Out in the open: a different approach to design software

Open-source software has made powerful design tools available to the public. But does the future of design engineering lie with the masses?

Open-source software is enabling more people to become designers, but it doesn’t always meet professional standards.

Berlin-based videographer, Sam Muirhead, is currently in the midst of a year-long project to live as ‘open source’ as possible. He has abandoned traditional copyright products in favour of using open-source software to create his own clothes and furniture. Described as part test-drive, part crash-test, the project aims to find out whether open design really can lead to what some people are heralding as the third industrial revolution.

‘Open design is about lowering the barriers of entry and democratising the design process,’ said Muirhead. ‘There have been some major challenges in undertaking this project. In some areas, there is definitely a lack of high-quality software and 3D computer aided design (CAD) tools. There is also a barrier in understanding exactly how to use 3D design systems…but I believe there will be a lot more options for mass customisation in the future, and engineers will be vital to making this work.’

Open design has arisen from the free software and open-code movement. It aims to bring affordable design to the masses by creating tools that bridge the producer-consumer divide. The open design principle means that products are open for inspection, modification and redistribution. Muirhead claims that, in the future, the role of engineers and designers will shift to one where they become the architects of systems that enable ordinary people to develop complicated engineering solutions.

Muirhead uses the example of SketchChair, a free, open-source software tool, that allows anyone to easily design and build their own fabricated furniture. The system uses a 2D drawing interface to generate the structure of a chair and test its stability. The software automatically generates cutting profiles for the chairs, which are used to make flat panels. Using a CNC router, laser cutter or paper cutter, the parts can be produced from flat sheet material and assembled by hand.

SketchChair enables anyone to design and test their own furniture concepts.

It’s a concept that is gaining popularity in other areas. For instance, on a much larger scale, WikiHouse aims to disrupt the traditional practices of designing homes. The project is an open-source construction set that allows anyone to design, download and ‘print’ CNC-milled houses which, the company claims, can be assembled without formal skill or training. The idea was developed by London-based firm 00:/ (pronounced ‘zero zero’) in an effort to explore how open-source CAD designs be developed by a community.

WikiHouse designs are currently online and available for copy and customisation using Google SketchUp. But designers now have access to a growing range of free, open-source software tools. Some of the most popular include 3dtin.com, Tinkercad.com, OpenSCAD, Wings3D, Scupltris, Autodesk 123D and the open-source Blender project. There remains, however, a great deal of software development work that needs to be done within the ‘maker movement’. Open designer, Ronen Kadushin, believes this is one of the limiting factors in his work.

‘I regularly download all the open-source software that might help me,’ said Kadushin. ‘I try them all, but they’re not quite there yet. There still needs to be a push or funding or both. There is a lack of professional open-source software for CAD, especially 3D models … When my work interfaces with production and producers, I prefer a seamless process where their software is very much like mine.’

Despite some limitations, some believe these emerging tools will upstage their commercial counterparts in the near future. According to a recent report by TechNavio, the global computer aided engineering market is estimated to post a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.18 per cent during the period 2012-2016. Overall, the market is predicted to post revenue of $3,402.30 million by 2016. But the report also notes that one of the major challenges to this growth will be the increasing threat of open-source design software. As this software becomes more sophisticated, so too will the strength of the maker movement.

Designer Ronen Kadushin says there needs to be a push for better open-source design software.

‘The challenge we face is how are we going to build the tools and infrastructure for architectures social economy?’ said WikiHouse co-founder, Alastair Parvin. ‘Historically, what we’ve done so far is open-source software. More and more that means also open-source hardware: open sourcing the ability to manufacture and fabricate things … We’re moving into a future where the factory is everywhere and that means the design team is everyone.’ But will increasingly complex software algorithms mean engineering expertise will lose value?

Muirhead can never imagine the open design process replacing engineers. He believes the industry is still a long way from allowing innovators to upset traditional roles. In his book ‘You are not a gadget’, artist and computer scientist, Jaron Lanier argues that design by committee often does not result in the best product. He believes that the new collectivist ethos reduces the importance and uniqueness of the individual voice. Others argue that the new open production methods can never truly be sustainable, and that consumers, by nature, want to consume rather than create.

‘There is a new niche growing alongside the traditional areas of engineering,’ said Muirhead. ‘This is a new area for engineers and designers themselves to develop systems that allow people without a technical background to build the basic idea in their head. For example, with the SketchChair software it took people with a very intricate idea of how furniture was designed and put together to be able to build a system where people like me, with no background in furniture design, could look at it, understand it and start experimenting.’

As open-source CAD software improves, more people will have access to the tools that will enable design. But Muirhead notes without the right expertise, design will be limited. The open design movement is less about replacing traditional design engineering roles and more creating new ones. After all, there is only so much software alone can achieve.