Using 3D as a Design Medium

Chad Jackson, Lifecycle Insights

“By the time someone starts creating a 3D model, all the major design decisions have been made.”

I distinctly remember when that statement was uttered. It occurred on a live webinar some two years ago in a debate between many different software providers. Interestingly enough, it was actually blurted out by a Vice President of Product Management from one of those software providers.

Obviously, it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of modern CAD applications. Instead, it was a statement about how much more needed to be done with this class of software. It was a stamp on the fact that 3D really couldn’t be used as a medium for design.

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In this post, I want to revisit that though. Why does it ring with truth? Does it still hold true? I’m sure this will stir a lively debate. C’mon, let’s get in the scrum.

Why CAD Didn’t Assist Design
Now, when parametric feature-based CAD was first introduced, it was the perfect tool for design. At least, it was in everyone’s imagination. With all those parameters, designers and engineers could morph any design into another one. The possibilities seemed endless.

Now, in comparison to the broadly adopted Boolean-based CAD applications of the time, parametric feature-based CAD was definitively better for design. It was worlds better. You could actually change a design; that much was true. However, the reality of the situation was quickly uncovered.

Models composed of many features had terribly complex interdependencies. Just one wrong tweak and the model would fail, leaving non-expert CAD users with a complicated mess to unravel. The ugly truth was that unless you knew exactly how to carefully, meticulously and progressively build a feature-based model, it was very unlikely you could change it to any useful degree. And that’s where we stood until the last five years.

3D Is Now Design Ready, But Are We?
About five years ago, the whole industry went through a disruption. Fortunately, it was the good kind. We can argue about who started the direct modeling movement. But today, I think we can all agree that direct modeling approaches have dramatically changed how CAD can be used.

In the context of design decisions, direct modeling approaches have enabled iteration and exploration like parametric feature-based CAD never could. You just grab geometry and push, pull and drag. The limitations to possible design changes have become if the geometry can be calculated instead of the constraints of feature interrelationships. And that’s a great thing. All said, CAD truly can be used as a real design tool now, like it never could before. You can finally use 3D as a design medium.

However, over the past few decades of technology changes, I think we’ve learned that sometimes it’s not just about technology. We have our routines. We have our processes. Just because something is possible with technology doesn’t mean that it will be readily adopted.

If it’s not clear, let me put a fine point on it: many organizations continue to use CAD as a documentation tool, not a design one. And while that may depress some in the industry, I think organizations should look at this as an opportunity. Iterating and exploring designs with direct modeling methods in CAD offer the real potential to develop better products. The fact that many organizations aren’t taking advantage of this technology is the opportunity to outperform your peer organizations at competitors.

Don’t say it out loud, but therein lies competitive advantage.

Recap and Questions
It’s true. More than five years ago, CAD applications really were just documentation tools, not design tools. But with the integration of direct modeling methods, CAD can now truly be used as a tool to enable more design exploration and iteration. Ultimately, that translates into better products. Many organizations haven’t caught up. They still use CAD as a documentation tool. I recommend that organizations capitalize on this opportunity to create competitive advantage.

Alright folks, that’s my take. Hope it’s been valuable. What’s your perspective? I’m interested to hear how many of you have changed how you have used CAD to enable design. Sound off!

Take care. Talk soon. Thanks for reading.

This blog post has been licensed for hosting by PTC. The concepts, ideas and positions of this post have been developed independently by Industry Analyst Chad Jackson of Lifecycle Insights.

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