phase. A lack of digital data, compatible formats and automation keeps this island separate from engineering - the conceptual design data must be recreated digitally downstream, resulting in lost time and money.

In the engineering phase, mechanical and electrical engineers use different systems and formats and a lack of integration makes it difficult to create one single common model of the complete product, including mechanical and electrical components like wires and harnesses, for example.
Equally, a lack of automation makes it difficult to capture and rapidly respond to change requests from manufacturing. In addition, many manufacturers are defining 3D models but still not using them for analysis and simulation. Lack of knowledge of finite element analysis (FEA) technology, the complexity of these systems and a lack of associative connection between CAD and FEA are among the main reasons for this.

Manufacturing is at the downstream end of all these broken digital processes. As a result, it often ends up receiving analogue information in the form of drawings. The result is that data has to be re-entered with a consequent negative impact on productivity and innovation. Disconnected product development processes also make it difficult to bring customer and marketing requirements into the process early so customers can see exactly what products will look like and validate how they will function before they are delivered.

The inability to involve the customer early in the product development process means that the customer cannot validate a design before the product goes to manufacturing. The recognition that items cannot be produced economically or the fact that they fail in operation inevitably leads to customer requests for changes. These become exponentially more expensive to address the further along the product is in the manufacturing process. The result: companies have to build multiple physical prototypes for customer validation.

The Rise of Digital Prototyping

Many companies have tried to find a solution for these dilemmas by swapping out their 2D CAD system for 3D. 3D is now long established. But 3D is not enough. Fortunately, there is an approach to design technology which addresses these broken manufacturing processes. This approach, known as Digital Prototyping, has been made accessible and affordable by Autodesk and allows businesses across the sector to drive growth by enabling them to develop innovative new products quickly and cost-effectively.

Digital prototyping enables manufacturers to move beyond 3D in terms of the benefits it supports. Most out-of-the-box 3D modelling applications provide only part of the functionality needed to create a complete digital prototype. The issue is, however, that many manufacturers mistakenly believe that the investment required to implement these high quality - often digital prototyping-based - design technology solutions - and consequently drive growth - will be out of their reach.

A recent survey from Autodesk, polling the views and opinions of more than 100 senior decision-makers, primarily working for mainstream manufacturing companies in the UK, found that for many the commercial drivers they see as most critical to the growth of their businesses are the very same that they also believe will require the largest increases in design technology investment to achieve.

83% of those surveyed felt that it would take a rise of more than 10% in annual investment in design technology solutions to achieve 'improved margins' while 37% felt that an increase of more than 50% in annual investments would be required to deliver 'accelerated speed to market'. 33% thought that a similar increase would be the minimum needed to attain 'reduced product development costs' (ranked as the fourth most important growth driver).

These perceptions are understandable but they do not reflect the reality: that streamlined, efficient and well-integrated design technology solutions do not have to be expensive to implement and operate. The new 2011 product portfolio from Autodesk is a case in point. This solutions set, which includes Autodesk Inventor 2011, offers manufacturers the opportunity to develop high-quality products quickly and cost-effectively and make a significant contribution to the future success of their companies. In fact, adopting best practices in product development through a digital prototyping based approach and the use of solutions like Autodesk Inventor can be key in achieving success and developing competitive edge.

Extending the Digital Pipeline

So how can manufacturers most effectively achieve these results by migrating from a physical to a digital-based approach? The first stage is to capture the design concept digitally. The sooner and easier ideas can be captured on screen the better, even if dozens of iterations have to be made after that. Imagine the time taken to make the same number of drawings.

Further downstream, if designs can be kept in a digital format throughout the development process they are more likely to keep their original integrity and result in accurate, reliable products.

Maximising the use of digital rather than physical prototypes not only helps to mend many of the broken processes of design manufacturing but it is also one of the keys to effective integration across the design process leading to the development of successful innovation. In consumer products and transportation industries, for example, early but well-informed decisions can be made at the concept stage, about colour and form, with multiple alternatives considered by the design team, colleagues and clients where appropriate.

During engineering, stress and strengths can be tested, mechanical movement and the performance of multiple materials analysed, using tools like Autodesk Inventor. In this way, aesthetic ideas can be made practical ensuring well before the physical prototype stage that an idea will work and prove reliable. Importantly, the latest technology enables this to be done in hours or days rather than weeks and the overall cost of the process is significantly reduced as a result. There are no isolated islands of manufacturing design capability to slow down the process.

Interestingly, developing innovative high-quality products does not necessarily mean continually re-inventing the wheel. When legacy design data is held in a secure but easily accessible, central store, components and even whole assemblies can be re-used to help create new products. In this way, firms can build on their strengths rather than continuously starting from square one, and save further time and money as a result.

Earlier to Market

High-quality manufacturing design is only valuable, of course, if the end-result is commercially viable. Digital prototypes can be used to market a product before it is actually made. Images can be used for brochures, websites and other marketing collateral, as well as for focus groups and even one-to-one customer meetings and for one-off manufacturers, such images, together with animations, can be instrumental in winning a bid and beating the competition.

In addition, by using simulation capabilities integrated in solutions like Autodesk Inventor 2011, pictured, multiple design iterations can be much more easily validated.

Once a customer has shown interest in a product in a digital format, it can easily be refined and tailored according to feedback. Yet, because customers have been shown an accurate representation, rather than just an impression, there will be no misunderstandings and fewer hold-ups later on in the process.

Not only do digital prototypes enable design engineers to work freely and creatively without huge overheads, they also accelerate the entire process, ensuring products reach the market while demand is still keen. So, if an organisation is already using 3D design software, innovation does not necessarily mean huge new investment. The use of digital prototyping in product development through the deployment of solutions like Autodesk Inventor helps organisations build fewer physical prototypes, mend the broken digital processes and ultimately get to market ahead of the competition with higher quality products and at lower development costs.

Moving to 3D is only the first step in creating a digital prototype. In today's increasingly competitive global market, being best-in-class means using technology to stay ahead of the competition. Incorporating Digital Prototyping into the product development process gives businesses that critical edge as they exit the recession. Moreover, the cost-effective innovation it supports will also help to fuel the long-term health of the manufacturing sector and of the broader economy.

Richard Blatcher

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