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by Technews
Issue Date: October 2005

2D to 3D: the path to better products, faster and cheaper

October 2005
Dayne Turbitt, managing director, productONE

Every day, there is increasing pressure on discrete manufacturers to get better products to market, faster and cheaper. Companies of all sizes are trying to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of their people, processes and tools. Yet the challenges designers and engineers face continue to mount.

The path from design to manufacturing is not smooth or direct; it suffers constant dead-ends and reversals. Designs constantly come back, with requests for changes to different parts of the product: the wiring harness, the framework, or some other custom-fabricated component. And while some changes are straightforward, others can have a domino effect that affects the structural integrity of the design and jeopardises the entire schedule.
Furthermore, the concerns of designers and engineers vary greatly, covering many diverse areas such as design optimisation, product aesthetics, functional simulation and working with massively complex products, which contain mechanical, electrical and even software systems.
Each year, tens of thousands of CAD users migrate from two-dimensional drafting to the world of 3D solid modelling. Their reasons may vary - manufacturing may demand 3D handoffs, or their companies (or clients) may demand the faster time-to-market that 3D models provide. While millions of product designers and engineers are now using 3D solid modelling CAD tools, there are just as many still using more traditional 2D CAD applications to design and develop their products.
Are there untapped benefits in moving from a 2D CAD solution to 3D? If you are considering making the switch, what are some things you should keep in mind?
The emergence of high-fidelity, solid modelling applications over the past 20 years has had a profound impact on product development.
Product development cycles have decreased, significantly. Today, users of 3D systems are employing concurrent engineering processes, which allow downstream deliverables like mould cores and cavities as well as NC toolpaths to be developed, even as the design of the product is still evolving. Through seamlessly integrated, associative CAD, CAM and CAE applications, these deliverables can automatically update, even when changes are made to the design very late in the process.
Furthermore, these digital models are in many cases now complete, virtual definitions of the final product, including all types of product content, such as plastic parts, cast parts, sheetmetal components, pipes, cables and even representations of PC boards and other electrical data. By having this complete, virtual definition of the product, designers and engineers are able to identify issues long before the physical tools or products themselves are created. From basic interference checking, to ensure components do not clash, to complete, photo-realistic renderings that allow marketing collateral and product packaging to be produced, well before the physical product even exists, 3D solid models radically cut time to market.
This virtual prototyping not only gets products to market faster, but also results in more affordable, higher quality products. No longer must physical prototypes be built to ensure that the product and manufacturing processes will work as expected. The entire manufacturing and assembly process can be planned and optimised, reducing production (and product) costs. Furthermore, engineers can perform complete finite element analysis, to ensure that the physical components are going to perform optimally in their real world environments. Whether the constraints are structural, thermal, motion or even fatigue-related, analysis of 3D models can deliver designers and engineers the complete confidence that they are looking for, before the product is released to manufacturing.
Beyond delivering cheaper and more affordable products, today's 3D CAD systems help deliver exactly what many customers want. Through the power of parametric 3D models, which can be easily re-used and modified, more and more companies are able to easily deliver unique variants of their products, to meet the specific needs of their customers. From PCs to mountain bikes to fire engines, customers are demanding products designed and built to meet their specific needs. Delivering these products with more traditional methods would be cost-prohibitive, but modern 3D CAD systems allow designers and engineers to edit a few parameters and automatically create the downstream deliverables for unique variants in minutes, instead of days or weeks.
Ask the right questions
With all of these benefits, why does everyone not use a modern, 3D solid modelling CAD/CAM/CAE system? The reasons certainly vary, but here are some of the key questions that design and engineering management needs answered before taking the plunge.
1. How steep is the learning curve of the 3D application?
2. How effectively can I leverage and re-use my existing 2D data?
3. What is the total cost of ownership of the new 3D tool, including the software and the associated training?
4. How do I know the 3D system will grow as my needs change?
By addressing these concerns in detail, the engineering manager can compile a shortlist of 3D software candidates that will represent the best choice in a 2D to 3D transition strategy.
How steep is the learning curve of the 3D application?
Every product designer knows that designing in 3D solid modelling requires a very different approach from that of 2D CAD design. To ease this transition, the 3D software itself should help wherever possible, it should be simple to use and understand. It should be modern, and familiar, like other desktop applications that users are familiar with. It should also make extensive use of automated training and tutorials.
Gone are the days of incredibly powerful, but equally complicated 3D CAD systems that only the most advanced users could master. Microsoft's Windows operating system has been adopted as an engineering standard; more individuals than ever before are interested in using 3D CAD solutions; and no one has a tolerance for spending weeks on end trying to learn overly complex software. The best 3D CAD tools provide powerful capabilities, in a scalable, easy-to-learn and easy-to-use package, that is instantly familiar and allows designers and engineers to spend their time delivering great products, instead of learning how to use the tools.
Furthermore, the tools must feature comprehensive, built-in tutorials and online training options that allow users to learn various topics at their own pace.
How effectively can I leverage and re-use my existing 2D data?
With some 3D systems, 2D users are forced to transfer their legacy data to the new system by translating files from one industry-standard format to another. As engineering managers know, this translation introduces substantial data inaccuracy, and often wastes valuable design engineering time. Since this neutral format carries forward a minimum of useful information, the design engineer must spend hours repairing the translated files.
Most of today's modern 3D CAD tools include native translators for AutoCAD DXF/DWG files, and support a range of industry standards including STEP, IGES, CGM, VDA, SET and VRML, as well as direct translators to all of the popular 3D applications. This helps ensure that the data translation issue is no issue at all.
Furthermore, the best 3D CAD solutions provide unique automated data translation aids, which deliver a user-friendly approach to leveraging or re-using legacy 2D data. These tools allow designers to select geometry from their existing 2D drawings, which is then used to automatically create the corresponding 3D features, while, at the same time providing the user with simple training on how to use a 3D system.
What is the total cost of ownership of the new 3D tool, including the software and the associated training?
Cost is a key factor in upgrading from 2D to 3D CAD software. But the typical licence cost of entry-level 3D software can be misleading, since the more important issue is total cost of ownership. Cost of ownership takes into account the cost of software, training and customisation, plus the cost and quality of support.
While typical entry-level 3D systems are priced at under R40 000, users must be aware of other hidden costs. The 3D system should be simple to use, so that training costs can be contained and the users can be productive on the system in no time at all. Also, customising the tool - that is, building user-specific interface functions and other system preferences - must be easy enough for end users to do. Doing this in some systems requires third-party assistance, and, of course, incremental cost.
Finally, some 3D CAD vendors provide support through third parties. It is best to choose a solution from a vendor that provides its own technical support directly to the end-user. In this case, users spend less time waiting for proper support, and more time using their systems. Since time is money, time saved waiting for answers means money saved in product development.
How do I know the 3D system will grow as my needs change?
Although entry-level 3D CAD systems are not usually considered appropriate for 'high-end' modelling work, over time users may bump up against the limits of their technologies. For instance, a designer may want to work with more complex geometries, or manage larger and larger 3D assemblies.
When this happens, the reason for the fourth concern - the need for a scalable 3D growth path - becomes clear.
Most entry-level 3D CAD systems do not offer such a scalable growth path. To move to the next-higher product class, users are forced to migrate their files through a neutral format, such as IGES, to a completely different 3D system. Since these formats cannot carry forward certain types of information, users face severe limitations - and have to spend frustrating hours, days, sometimes weeks repairing their files.
In other cases, entry-level 3D CAD systems may support third-party applications as higher-level add-ons, but such architectures introduce substantial complexity into an already complex endeavour. For instance, the users must now coordinate new-product installs and version upgrades by themselves with a multiplicity of other software vendors.
It is more effective to choose a scalable, integrated solution that allows designers and engineers to spend their time developing products rather than integrating separate software applications. There are great systems that provide an affordable entry-level package, and easily expand as your business and technical needs grow, seamlessly integrating with the system you originally invested in.
Making the move to 3D
For those companies that have decided to make the transition, there has never been a better time than now. Today's entry-level 3D CAD systems are well within reach of even smaller companies. And by selecting wisely, product designers, engineers and managers can achieve a solution that is easy to learn, easy to leverage 2D legacy and easy to afford. Finally, 2D users can enjoy the benefits that thousands of other 2D users are enjoying by 'going 3D'.
For more information contact Dayne Turbitt, productONE, 012 673 9311.

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