By Terry T. Wohlers
Never before in the history of manufacturing have product designers had access to such a vast arsenal of tools and technologies. The incredible pace of desktop computing is spawning new applications and developments faster than ever before. Advanced products for design and engineering allow companies to experiment more freely with new ideas, prototype and test more thoroughly, and bring products to market faster with more confidence.
CAD tools for concept design and product engineering continue to mature. A few years ago, the design of a 1000-part assembly would have required hardware and software costing more than $50,000. Today, it can be carried out at a high quality on a system costing under $10,000. This means that even the smallest company can produce sophisticated designs using CAD solid modeling technology.
There are several benefits to solid modeling. It allows design teams to gain an understanding of a product's form and fit very early in the design cycle, when changes are inexpensive. In addition, 3D printing for concept modeling (a fast and low-cost version of rapid prototyping) is becoming a complimentary weapon. A design team can now get their hands on the proposed design early and often thanks to 3D printers.
With parts stored as solid models, it becomes almost trivial to produce highly complex prototypes. With rapid prototyping (RP) systems, companies can produce functional parts in days instead of weeks or months. In recent years, RP has had a dramatic effect on reducing the time needed to move the design from the digital and paper phase of development, to prototyping and testing. Many companies have reported the development of complete prototypes without a single engineering drawing.
When companies need quantities of five to 50 parts for review, testing, and customer samples, prototype tooling is an attractive alternative. Using patterns produced from RP systems, companies can produce soft tooling in as few as three to ten days.
An example is silicone rubber molds and vacuum casting. This limits the user to casting urethane materials, but the accuracy and detail is impressive. Rapid tooling (RT) for larger quantities in production materials can take twice as long, but this is still much shorter than the 12 to 16 weeks that many companies wait. As many as 20 different organizations are developing RT solutions and some show a lot of promise. Still, none of them can yet produce molds that match the qualities of those produced using conventional and high-speed machine tools.
Product data management (PDM) tools have also become important at many organizations. PDM helps engineers and others to organize, retrieve, and share product data. It also aids in the product development process by tracking the abundance of data and information required to design, manufacture, support and maintain products. PDM software offers 3D data viewing capabilities in a networked environment, allowing individuals from marketing, purchasing, shipping, and other departments to view the product information.
Using these tools makes little sense without a product development strategy that stresses fast time-to-market. Managers and team leaders must engage in the right combination of initiatives and support and embrace the tools and technologies used by the product development teams. It is the role of Product Concept & Design Engineering to keep management abreast of these developments. This will help companies to produce more with less, and introduce dazzling products in record time.
Copyright 1999 by Terry T. Wohlers