Wishing for just a touch of reality

While designers are generally happy with the results they can achieve with the
powerful CADCAM tools of today, they do miss the feel factor when creating new models.

Most designers favour using a combination of traditional design skills and the latest CADCAM technology. They are not ashamed to use magic markers alongside 2D/3D drafting and modelling tools to develop ideas. But the choice of design software is often dictated by the need for easy communication with clients, suppliers and manufacturers, as well as high performance.

For these reasons, design groups tend to use a combination of established 3D solid modelling systems like IBM’s Catia, PTC’s Pro-Engineer and Pro-Designer, SDRC I-deas or UGS (the last two now merged as EDS PLM Solutions).

Alias Wavefront is favoured for visualisation and rendering. And design studios boast a range of 2D tools for conceptual work, including Rhino, Vellum and 3D Studio Max, with Photoshop for graphics, presentation and branding purposes.

But what are the differences between the various design tools? What are their pros and cons? And what additional features would designers like to see? We asked several design firms to explain their choice of CADCAM tools, with suggestions for improvement and a personal wish list.

The most common complaint was about data corruption as files were transferred along the supply chain. Although there is growing use of web-based viewers for sharing designs online, there are few common standards for sharing complex 3D files. As one design firm notes: ‘There’s still good business for the file translation bureaux.’

Many designers suggest the need for a more tactile system allowing them to ‘touch’ and handle their 3D models. The answer could well be a new generation of force-feedback virtual reality systems, like the Phantom Optic system being put through its paces at the Hothouse Centre in Stoke-on-Trent.

The system is being used for designing pottery for Wedgwood, and ceramic inserts for people with bone cancer. CAD images of objects can be moulded by hand like a sculpture. This goes back to the basics of prototype design using clay, polystyrene and other physical modelling tools, but in a digital environment. It’s why many are loath to let go of polystyrene foam modelling, even with state-of-the-art CADCAM and product lifecycle management technology on offer today.

Design Bridge Group

Typical commissions: home electronics for Philips, yoghurt cartons for Unilever Foods, interior cockpit for the Levi’s Corsair Boat, T-Bird tea-making machine.Software used: Form Z from Autodesign Systems and Cinema 4D from Maxxon for sketch modelling, Vellum for 2D drafting, Pro-Engineer for 3D modelling, Alias Wavefront for surface modelling and visualisation.

Creative director David Helps says: ‘The choice of conceptual design tools was dictated by the need to share designs in a multidisciplinary studio where everybody is networked on Mac-based desktops and laptops.’

He considers Alias Wavefront ‘the best surface modeller’ and has used it since 1992. He also says Pro-Engineer is ‘a very robust 3D modeller’, which shares information easily with the Alias system and those used by clients and suppliers. But he adds: ‘We often have trouble sharing data with Autocad users as they don’t upgrade regularly enough. We reckon the choice of software shows how serious they are about doing business.’ Helps would like to see total cross platform compatibility, to make the designer’s life easier.

Geo Industrial Design

Typical commissions: mobile phones, consumer products and transportation. Through Celestica in the UK, it is developing a videophone for Californian firm Alorus containing a GPRS phone, video camera and 16bit personal design assistant. Software: SDRC I-deas for solid modelling, Alias Wavefront for visualisation and concept modelling.

Geo claims to be one of the first users of SDRC Master-Series, and is now on version 8. ‘We changed to SDRC in 1992 as it was the least daunting solid modelling system and the interface was well designed,’ says creative director Jeremy Offer. For physical modelling, Geo has a CNC machine to create block models, and uses a variety of rapid-prototyping systems for component models.

Technical director Peter Grayson adds: ‘We had quite a few teething problems with IGES transfers in the early days. But now we are so far up the learning curve there’s no problem.’

But he suggests: ‘It would be great to reach inside the CAD model and get the feel of a product. For example, we’ve just created a hand-held bar-code data-capture device for supermarkets. It would have been good to feel the pistol grip while still in the CAD model phase.’


Typical commissions: most of BT’s new products, PDAs for Hewlett-Packard, thermal imaging cameras for fire search and rescue, Hewlett-Packard Jornada 540 series colour pocket PC.

Software: UGS for everything from conceptual work and complex surfacing and visualisation to solid modelling for tooling; Illustrator, Photoshop and Coral for sketching, and ME10 for 2D drafting of quick detail variants.

Chairman Gus Desbarats is a strong advocate of doing everything on his UGS system, ‘though I’m not averse to using a pencil and sketchpad’. He considers the use of a Parasolid base as a distinct advantage. ‘With parametric control extending over entire assemblies, the designer could create a kettle as a teardrop shape, slice it into different mouldings, then go back and change the shape, with all the individual parts updating themselves.’

Desbarats would like to see smoother integration of graphics and CAD: ‘It’s still a pain to specify colours and graphics on a 3D computer model.’ He would like better blending tools, with more ability to rough out ideas; and speedier systems with even cheaper processing. He also believes there will be serious issues of scale for sharing complex CAD data until far greater bandwidth is available.

For the future he suggests ‘a fully-featured, parametric mannekin that lives as a solid model in the UG system, so we can create forms driven by human constraints. Current systems force us to take design information and put it into a virtual world containing a digital mannekin. I’d like a configurable human as part of the master assembly.’

DCA Design International

Typical commissions: tissuebond surgical sealant system for precise delivery of a continuous bead of adhesive by surgeons in cardiovascular operations; tram cabs for Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Clients include Eurostar, Virgin Trains, Motorola, Volvo and Rover.

Software: Rhino and 3D StudioMax for freeform surface modelling and rendering concepts. Pro-Engineer to create solid models and sheet metal designs. SolidWorks for solid modelling, and to provide data directly for rapid prototyping and resin casting, with EdgeCAM to programme CNC machines off-line. Hires in Catia for transport projects. Online viewing tools including 3Dview from Actify, Spinfire, and e-Drawings from Solidworks.

DCA technical director Rob Bassil also wants easier data transfer. ‘We’d like to be able to open Solidworks in Catia without any risk of data corruption or losing the parametric history.’ Generally DCA uses IGES and STEP translation tools.

Bassil selected Pro-Engineer ‘because it had a strong reputation, was widely used and benchmarked favourably against other systems. It’s proved to be a very robust and competent system.’ DCA recently brought in Solidworks ‘as it was a popular mid-range system, sufficiently cost-effective to put 3D CAD modelling on every designer’s desk, with lower maintenance costs and hardware overheads.’

ASA Designers

Typical commissions: contract furniture design, consumer and electronic products including a top-end hi-fi system with extruded aluminium fascias for Arcam.Software: UGS version17 for solid modelling, Alias Wavefront 9.6 as a surface modeller, Autocad 2000 and LT for 2D work, Rhino for 3D modelling in support of UGS, and Photoshop and Illustrator for graphics.

Technical director David Banham selected UGS because ‘I liked the way the variational modeller doesn’t constrain the designer when modelling surfaces or solids, so you can try things out quickly’. The firm uses Alias Wavefront for surface modelling, ‘as we can play around with free form surfaces easily and share concepts with clients without going into a full engineering package.’

He complains: ‘We spend a lot of time putting data out to bureaux for conversion. The biggest bugbear for everyone is transferring data between rival CAD packages in suppliers and customers.’ Banham also suggests he’d like a ‘sandpaper’ button. ‘It could be like working with a Styrofoam model. If you wanted to take off the edges of a CAD model, you’d rub it down, like using digital sandpaper.’