Software for Action Men

Most people can cite a design that drives them to distraction – supermarket trolleys, those little cartons of milk that explode when you try to open them, car radios that you have to look at to change channel.. But very occasionally we get the pleasure of seeing a truly elegant design – the Psion Series 5 palmtop for example. The Psion Series 5 is just one of the products to come out of the Therefore Design Consultancy. The agency was started by Martin Riddiford and his partner Graham Brett. Riddiford was Psion’s chief design consultant for 14 years and now the agency can boast a range of customers including Pitney Bowes, Nokia and the toy company Hasbro, and a team of talented engineers and product designers.

Riddiford is not an engineer, but neither does he conform to the image of a product designer who creates a beautiful, impractical design that can never be made. In fact he often got into trouble at college for building prototypes of all his designs to see if they would work. The company also builds relationships with specialist subcontractors – plastic moulding companies for example – and share their expertise and experience to create the best designed products using the most appropriate manufacturing techniques and materials. It is impossible to walk beside the company’s display cabinets and not be tempted to pick up the tactile designs on show. Riddiford’s and Brett’s enthusiasm permeate the company and all their staff seem to be working to a design brief where form and functionality are equally important.

In this challenging environment, the design software used has a lot to deliver. When Therefore set about selecting software, Riddiford had no experience of 3D CAD. He knew that 2D systems were not up to the job and was concerned that most 3D systems were developed from 2D systems. He was attracted to Pro/Engineer and Pro/Technology from Parametric Technology Corporation because the company had started from scratch in developing the software and looked at how shapes were made which suited Riddiford’s methods of working.

One of the first projects that Therefore used the software on were some Action Man accessories for Hasbro – the Heligun and the Paraglider. The Heligun had 70 moulded parts so Therefore experienced a vertical learning curve because although there could be some `play’ in the outside of the toy, the parts had to match up and fit together flawlessly. It was important to predict and avoid any clashes as early as possible. Clash detection is a particular strength of Pro/E, so a complex job was made easier and was completed in three months of Pro/E work.

In the second job, the Paraglider put Pro/Designer through its paces. The Paraglider has a Batmanlike feel with flowing curves, and with his background in vehicle design Therefore’s Niall Hamilton was able to create the curves and surfaces for the most appealing appearance. The Paraglider also had to be suitable for a child to handle right, left and centre.

Hamilton evolved the smooth profile in Pro/Designer and also needed to meet further engineering specifications. There were a number of moving parts in Action Man’s kick release and missile launcher mechanisms and again it was a requirement that the component parts could be demonstrated to both fit inside and come apart under certain conditions. Here the direct interface between Pro/Designer and Pro/Engineer came into action and feedback with Hasbro ensured that everything functioned according to plan.

For this project the design was passed on to Hasbro after this advanced concept stage as shelled Pro/E surface parts, and the engineers there completed the job by developing internal details and preparing it for manufacture.