Designs on teamwork

A US-developed 3D CAD package could help non-designers in the extended product development team to make more of a contribution to the overall modelling process. Charles Clarke reports.


A US start-up aims to put 3D capabilities in the hands of designers, engineers and other manufacturing professionals not skilled in traditional 3D parametric and/or feature-based CAD packages.

Boston-based SpaceClaim has released SpaceClaim Professional 2007, aimed to put 3D CAD/CAM/PLM capabilities in the hands of designers, engineers and other manufacturing professionals not skilled in traditional 3D parametric and/or feature-based CAD packages.

The company says its package will allow would-be casual 3D users to make more of a contribution to the process than they can with read-only or ‘dumb’ access to CAD data.

According to SpaceClaim, there are more than five million people worldwide involved in mechanical design, but only one-fifth of these are able to benefit from existing 3D CAD tools because the rest ack the expertise and training to take advantage of the software.

SpaceClaim is targeted at this disenfranchised majority by providing an array of tools and user interface enhancements that allow sophisticated modelling without the need for knowledge of complicated commands or modelling structures.

The software couples a modern user interface based on Microsoft Vista and Office 2007 with flexible modelling technology to reduce much of the complexity associated with traditional 3D parametric CAD tools. It’s a bit like Google SketchUp for 3D solids.

SpaceClaim bridges the gap between designers and those in the extended product development team such as suppliers, manufacturing engineers and analysis engineers who lack access or time to master the designers’ 3D CAD system.

To date, the benefits of 3D have remained concentrated in the hands of dedicated CAD specialists. As a result, those who contribute to design conceptualisation, review, analysis and manufacturing communicate with the design team through insufficient view-only file formats — or even paper.

With SpaceClaim the extended team can work directly with the 3D model to investigate fully the impact of each idea and validate the geometry of change requests before sharing them with the designers. This aims to improve the quality of each design iteration and frees the CAD specialist to work with only valid requests, resulting in higher quality products and shorter time-to-market.

The software supports geometric inferencing to highlight design similarities and to aid in the creation of geometry. SpaceClaim is free from any concept of a feature or history tree. There is a panel that looks like a feature tree, but this is a user definable tree to organise modelled shapes into parts.

SpaceClaim allows users full freedom with respect to how they create and manipulate geometry — there are no features, no parameters or constraints. There is also only one workspace for parts and assemblies, so geometry can be moved between components as easily as you move things within a single part.

The software’s user interface has a SmartTools feature, which understands the user’s modelling intent by recognising selected geometries and their context. By determining what operation to perform without excessive drop-down menus, dialogue boxes, and user clicks, SpaceClaim dramatically improves users productivity.

So why is all this significant? The development is the latest brainchild of Mike Payne — a true CAD industry veteran who was co-founder of PTC and chief architect of Pro/ENGINEER. He went on to set up SolidWorks with Jon Hirschtick and others and was again the driving force behind the development of SolidWorks. Both of these products introduced new design concepts and changed the face of the CAD industry for the better.

This time around Payne is joined by Richard Riff, another CAD industry veteran and visionary who introduced the C3P program into the Ford Motor Company, Lou Volpe (ex-marketing vice-president at PTC) and Steve Walske (PTC’s former chief executive).

There are also about 30 others with similarly impressive CAD development and marketing CVs. So this is not just another new start-up with a whizzy product — there is a significant team behind it and it is worthy of very close attention.

SpaceClaim also has an innovative sales model. The software will cost $125 (£62) a month, per user, based on a three-year contract. The company is also offering a one-year term for a slightly higher fee. The licence term includes support and updates and a complimentary Home Edition and Viewer.

Following the same theme, with more and more products, across all industry sectors, being designed and developed by cross-functional project teams, it’s becoming increasingly important for engineering information to be presented in a format that is quickly and easily understood by everyone involved.

Data needs to be accessible and understandable by individuals in both a company’s purchasing department as well as the CAD operator who designed the individual parts — regardless of their technical capabilities.

In the fast-growing rapid injection moulding industry, Telford-based Protomold has made ease of communication one of its unique selling points for its web-based service. Its ProtoQuote cost and manufacturability quotation system is primarily a summary of potential problems with the part, explained in a clear, simple and non-technical way, incorporating suggested changes and if necessary, redesigns.

Until recently, the company’s ProtoQuote used 2D CAD images of the customer’s component to illustrate points that would be likely to cause problems at the injection moulding phase. Taking the concept one-step further, the company’s new, 3D ProtoQuote allows the viewer to see much more detailed information and to zoom, rotate and pan individual problems highlighted by the system. Viewers can even execute a virtual fly-through of the part.

‘What with shorter lead-times and tighter product development budgets, prototyping must be faster, better and less expensive than ever before,’ said Protomold’s general manager John Tumelty. ‘Making communications clearer and easier helps to eliminate possible mistakes and misunderstandings.’

Rapid injection moulding can deliver up to 10,000 precision moulded prototypes in as little as three days from a relatively inexpensive aluminium mould. The mould produces the same geometry as subsequent steel production tooling so designers can easily replicate the intended shape and functionality of the finished product.

‘We think we’ve taken rapid injection moulding one considerable step further than just providing a machining and moulding service,’ said Tumelty. ‘Protomold has invested globally in the development of web-based interfaces to communicate between the client — the product designer — and the mould maker in our factory. 3D ProtoQuote is a significant enhancement, based on what customers tell us they need. Our job is to help speed up product design and to reduce time-to-market. Making the whole process easier to understand gives companies more chance of avoiding expensive mistakes.’