Splashing out

A ‘no prototype’ approach to deep-sea camera equipment design leaves the competition high and dry.

Designing and manufacturing a product without building a prototype is a risky business. But when that product has to cope with extreme pressures, hungry sharks, and other perils of the deep that risk doubles.

Yet this was exactly the approach adopted by Watershot, a California-based designer of underwater camera housings, when asked to design a special housing for deep-sea cinematographer Pete Zuccarini.

With a brief to design the unit quickly and efficiently, Watershot director Steve Ogles decided that the best way to steal a march on the competition was to do the whole thing electronically – and without building a single prototype.

The housing had to be compact, lightweight, and allow the cinematographer to control the camera lens, iris, and focus bezels precisely. It also needed to be capable of accepting any of 17 lenses, yet simple enough for a camera assistant to load without specialised tools.

The solution, said Ogles – owner and founder of Watershot – led to a 50 per cent reduction of the design cycle and a reduction of errors by 95 per cent.

The team began by modelling the entire camera in SolidWorks 3D modelling software, then used COSMOSWorks CFD (computational fluid dynamics) software to simulate the water pressure on the housing at various depths. ‘When Pete asked us about the depth rating calculations on the housing we showed him the COSMOSWorks simulations that allowed us to obtain the information we needed without building a prototype,’ said Ogles.

Finally, working with machine shops equipped with SURFCAM software, Watershot was able to create tool-path programming directly from the SolidWorks files.Throughout the process, with no physical mock-ups to show the client, eDrawings – Solidworks’ collaboration tool – became indispensable.

‘The value of instantaneous electronic visual communications with our client was immeasurable,’ said Ogles. ‘Zuccarini is based in Miami and we’re in San Diego. Using eDrawings files we sent him models that he could rotate and review from all angles without the need for specialised software.’

One of the keys to the ‘no-prototype’ approach, said Ogles, was having access to two one-man machine shops that knew SolidWorks.

‘We laid out the architecture for this project in advance and then followed our formula in a fairly strict manner. This means that all the principles involved in the manufacture were met in advance of cutting a single piece of aluminum. One machine shop was tied to the three major assemblies and the other concentrated on the manufacture of the many sub-assembly parts. Even though we employed two machine shops, the interface between the parts was unbelievable. We put this down to SolidWorks and the tenacious communications protocol we adhered too. We had very few, if any, details fall through the crack.’

Ogles said the biggest problem in designing without prototypes is ‘stacking’ – the cumulative effect of all the variables working against each other in a real-world application.

‘A mis-measure here, a missed machining tolerance there and the next thing you know, you’ve inherited a stacking tolerance issue and something does not quite line up. We had two or three of those. Not too bad considering the scale and scope of the project,’ he added.

On the whole, the Watershot team was so delighted with the ‘no prototype’ approach that it has become an integral part of the company’s design philosophy.

Strict attention to detail is, said Ogles, the key to success. ‘One person has to be in charge of the project, and that person has to know precisely what everyone involved in the project is capable of.

‘As the owner and founder of Watershot, the role of project manager sits squarely on my shoulders. I don’t sit in an office. I communicate. I get out there. I sit with the design engineers and listen and watch as they show me their concepts and models, and I ask them how confident they are of a form or function of a particular part.

‘I’m on the floor of the machine shop when the set-ups are being done. I’m also there when the parts are machined, and I’m looking over the parts with close scrutiny, measuring, checking and examining the quality, fit and finish. If I see something I don’t like it gets fixed there and then. The design engineers and our machinist have direct access to one another – there is no filtering of critical information. The greatest resource in any of our endeavours is the people involved, so we let everyone know up front what we expect – and hold everyone accountable.’