Planning the move to 3D design

Oct. 25, 2001
A few do's and don'ts speed the transition from 2D drawing to 3D modeling.

Michael Hudspeth
Consulting engineer
St. Louis, Mo.

Edited by Paul Dvorak

Transitioning from 2D to 3D modeling takes a commitment and a plan, but the investment pays off. To get the most benefit from 3D-modeling systems such as Solid Edge, plan on training, a quiet place to work, and support equipment to make the system comfortable for a full day's use.

What you see is what you get in a 3D system. Modeling the plastic cover in 3D and Pro/E lets designers send the model to a machine shop for accurate prototypes, a bonus that 2D drawings do not provide.

With proper training, designers and engineers can do more with a 3D model than 2D drawings. For instance, they can take a first-cut stress analysis through initial designs as a better way to spot weak or overdesigned areas.

The fanciful image from Kaman Aerospace Corp., generated in Unigraphics, suggests that detailed drawings come after modeling complete assemblies. The rendering and arrangement of graphic elements means the marketing department can also use the model in its sales effort.

Developers of 3D software say 70% or more of all designers and engineers still work in 2D. That's despite many advantages to 3D modeling, such as greater productivity from a better understanding of the design, fewer mistakes, and more ways to explore new product ideas.

What's holding 2D designers back? Uncertainty and an inability to adapt to new situations are two large anchors. They have difficulty answering questions such as: How will we transition into a 3D CAD system? What will be the impact on the bottom line? Can we calculate an ROI for new software? Fortunately, there are good answers to these and other questions. The following do's and don'ts can provide guidance during the purchase and transition.

First of all, every company's history and situation is unique, so the advice and suggestions here are flexible. What is more certain is that most every company can benefit from 3D modeling. To stay on top of its game, a company should make an ongoing investment in new equipment, techniques, and thinking.

The first mental change comes in the design approach: You don't draw in 3D systems — you model in them. Don't be concerned with how something will look from a given angle. Instead, focus on the features the model should have.

Almost anyone should be able to model in 3D with a little training and experience. True, some users find 3D modeling difficult to master. For example, a few will have trouble deciding which direction the system will revolve objects and get confused when text comes in backwards. One designer was so uncomfortable modeling in 3D, he used the system to draw in 2D. His drawings plotted correctly, so they were good enough. But when another view of a part was needed, he had to remodel everything. Fortunately, most people take right to it and eventually wonder how they did business without 3D modeling.

Cost is always one of the first questions to come up. The investment will seem sizable. Midpriced systems such as Solid-Works and Solid Edge start at about $5,000/seat though prices vary widely. And often, the system quickly pays for itself. For example, generating accurate toolpaths could conceivably avoid making a costly change to a $70,000 mold.

Another payoff is in letting users become more familiar with designs. The ability to freely rotate and zoom a model lets users spot potential errors. In 2D, users rely on the drafter's ability to visualize each view. In 3D, the model runs the show. If it's on the model, it'll be in the drawing and in the CAM output.

Before buying software, a committee will need to examine the choices available. This can be time consuming and costly, and most of the time a company can't afford to spend months making a selection.

A lack of experience with the software tools and the need to evaluate several CAD systems may draw out the process. These time requirements occasionally are overlooked as everyone concentrates on price.

One cost-effective route around the "which-one" question is to hire a CAD consultant. This person can evaluate company needs, compare candidate software, make recommendations, and shorten the whole process. The consultant can cost less than a committee will spend.

Software maintenance is a good investment. Don't work without it. Most of the time, maintenance comes with free upgrades and bug fixes. It also usually entitles users to online seminars and tutorials. And should the system administrator have problems implementing the software, maintenance means the software developer helps get the CAD system quickly up and running.

Software requires hardware and the better the modeling system, the more system resources it needs. One temptation is to buy the least-expensive system, but if productivity is important, don't put CAD software on a computer that's going to choke when designs get complicated. A good start is a computer with a Pentium III or better with a minimum of 128 Mbytes of RAM, 20-Gbyte hard drive, a good graphics card, and Windows NT or 2000. Evaluate the equipment on hand to these minimum requirements.

If it's not sufficient, buy something to handle demands a year or two down the road. Few are sorry for buying top-of-the-line equipment.

Likewise, large monitors are better than small. In the early days, running a CAD system on a 13-in. monitor produced eyestrain. For 3D modeling, consider a 17-in. monitor as a minimum, and larger is better. And do yourself a favor — buy a CD rewriter. It makes backing up files a lot easier.

The operating system is a subject closely related to hardware. NT, Unix, or Macintosh OS are readily available. At one time, Unix was the mainstay of the 3Dmodeling world, mostly because it was the only operating system that could run complex CAD software. The hardware that ran Unix was the most powerful of the day. Nowadays, powerful hardware is readily available. And some 3D modelers run on just about any hardware. Unix still enjoys a niche role, but one that is getting smaller.

A few modelers run on Macintosh computers, but the PC has many more. Macintoshes are widely used in the graphics community, so they are worth considering if you interface with an art department.

For an output device, a good plotter pays for itself several times over. Color paint-jet plotters are a good way to go, and there are all sorts of uses for them. Color, for example, focuses attention to specific areas of a model or drawing.

If you haven't already, invest in a laser printer. They are fast and dependable. Make sure it prints 11 17-in. pages, and get color if you can. Many firms need color output for marketing or sales support, but it's also good for design reviews. Small paint-jet printers can be had for $50.

Don't ignore training.
This must be said because a surprising number of companies foolishly try to work without it. Training is among the most profitable investments you will make.

Even power users can have difficulty learning a new system on their own. One company put their CAD veteran on a new 3D system without training, somehow thinking that if you know one system, you know them all. After wasting hundreds of manhours, the company finally sent him to class.

Bright people can learn most tasks given sufficient time. But the downside is that they only know how to use what they have to use. Training introduces users to broader knowledge of the software's capability, thereby making them better modelers.

Consider new office furniture, especially for companies purchasing their first 3D CAD system. To minimize distractions, consider putting it in a separate office, and face the screen away from the door. This affords some privacy and provides modest security. And ensure sufficient tabletop space on each side of the screen. There will always be stuff to look at or measure. Cubicles are also good for shielding operators from excessive light or window glare.

Ergonomic concerns deserve attention. For instance, good chairs can help trim health-care costs. Sitting in cheap, hard chairs for 8 hr a day takes a toll on people's backs.

Also consider who will use the new equipment. One company thought only managers and higher ups were qualified to receive new CAD systems. Those who did the work received hand-me-down equipment. Worse yet, the manager's schedule afforded him little time to use the more powerful system. Believe it or not, the company was stumped as to why their CAD implementation did not pay off.

Another firm spent way too much time putting 3D-modeling capabilities on every engineers' desk. Some people just didn't want it. Those who embraced the technology saw their productivity soar. In contrast, one who didn't use the equipment, used the experience to prove the purchase was a bad idea. So make sure people want the new system, or are at least comfortable trying it. And give them time to learn the software.

In addition to the productivity boost in the design department, additional advantages to 3D modeling come downstream. It will be up to your company to decide how far to take the digital commitment.

Take CAM applications, for example. Generating toolpaths on a solid model produces more dependable, reproducible output.

The modeling system pays dividends here because the costs for a mistake finding its way to production can be astronomical. In addition, budget items can be trimmed that would ordinarily pay for mold drawings, misunderstandings, and inaccuracies.

Legacy data, when digital, puts a company ahead of the game. If paper based, you might invest in a large-format scanner or find a service bureau that can scan and digitize needed drawings. When the time comes, ask for digital output in TIFF or JPEG formats. Store the electronic images in a safe place, but copy them to your network. Translating a TIFF file into a PDF file lets anyone on the network look at the drawing. PDF viewers are free and readily available from many sources. Sending drawings as PDF files is a better way to operate than by old-fashioned print requests. Making information more readily accessible means employees won't have to spend long periods looking up information. Almost all 3D modeling programs will output PDF files and many data-management systems use PDFs. Many good bitmap editors are available if the TIFF files need changing.

The advantages of 3D modeling are too good to ignore. In addition to those listed, 3D models make it easier to work with other companies. Rapid prototyping seems to be the best thing since e-mail. Design times drop and users explore a wider range of design possibilities. This is where companies see their greatest ROI. What's more, companies that master 3D modeling have a greater chance of survival.

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