Best Practices: How to Choose the Right 3D Design Tool


Most manufacturing companies are designing new products using 3D design tools. The benefits of designing in 3D—as opposed to 2D—have been well born out and include faster time to market, reduced physical prototyping, the ability to simulate/analyze products while still digital, and ultimately, higher quality products. The real value of investing in 3D CAD is the 3D model, which becomes the catalyst by which all downstream product-related functions are accomplished.

The 3D model is leveraged throughout the lifecycle of a product for product design and verification, drafting, tool design, CNC tool programming, rapid prototyping, inspection, assembly instructions, part catalogs, owners’ manuals, service documentation, and marketing collateral. As such the 3D model must accurately represent every part within a product and the relationships among them.

So where do you start when determining which 3D design tool will best meet the needs of your product development process? Let’s break down a few things manufacturers should consider before choosing a 3D design tool.

Ease of use. A good 3D design system should be easy and intuitive enough that users aren’t intimated to embark upon learning to design in it. It should also enable designers to design parts efficiently in as few a steps as possible—but without compromising product quality. A consistent user interface throughout all the system’s modules and add-on products can significantly shorten the overall learning curve. Finding a CAD system that offers a lot of training resources is also very helpful; built-in tutorials, computer-based training, and an online user community that offers forums for new users to ask questions of other users.

Cost considerations. 3D CAD software varies in cost as well as functionality. Often the functionality of a particular 3D design tool corresponds directly to the system’s overall cost. Determining your budget can help you to determine the functionality you will be able to afford. Also keep in mind total cost of ownership, which includes future costs, such as training for employees, upgrades in hardware that might be required, and upgrade charges when new updates are released. If you have users who won’t be using the software full-time and don’t need the full power of the software, look to see if the vendor offers software for casual users or usage, helping to lower your overall cost.

Product-specific requirements. The design of every product has unique requirements. One way to narrow down your choices is to evaluate each vendor’s strengths in the functionality that is essential to the design of your product. If your product is a stylistic consumer product with swooping, curvy surfaces, then finding a 3D CAD tool that offers functionality in creating freeform surfaces will be vital.  A company manufacturing large, complicated machinery should look for systems that can manage large assemblies efficiently and won’t bog down when dealing with complex designs with high part counts.

Import/export capabilities. Few manufacturers use the same CAD system as all of their customers, partners and suppliers in their expanded supply chain. As a result, the ability to effectively share CAD data with others as well as the ability to import files from other systems are both important factors to consider. Be sure your vendor supports international file formats such as STEP, IGES, and VDA. Evaluate the direct translators that are available for each CAD system as well as those offered by third-party vendors. The ability to efficiently and accurately exchange CAD files with customers or suppliers can save manufacturers significant time and cost.

Try it before you buy it.  Many 3D CAD software vendors will provide companuies and users with a free but full version of their software to try out for a certain amount of time (typically 30 days), you and your users can get a feel for the way the software works and whether it will easy for your design team to easily adapt it into your current processes. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few vendors, get live demonstrations of CAD systems from each vendor, preferably using some of your actual product data.

Ask lots of questions. Find out what type of after-sales technical support will be available, either through the vendor or through resellers. Don’t be afraid to ask where the company is headed in terms of technology. Are they thought leaders in their industry? Do they understand your pain points? And, are they continuing to invest heavily in developing future products that will address the needs of their customers? If the answer to any of these questions is no, walk away.

Image  by fotEK10

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