Modelmaker or prototype consultant

Ben May at PDD asserts that a company which concentrates on the technology of rapid prototyping, at the expense of the skilled people who use it, is a short-sighted one.

Isn’t Rapid Prototyping a wonderful thing? Designers are now used to ordering an SLA (stereo lithographic model) or a visual model CNC-machined from foam. Some, PDD included, are even investing in office based ‘desktop’ 3D printers. Technology is moving towards the point at which a 3D model can be created more easily than a 2D drawing.

Until recently this prospect filled me with horror. I was a freelance modelmaker witnessing the erosion of my core skills by these technologies. First to go was the work used for data validation. As the technologies improved in resolution, material performance and cost, the erosion of visual, functional and sketch modelling followed.

On the face of it, the future for modelmakers looks bleak. The key may be the gradual change in the dynamic between designer and modelmaker. When I started out, I would be given a set of detailed drawings from which to build a model. Now a modelmaker is unlikely to see any drawings. Only digital data exists from which CNC or RP technologies produce kits of parts for the modelmaker to assemble. However the modelmaker now finds himself involved further upstream in the design process.

With the advent of reverse engineering the modelmaker is creating sculptural forms that are then digitised to form the basis of the 3D database that has eroded his traditional competencies. PDD understands the need to integrate the modelmaker into the design process and we all strive to ensure that all barriers have been removed between the designer and the modelmaker.

PDD is unusual both as a design innovation consultancy that has an in-house modelmaking capability and for having a strategy of continuous development for the individuals within the organisation. To use the modelmakers as prototyping consultants they need to be kept abreast of new technologies and to receive training to appreciate the strategy of an application.

Sadly, the modelmaking industry in the UK is dominated by modelshops who have neither the scale nor the will to invest in the development of their staff. The prevailing approach is to exploit existing skills for immediate gain and leave the investment in staff development largely to the individual.

Many modelmakers and patternmakers are finding themselves with a skill set that is gradually becoming obsolete and, given that many do not have the financial wherewithal to update it, they are leaving the industry in droves. I believe that the UK design industry is starting to suffer from this loss.

An SLA can check your nominal data for gross errors but it doesn’t advise you that the design could be more readily manufactured if altered slightly. We have a generation of designers who have lost the benefit of the experienced technician who might have said ‘that will break’ – a resource that cannot be replaced by CAD or FE software. For further information contact: benmay@pdd.co.uk

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