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A New Era in Product Design

By Brenden Monahan

Mobile devices have the power to enable new methods of collaboration. Learn how this technology is helping design teams bring products to market faster through immersive visualization.

The way it used to be As a mechanical engineer with over 20 years of experience, I’ve had a first-hand perspective on product design and evolution of the tools and processes employed. For context, I started with pencil on a drafting board as my first introduction into mechanical design and drafting. I know, I’m dating myself. I also played around with Corel Draw which wasn’t a CAD tool by any stretch of the imagination but it provided an interface to capture 2D designs using a computer.

While in college and after working as a machinist for a year, I was lucky enough to intern at the University of New Hampshire Space Science Center. While there I learned AutoCAD (Release 12), made contributions on real projects, learned about configuration management and participated in design reviews.

AutoCAD revolutionized design because it was vastly different and better than the status quo. Layers enabled visualization of cross-discipline design interdependencies. Printing on huge plotters allowed the project stakeholders to pour over designs on a conference room table during design reviews. DXF file exports empowered CNC machining — enabling machine shops to produce complex 2D shapes previously not possible with manual techniques. And it was digital, allowing unlimited reproduction and electronic transmission of the files. All these new capabilities together added up to better designs — faster.

Just about the same time, PTC released Pro/e which if you remember was the first CAD program with parametric sketching capabilities. This was not only a breakthrough in technology but it also revolutionized the process of product design itself because, unlike with AutoCAD, designers no longer needed to know the feature dimension with absolute certainty as it was created. Instead, a feature could be created as a placeholder and defined at a later time.

As an engineer and designer, this had a profound impact on how I approached the process of design itself. When I used AutoCAD for new designs, I would first sketch my designs on graph paper until I felt the design was >90% complete before my first click of the mouse. Parametric design was different because it allowed you to kick the can down the road and postpone freezing design features until matured.

Overnight, CAD became an exploratory design tool rather than just a means to document design digitally. I haven’t used graph paper since. 3D CAD programs such as Pro/e and Solidworks took product design to the next level because they recognized the problems with conventional 2D CAD and also the problems with existing unix dependant 3D CAD tools of the day. Product design benefited with another jump in productivity — better designs faster. Of course, all these improvements in efficiency weren’t without their costs, something I’ll address in a separate post.

The way it is For all these improvements, one aspect in the design process notably absent from the above discussion is the topic of collaboration and the process of feedback throughout the design process. Conventionally, design reviews are the forum for critique and feedback. Unfortunately, these design reviews all too often are the first time the project stakeholders see the design. Depending on the frequency of the design reviews, this can sometimes be several weeks after the official project kick-off.

How often have we had to start over on a design due to some oversight that was pointed out during the first minute of a design review?

How many times have our projects overrun on cost and schedule due to unforeseen yet avoidable problems if only the right people had reviewed it?

How many times have our customers come back to us and claimed we were misinterpreting the specification?

In response to many of these questions and after much internal debate as to why our projects consistently slipped schedule, we created a ‘war room’ to address our perceived problems. A room dedicated entirely to a single project. Everyone on the technical team moved their computer into this room and would remain there until successful completion of the critical design review — the proverbial design freeze.

The idea was co-location of the team and the discussions within the room would help break through design grid-lock. Having the expert in the room that could quickly answer gating questions and allow the project to proceed — saving time. While the ‘war room’ proved helpful, it was problematic for team members working on other projects due to their sequester.

Another method of breaking design grid-lock and one of my favorites was a process where the engineer would pull up a chair right next to the designer and talk through the design. I liken this to a software development method called ‘pair coding’ where one person writes the code while the other person reviews it. The power of focused collaboration is remarkable. Progressive companies are realizing: collaboration is capital.

Why isn’t the process of iterative collaboration built into our workflows?

To answer this question we have to examine our tools and how they’re used in the typical work environment. A typical company’s engineering department is constructed of cubicles of co-located engineers of similar disciplines. There’s usually a conference room with a projector or large TV, white board, video conferencing system depending on the size of the company. Multiple conference rooms if you’re lucky. Close by, there might be a common space with lab benches for testing and prototyping — possibly a 3D printer? In this environment, collaboration is limited by what we can see and how many can see it.

Design conception usually begins in the conference room with rough sketches on a white board. Next, the designer or engineer takes the idea back to their cubicle and begins to define the concept in their CAD program. Sometimes, informal mini-design reviews will take place when one or two people crowd into someone’s cubicle to see what’s on their monitor.

Formal design reviews are held in the conference room where multiple reviewers can view the design on a larger screen and possibly with other locations using a screen sharing program such as WebEx or GoToMeeting. Sometimes 3D printed models accompany the design review — grounding the reality of the design in form, fit and function.

So what’s wrong with this process?

The reality is, peer review isn’t as often as it should be. The people you really want to review your design always seem to be out of the office. Conference rooms are usually booked out and the first available time with no schedule conflicts is more than a week out. 3D printing, at best, takes 24 hours to get clean samples if done in-house or three days if outsourced. CAD tools fall short on fostering a medium for iterative collaboration. Viewing CAD designs on a screen doesn’t accurately represent scale and real-world fit. The restrictive nature of CAD with their steep learning curves, high barriers to entry, costly hardware and software requirements and exclusive licensing prohibits the majority of us from design consumption and interrogation on our own time.

There is a better way In a world where CAD is king and collaboration is key — how can we leverage technology so we can have the best of both worlds? Where we can bring our CAD designs into our world. Where everyone can view and collaborate on our ideas.

The answer might already be in your pocket. Our smartphones enable us to overlay digital information into the real-world. Our designs can now be viewed in situ at true scale through our mobile devices. Anyone with a smartphone or tablet can collaborate on designs through an immersive visualization experience. Augmented reality experiences once sold exclusively through expensive headsets are now available for download as a mobile app.

It’s amazing how something as simple as having a second set of eyes can ameliorate design crushing problems dead in their tracks. So often, just getting to ‘yes’ is what ultimately consumes the majority of our time, not the design itself.

Enter the new paradigm in product design where our smartphones are now part of the design process. It’s a process because with most creations, we refine over and over until we get it right. With regular input from the collective at critical junctions throughout the project, we can make far better design decisions than we can on our own. The benefits of iterative feedback is time saved, better products and most important — happy customers.

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