Using 3D CAD to enhance communication

When you’re surrounded by self-appointed designers clever use of 3D CAD can help non-technical members of your team better understand the impact of design decisions, writes the Secret Engineer. 

Having written these pieces for a number of years now, it may come as little surprise to learn that a few friends know of my clandestine occupation. As it happens I had a chance to meet up with one, a Mr T.M., as we crept bleary eyed into the New Year. Whilst grabbing a coffee he explained an aspect of the way he uses CAD that I hadn’t considered, and how it could help the design process. He also suggested that it might form a good basis for an article and I have to say that I agreed.

We started by discussing where the design aspect of a project is initiated. The majority of us have sat in classrooms where the product development cycle has been dissected and various theories of process considered, but the “real world” can be very different. My current residence, Sleepy Hollow Electronics, in particular is very fluid regarding how projects are run and in fact just who does what. This very issue is something that may provide the raw material for future articles – possibly including one titled “How to Storm Out of a Job with Maximum Impact.” However, let’s just say that my situation at the moment is possibly the most extreme I’ve encountered yet to back this assertion up.

One of the dangers of not following established project management convention is that certain parameters will already have a level of maturity once the active part of the design package is kicked off. Of course we are always given a number of targets and constraints but, in this most nebulous part of the whole process, exactly when particular decisions are made can affect the direction of the design in significant ways. This isn’t helped by those with power and influence thinking they can be design engineers and, going further, there can in fact be the accidental imposition of irrelevant limitations by such folk as they get excited by their own questionable abilities. Changing a paradigm set early on can then be quite difficult – such is the nature of things.

This is where 3D CAD can be quite a help. I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve shown a particular aspect of design on a CAD system, or used it to show the consequences of a modification. I have also used a terminal and projector to illustrate presentations but this is a slightly different matter. When all is said and done I have yet to actively use it fully in support of exploring design decisions at meetings.  I know that some folk think once you have a CAD model you can instantly do anything with it, but you do need to prepare it in different ways to maximise the usefulness in any given situation.

So then, T.M. asked, “Why not use a CAD model to enhance communication and enable the immediate exploration of the possibilities and limitations of design decisions.

After all, if the embryonic design meetings happen post ‘clean sheet’ then, despite the best efforts of those involved, almost inevitably people will come along with ideas that are inappropriate due to the project having already reached that level of maturity.  Experience shows that once these ideas have been tabled, time and effort then has to be expended in explaining why someone’s pet idea has to be discarded or radically modified.” Not everyone possesses the engineer’s ability to think and analyse in 3D so this is where a prepared model, or sequence of models, becomes a very useful tool indeed. It stops being reactive and becomes proactive, saving time and keeping discussions moving along feasible paths.

I thanked my friend and promised I would present it to the world. It may be that you already do this, or that projects are run properly where you work. For me though it was an interesting new slant as well as an encouragement to keep exploring how all tools can be used to their best advantage.