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Making Your First Prototype Your Last!

By Brenden Monahan

As an engineer, how would you like to make the best version of your design the first time? Imagine your first prototype being your last. Sounds like wishful thinking but this is exactly what better visualization tools are enabling.

Since the inception of CAD, designs have been creeping ever closer towards this engineering nirvana. The trade-off is simple, spend the time to create a digital model of your product in CAD versus making physical prototypes. Both have merit but which methodology will produce the best product in the least time at the lowest cost? While there’s no substitute for holding a physical prototype held in your hand, it comes at a material cost and lost time while waiting for fabrication to complete. AR (Augmented Reality) has the power to bridge this gap and deliver realistic experiences at zero material cost.

So how do we make the best product the first time? The answer essentially boils down ROI (Return on Investment). How much time and money is needed to achieve the desired result? Or, in most cases, how much time and money do I have to minimally satisfy the requirements. All projects are bound by cost, scope and time. While it would be great to have infinite time to design, you’ll eventually reach a point of diminishing returns where every additional hour spent wouldn’t yield a better product. On the other hand, if every design was built, you’d most likely exceed your cost and time budgets. Prudent design process lies somewhere between these extremes.

This case study will take you through the design process from concept to completion and show how the use of real-world visualization tools helped to achieve the elusive goal of making the best product the first time. This project was a collaboration between MSA Safety and Vusar that demonstrates how remote design teams can continue to operate without physical co-location.

With the problem defined, budget set and schedule agreed upon — the design process commenced. In this particular case, the goal was to redesign an existing test station used to calibrate sensors. The existing equipment was over 30 years old which meant fixing or finding replacement parts was starting to become a challenge. This existing test station also received scrutiny due to poor ergonomics. Picture yourself squatting down on the ground looking through a straw trying to align a target while sliding a 10 pound weight around on a table top with your arms fully extended. Needless to say, it was time for a new test station.

The new equipment had an integrated camera system that displayed the targeting on a computer monitor which solved one of the accessibility issues. An initial ergonomic assessment determined the optimal position of the sensor would be facing down for ease of adjustment. The next challenge was positioning the camera so the technician could access the calibration mechanism while sitting comfortably. Here we see the technician interacting with the design and providing feedback on ergonomics.

Technician interacting with concept design

The first iteration of the design would have required cutting a hole in the table and mounting the camera pointing up from the underside of the table. This however encroached into the technicians legroom. This also created a new problem of dust settling on the camera lens since it was pointing upwards. While compressed air would address the dust problem, the CAD model was imported into the Vusar app to gain a better understanding of the leg room encroachment problem.

Camera mounted vertically beneath table encroaching into legroom as viewed in Vusar app

As seen in the above picture, mounting the camera (pink cylinder) beneath the table was not a desirable option. This design would have also subjected the camera to unwanted ‘knocks’ from passing brooms and mop handles during regular cleaning. Fortunately a helpful accessory was discovered; the right angle mirror mount. The right angle mirror would allow the camera to lay flat on the table with the sensor remaining upright.

Design iterations as displayed in Vusar app

Subsequent iterations of the design showed a solidification of concept. All the pieces were falling into place. Follow-up design reviews revealed subtleties about the ergonomics and ease of use. Levers could be moved an inch this way or that. Knobs and other touch points repositioned to maximize accessibility, functionality and ease of use. The discussions focused on the finer points of the details — discussions usually reserved for physical prototype evaluations.

Brenden is the CPO at Vusar. He is a mechanical engineer with over 20 years of design and engineering experience.

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