The rebirth of design

29 July 2011

New tools and techniques are removing hundreds of years of design and fabrication limitations

Never in the field of human creativity has so much been designed, by so few, for so many. I hope Winston doesn’t mind me remixing his timeless tribute but I have come to the conclusion that today’s designers have never had it so good. Release after release, we look at the latest technologies for product designers and, without a doubt, the past five years have provided more revolutionary CAD technology than the previous twenty. 

Thinking back to the early days, when drawing lines on a computer was the height of modern design, we were still limited, not only by the processor speeds but also by the preconceived notions and traditions of how products came about. CAD was all about the documentation, not about solving problems. Sure, products were still created and buildings built but the computer didn’t act as an ‘amplifier of intelligence’, merely productivity saving within the same old process.

The move to 3D, accelerated by the adoption of automotive and aerospace firms, led to digital mock-up and parametric where the computer provided the environment to build and perform basic tests, as well as do the old document thing. Over time, the price of the hardware and software dropped with desktop tools democratising 3D, which led to an explosion of adoption.

While you may think today’s 3D modelling applications are expensive, in real terms they are actually relatively cheap - back in the 90s a decent 486DX4 PC for CAD used to cost in excess of £4,000 plus, on its own. 

With advances in hardware (multi-core, 64 bit, GPU acceleration etc) workstations can do a lot more beside model large assemblies. The software firms are rapidly developing analysis and simulation tools that make use of all this extra power. The next stage is to utilise supercomputers that reside in the ‘cloud’.

These internet-based server farms will be able to give multiple results in the time it takes to make a cup of tea, as opposed to days. As the CAD tools enable ever-more complex geometry and are tagged with real-word attributes and intelligence, designers can increasingly liberate themselves from managing the data or the geometry and think more about function.

We will bite them on the features

Talking about the geometry, old limitations of CAD systems, which generated much blood, toil, tears and sweat, are slowly being vanquished too. Feature-tree modelling can, in some circumstances be an unnecessary burden. With SpaceClaim, Siemens’ Synchronous Technology, Autodesk Inventor Fusion (which is free) and PTC Creo Elements, direct modelling is allowing easy access to legacy data and enabling easy push-pull design interfaces.

There have also been advances in laser scanning and feature recognition to capture complex real-world objects ready for repurposing. Also in generative form design, where forms can be defined in real time with scripts and flow diagrams. Products like Rhino Grasshopper from McNeel & Associates are providing tools for engineers to experiment with self-generating designs based on algorithms. The software manages user-defined geometrical relationships as you interact with the model. Thinking about it, another benefit of products like Rhino is that now it’s possible to do Class A surfaces (as in high-end car body design) in a product that costs less than €1,000.

The tools to finish the job

As the software from all the vendors has matured the breadth and depth of technology has mushroomed, covering most aspects of the design process, from conceptual design, to management, modelling, analysis, simulation, rendering, animation and digital distribution. One designer, with a seat of today’s CAD could conceptualise, detail, optimise and produce lifelike images for marketing or to get funding. Luxion Keyshot  and Luxology’s Modo 501 can provide stunningly real results.   

For the times that an image doesn’t make 1,000 sales, there’s always a rapid prototyping device, which have drastically come down in price for desktop use (from $500 for a RepRap or £11,500 for HP DesignJet 3D). The materials available are also constantly being improved, ranging from plastic or foam for office machines, up to bureau services that have laser sintering machines, which can go direct to metal.


From my vantage point and looking historically at the design market, the majority of these technologies and price points have come to the main market only in the last three to five years and the process of enhancement appears to be accelerating.

Looking ahead the promise of infinite cloud computing may remove any processing bottleneck. Autodesk is already talking about its analysis tools providing a variation of viable solutions to a design problem, not just giving the results of a single test.

It’s clear that 2D CAD was not an end but was the end of documentation-based design. Today’s 3D CAD systems empower individuals and teams of designers in a way that is really only just sinking in. The requirement is that we explore the capabilities of our design tools and embrace the applicable innovations in technology that happen on a yearly basis. 

Comments on this article:

Martyn, that was an impressive homily to the CAD vendor grin I am not disputing the use of 3D CAD, or the benefits, but as a designer working on a very wide range of product types (and I think that is a critical point) there are many many hurdles to overcome before 3D CAD can really do what a designer wants. The problem is that 3D systems are complex, difficult to use, and require a lot of planning - and I am not just talking history based systems here. You try to model anything other than a simple extrude/fillet/shell in most systems and you soon get into the "how do I do that" issue. Your point about costs now vs the 90s is also a bit irrelevant. The difference between the 90s and now is that now you NEED the software and hardware to do the job. Back then, you didn't. The problem is now that all these highly marketed systems are making some tasks easier, but they do not necessarily make the job easier. In fact, I would suggest that to be a good product designer today you need a considerably higher skill level than 20 years ago. Talking concept bollocks and moods and feelings just doesn't cut it with most people now. They want to see - they expect to see - a photorealistic visual of the design, and they want it in days or hours, not weeks. To some extent we are our own worst enemies. Those of us that did invest and did put the time and effort into learning all this stuff are now faced with expectations that - frankly - are hard to live up to. So yes all this software does all these wonderful things - in demos. But as soon as you get it onto a real "OMG I have another 3 hrs to finish this" project it falls apart. Little simple things that you could have sketched in 30 seconds take 2 hrs. Parts that you could have filed off a foam model take another 2 hrs. That change that should have been simple requires you to rebuild half the model. Martyn that is the harsh reality of modern day product design. What you can say across the board for all CAD vendors is that creating geometry in "affordable" packages has not really changed for 10 years. Direct modelling is primarily about editing, and for some cases it is fast, but I can find as many cases where it is dreadfully slow. Yes interfaces have improved, but we still get the dialogue box hell in many apps, whilst those apps that offer other ways are either for very specific uses and lack precision, or are so expensive that only large multinationals can consider them. Now I am not a pessimist. I do use 3D CAD, I advocate its use, but I do not think of 3D CAD offering a rebirth of design. I don't think design needs to be reborn. I think good design lies within the person, not the software package. A software company CEO I know once told me he could walk along the aisles in Wallmart and identify what package was used to design the product. That certainly used to be the case, less so now, but I think it serves as a good example of too much reliance on the tool and not enough lateral thought. Every designer using a 3D CAD system is guilty of it - I certainly am - of taking an easy route to a design solution simply because it is easier to model. Whilst we could maybe get away with that 5 years ago, we cannot do it these days. We need to put the effort in to get the result. And that, Martyn, is where the whole thing falls apart. As a designer we need to put the effort into forcing the package to create what we imagine and desire. Yet no system out there actually helps us do this. All the CAD vendors are focussing on add ons (FEA, visualisation, etc) or improved editing interfaces. Nobody has grasped the nettle and said - no - what we really need to address here is geometry creation. Why does that fade out take a designer 1 hr to model? Why is it virtually impossible to sculpt a pattern onto a 3D surface without resorting to expensive add ons? It is not just about training either. I speak to designers all the time who struggle with these issues. So let's not have the rebirth of design, but the rebirth of innovation in CAD software. Let's have a CAD vendor who actually wants to develop a geometry creation system that really works for complex geometry creation and editing, and sells it at a price that doesn't require me to remortgage my house. Let's have a CAD vendor who actually develops a system that is easier to use, lets us work with precision, lets us harness all the power of our multi core machines without resorting to megabucks add on hardware.

Posted by Kevin Quigley on Monday 01 2011 at 06:43 PM

Some further ideas following Kevin Quigley's response: There is no question that the development of 3D CAD software has profoundly sped up the design development time of products to market. In addition to the improvements in features and shear capability, the interfaces have become more intuitive, opening the language of 3D CAD to a much wider, “non-techie” audience. Many professional product designers and engineers rely heavily on CAD to not only generate a convincing visual perspective of a three dimensional object, but to test and evaluate it’s physical capability in virtual environment. In a commercial product design scenario, of course, this is usually followed by physical, pre-production prototypes. However, many of these designers and engineers whose careers have developed over the past 10 – 15 years, weren’t exposed to this kind of technology during their formative years. Indeed, these were the folks up to their necks in Lego and Meccano, and later taking apart stuff – for fun – and learning how it goes back together. I’m not suggesting that kids don’t do that sort of thing anymore, but there are so many other distractions now, particularly computer and web orientated. There are other factors: if the Channel 4 documentary, ‘Cotton Wool Kids’ (broadcast 26/01/11) is anything to go by, many parents are reluctant to let their children out of their sight and subsequently out of the house. A whole generation of kids, who’ve never built a den in the woods, repaired a bicycle puncture or lashed together a raft, are missing some vital lessons in the nature of materials and how stuff goes together. There is a danger, that fast-forward 10 – 15 years from now, we will have a generation of designers who eat pixels for breakfast, but for many, an inherent, tacit knowledge of materials, structures and assemblies simply will not exist. I have met lots of students for whom CAD is the holy grail of design. Indeed, many students seem to base their university choice on the CAD provision and which programmes are taught. I’d be surprised if many lecturers are often asked, for example, about the extent of taught sketching or model making on their course. And naturally, we’re talking 3D CAD here: the ability to generate seductive, photorealistic renderings. Which is great, assuming that the design intent is based around an understanding of the materials and processes that would be applied. And this is where – aside from what is formally taught in terms of materials, processes and structures – the experiential deficit faced by adolescents who’ve become more preoccupied with the digital world, than the physical, can really become a problem. So assuming you find a student who loves taking apart engines, laminating timber and welding steel furniture frames (and thankfully, some do still exist). They can let their creativity and material/process knowledge run riot with CAD, right? Well, not always… the only limits to a designer’s creativity lie within the tools needed to realise their designs. The shape of objects designed in CAD will often be derived by the technical ability of the CAD operator, rather than through creative exploration. There is absolutely no doubt that, in the right hands, CAD is a vital part of the design industry and a highly productive and useful tool within the design process. The problem is the immediacy of the ‘CAD rendering’ is often misinterpreted as a shortcut around the design process. And of course, rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing will become huge within the coming years (ask a designer in 50 years time about ‘draft angle’ to receive a confused look and a wet finger in the air). But that simply presents a different set of criteria in terms of material characteristics and manufacturing constraints: the understanding in terms of physical properties is still essential.

Posted by Simon Andrews on Friday 12 2011 at 12:34 AM

Free softwares are not too good and they are not handy. Better would be to use Pro-E Wildfire trial vieorsn. It will give you enough tools to make anything. Plus you can convert your design to many formats and also use them for CNC machining

Posted by Thayane on Monday 12 2015 at 08:17 AM

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