Tangible Designs
Issue: Volume: 30 Issue: 9 (Sep. 2007)

Tangible Designs

Suppose you’re a guitar maker and your latest client is an uncompromising lefty. To convince him that your special left-handed edition suits him ergonomically, you can let him strum his favorite Beatles hit on a readily available model in the showroom. The musician needs to feel the sturdy fretboard and hug the solid body against his chest before he is sold. It’s impossible to mimic those tactile sensations digitally.

But what if the person wants to see how the same model would look in a different gloss, perhaps sunburst red or a Malibu blue? What if he wants a cutaway at the bottom so he can reach far down the E string to hit the high notes? Fortunately, those alternatives can be digitally explored in a computer-aided design program, negating the need to deform the display model in order to make the sale.

Similarly, an airline-cabin component supplier might exhibit a fully assembled first-class seat, complete with upholstery, but rely on digital models to show the client various material options and shape possibilities. And a boutique design firm might pitch the idea to a brand owner, combining animation clips, rendered 3D graphics, and a functional physical prototype to present its proposal.

In this article, we make virtual visits to RKS Guitars, co-founded by former Fleetwood Mac member Dave Mason, and B/E Aerospace, whose installed base of products on aircraft currently in operation is valued at $5 billion. We also look at Concepts 2 Reality, which helped shape a rugged remote-control device for Hydro Electronic Devices, and SurfaceInk, which designed an add-on for the Tapwave Zodiac game controller. We also learn how these companies have been reusing their engineering data in other business frontiers, and how they’re combining physical prototypes and digital content to win business.

RKS Guitars

At RKS Guitars, the models are organic, and the crux of the work involves variations on a theme. “On a product like [an RKS guitar], there are no flat surfaces. As a result, there are many design challenges, and the advanced modeling capabilities of Autodesk’s AliasStudio play a major role in solving them,” says Ravi Sawhney, CEO and president of RKS Guitars. “AliasStudio—a tool that allows us to create, manipulate, experiment, and visualize design—allows us to more rapidly experiment and get through the process of identifying which designs are the appropriate designs.”

What distinguishes the RKS models is their neck-through-body construction, a departure from the traditional way electric guitars are built. According to RKS, while there have been both hollow and solid-body designs in the past, the new models from RKS Guitars are the first open-ended, hollow-body electric guitars and basses. In the announcement of the new line of guitars and basses, RKS declares, “These instruments combine the best attributes from both designs…they possess the sex appeal and durability of a solid-body design and the sound, resonance, and subtle qualities of a hollow-body design.”

The RKS design methodology has a name as captivating as the products it creates. Invented by Sawhney, the process is known as Psycho-Aesthetics, a fusion of science, experience, and design. It usually begins with a design team testing and rating a multitude of products (guitars, in this case) for their sensory, mental, and emotional appeal. Guided by these findings, the designers initiate literally hundreds, if not thousands, of design options.

“It’s all about speed, from renderings to physical object,” says Sawhney. “Autodesk AliasStudio lets us do 30 iterations, whereas other products may do three, allowing us to refine and perfect in much less time. There is a direct link between the number of iterations and the success of the product.”Based on feedback from the clients, consumers, and designers, the three-dimensional digital prototypes are transformed into physical models in the RKS prototyping facility, outfitted with two computer numeric controlled (CNC) machines and SurfWare’s SurfCAM software for interpreting computer-aided design data. In addition to AliasStudio, RKS also uses Autodesk’s Maya, CoCreate’s OneSpace Designer, SolidWorks Corp.’s SolidWorks, and PTC’s Pro/Engineer (Pro/E) for digital design work.

B/E Aerospace
Glenn Johnson has clients who like to sit on ideas—literally. Many of them won’t sign a purchase order unless they are physically comfortable with what the sales folks are proposing.

Johnson, the director of the B/E Aerospace Design Studio, is in the business of designing cabin components for commercial passenger aircrafts and business jets. A first-class seat and its environment, for example, can cost up to a quarter-million dollars, he reveals. People making that kind of investment usually want much more than a few sketches and a digital model on a laptop. Before they sign on the dotted line, they often want to sink into one of the cushions or swing open the door of a storage cabinet, for instance. To accommodate them, B/E typically presents them with a life-size mock-up, essentially a full-scale cabin section with several passenger spaces.

When pitching ideas, Johnson adheres to the rule of three, which he attributes to Raymond Loewy, an American design legend. “Always give the client three options,” Johnson says. “Generally, they’ll reject one immediately. Then they’ll start debating about the remaining two. That’s when you know you’ve made a sale. They argue about your options only when they care.”

With each prototype cabin costing thousands of dollars, Johnson isn’t about to build three physical mock-ups for the clients to choose from. He relies on the instantaneousness of digital content to show his clients the available options—especially those he is anticipating they’ll either reject outright or ask him to modify.

“We have developed internally a way to keep parts of the model defined parametrically in the UGS NX environment, and the surfaces in Rhino,” explains Johnson. “We use Cintiq tablet PCs [from Wacom] to sketch and draw, and use special photocopiers to scan 11x17-inch drawings, so no matter where an idea starts [on paper or on computer], everything can be digitized.”

Johnson continues: “Once we have a sit-down concept for sure, with a rough sketch of what is required [for the seat], it’s usually the industrial designers who sketch up the requirements. We digitize this and work with it using tablet systems and 2D software, such as Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, Illustrator, and so forth. This then comes alive in both Rhinoceros [a NURBS modeling software from McNeel North America] and NX Shape Studio [an industrial-design CAD program from UGS]. We render stuff out in VRay or, more increasingly, with the Lightworks renderer in NX Shape Studio. We also produce visuals with other virtual-reality type software and proprietary video software. These visuals and animations can be viewed in a variety of formats, including handheld devices and iPods.”

To test the inertial loads of its seats for FAA certification, the company relies on MSC.Nastran and MSC.Patran, finite-element analysis software products from MSC Software.
Concepts 2 Reality
Whereas B/E Aerospace’s clients like to sit on the prototypes, Bruce Nemec, co-founder and design engineer of Concepts 2 Reality, recently discovered his clients like to smash ideas to pieces. During a meeting to demonstrate a remote-control device and its charging station, the client, an executive from Hydro Electronic Devices (HED), decided to see for himself if the design would withstand the harsh conditions the product was meant for. So he picked up the model and, with little or no warning, threw it against the wall.

B/E Aerospace relies on a combination of physical models (TOP) and digital content (Bottom) to present clients with new concepts.

“He probably didn’t realize what he was holding was the cast-urethane prototype, not the production-molded piece,” Nemec recounts. “[The toss] cracked the housing, but the unit held up. It was still intact.”

The final production was done with a stiff, rubbery material that met all of HED’s requirements for waterproofing, chemical resistance, and durability—the client specified that the product had to survive a 12-foot drop onto concrete without breaking.

Concepts 2 Reality uses primarily Pro/E from PTC for its modeling tasks. “It’s a robust piece of software with few limitations,” says Nemec. “One way or another, you can find a method to design or create what you have in mind. The ISDX module [interactive surface design extension], for instance, gives you high-end surfacing capabilities.”

Once a concept has been approved by the client, Concept 2 Reality utilizes its industrial design staff to refine the final concepts, which are created in a digital format using Cintiq tablets along with the AliasStudio software suite. “This final selection process is normally completed in a short time, and the concepts then flow into our Design and Engineering department, where our engineers build manufacturable 3D CAD models with a focus on retaining the initial design language and ID,” explains Nemec. “During the development process, we will utilize our in-house prototyping for verification purposes via 3D Systems’ InVision printer to accelerate the overall development process and to ensure that all details, requirements, and specifications have been met. From this point, we assist our clients in moving the design into manufacturing using the clients’ in-house capabilities or our network of domestic and global manufacturing partners to produce the end product.”

For engineering analysis, the firm currently uses a partner equipped with Mechanica, Ansys, or other finite-element analysis products. The reason for utilizing a partner resource for analysis, says Nemec, is to ensure that the results are accurate. “The best way to do this is to use a resource that focuses only on this aspect and not just dabble in it as needed,” he says.

Over time, Concepts 2 Reality has developed its own design method, dubbed Composite Design Effort (CDE). To acquire what it describes as “cradle-to-grave intelligence,” the company employs multi-disciplinary project teams, which are intimately involved with each project from the launch to the subsequent stages. The turnkey services it offers include research, CAD design, prototyping, testing, and more. For product design, the company relies on its expertise in Pro/E, SolidWorks, and other CAD programs.
An ergonomically awkward game controller can kill you—that is, in the virtual world of the game. You’re barreling down a virtual highway at 90 mph in a racing game. Suddenly, the handheld device slips from your palm, already moist with anxiety-induced sweat. By the time you recover the device, your virtual vehicle has crashed and burned.

In 2004, the designers at SurfaceInk observed something about the Zodiac handheld gaming device from Tapwave (no longer in business). “We found that the user interface to that device felt cramped, especially for adult hands,” recalls Chris Kraeutle,  engineering team manager at SurfaceInk. “So we came up with an idea to make an accessory product [a removable grip] that would be molded in plastic. It would snap onto the Tapwave Zodiac unit.”

SurfaceInk utilized Pro/E software to create the organically shaped Command- Play add-on to Tapwave’s Zodiac game controller.

The original device resembled an onboard navigation device, or a PDA in landscape orientation. With SurfaceInk’s CommandPlay add-on attached to the back, the dual-handed Zodiac provided firm grips, settling snugly in the sporty Tapwave carrying case.

SurfaceInk uses both Pro/E and UGS NX to help realize its clients’ concepts. “Both packages allow us to develop a product in a virtual environment,” says Kraeutle. “They also enable us to work with other departments and other partners to manufacture our designs.” Kraeutle notes that the software tools are advanced, enabling the group to work in assemblies to craft extremely complex industrial design forms. “There’s no limit to building light, high-quality industrial design surfaces in the software,” he adds.

Aimed at preserving design intent and providing real-time feedback on how the design can be manufactured, SurfaceInk works as a mechanical engineering consulting firm.

“Our clients choose SurfaceInk to preserve design integrity and deliver a final product that meets or exceeds expectations by using high-end CAD programs such as Pro/Engineer, Unigraphics [now known as NX], and SolidWorks,” says Kraeutle. “We collaborate with our clients to understand and define their design requirements. Our experienced mechanical engineers create detailed 3D mechanical structures while preserving complex industrial design needs. We are able to review designs with the client and/or other decision makers quickly due to our ability to assimilate designs and realize them using 3D CAD.”
Digital Data Goes a Long Way
The companies mentioned here, like countless others across various industries, are reaping benefits with digital data that extend beyond the manufacturing and production stages. Consider RKS: Its “2007 RKS Catalog Sampler” features glossy photos of hollow-body and solid-body guitar models in ruby red, trans blue, and satin black finishes, some in the highly organic tribal contour, others in the slightly triangular boomerang shape. Yet, the original RKS brochure was created using Autodesk AliasStudio renderings because the brochure was created before product photography could be done.

“We can build a model quickly, and then take that model and basically make a photograph of it,” says Christopher Glupker, senior designer and project manager for RKS Design, RKS Guitars’ parent company. “The clients are amazed at how quickly they’re able to get a visualization of what it is we’re thinking of.”

In 2005, RKS Guitars won two Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEAs), cosponsored by BusinessWeek magazine. RKS was among what the editors call “several surprises.” A neon-green RKS guitar from the Pop Series graced the cover of the July 2005 issue of BusinessWeek.

Such recycling of the digital design data, according to Greg Fowler, Autodesk’s technical manager for Alias Design Products, is characteristic of the current practice in industrial design. “If anything, we’re seeing an upturn in this trend as 3D graphics are becoming more and more accepted,” he remarks. “We’re also noticing an increased use of our real-time visualization technology in AliasStudio and in Showcase products, both of which now give real-time feedback on the image a user is creating.”

Clients of Concepts 2 Reality also use digital data in place of photographs in brochures. “Often we do high-end rendering for our clients, and they would use these as their brochure materials,” explains Nemec. “Usually, we’d export it to a different package, like AliasStudio, and then do some final touch-up in Photoshop. We’ve done that with, for example, Rubbermaid products.”

One of the advantages to reusing engineering data for promotional materials is realized in cost savings, notes Mike Check, general manager for ICEM, a high-end surfacing product that Dassault Systemes recently acquired. Because the geometrically accurate engineering data would serve as the starting point for the visualization artists, an ad agency could not justify billing a client for creating a product from scratch. “A lot of the Chrysler ads, for instance, are made from digital content,” Check points out. (For additional information about this topic, see  “Sensual CG,” October 2006.)

Not long ago, this digital option was inefficient. The days of the tedious visualization workflow, where you hit the render button and then go brew a pot of coffee as the software builds your image bit by bit, are, for the most part, in the past. “The latest advances in hardware let us deliver photorealistic images in real time—while the user is still making adjustments,” says Fowler. “You can essentially output what you see on the screen as a final rendering. The image is being ‘rendered’ out by the graphics card, so interactively outputting the image is like performing a screen capture—except for the fact that the user can specify the output resolution (the output is not tied to the user’s monitor resolution).” Depending on the output resolution, the capture typically takes just a few seconds.

In addition to still imagery, Autodesk’s Showcase allows the user to create camera movements within a scene using a tool called Shots. These Shots can be processed out through the graphics card to a movie file without the wait time associated with software rendering.
Reverse Concerns
Previously, the engineering department was the inner sanctum where CAD data lived and died. But it now flows freely through sales collateral, marketing materials, and maintenance manuals. In the case of B/E Aerospace, while the company was working on a $165 million project to design the interior of the new United Airlines first-class and business-class cabins, it was also collaborating with the airline’s design agency to develop branding options. For some, the new workflow introduces a set of intellectual property (IP) concerns they hadn’t considered previously.

“There are opportunities I see whereby some of our clients could have developed marketing or promotional materials [based on 3D CAD data] before the physical prototype was completed,” observes SurfaceInk’s Kraeutle. “But in our business [principally consumer electronics], the IP is so proprietary that they don’t want others copying the design.”

In his experience, few clients would feel comfortable sharing their engineering data with, for example, a graphic artist contracted to develop promotional materials. “They may [create the required graphics] internally,” he reflects, “but even with a rendered image [which does not contain 3D geometry that can be extracted], you’re still revealing the form and the features of the product.” In the case of the CommandPlay for Tapwave’s Zodiac, the form was precisely what gave the product a competitive advantage.

“I think that the concern often comes from the clients, the people who hired [the industrial design firms] to develop the IP,” says Fowler. “But there are certainly ways to prevent someone from reverse-engineering the 3D files you sent.” Fowler believes that the protective stance some original equipment makers are taking can be unnecessary, since the tessellated data usually released to the visualization artists is not sufficient for reverse-engineering a rival product.

“As a software company, Autodesk certainly understands and supports our customers’—and their customers’—desire to protect their IP,” Fowler adds. “I would simply like to assure our customers that, due to the fact that the requirements for manufacturing are different from the requirements for visualization, it is unlikely that this data can be used to directly reverse-engineer a design.”

Check has the same opinion: “The majority of the time, ICEM data, or any other CAD data for that matter, is actually mathematical data, NURBS or Bezier surfaces. They’re heavy, difficult to work with.” The visualization artists, he adds, would prefer to work with a lighter format based on polygons.

“If you convert the entire CAD model in fine tessellation, it would make the model so difficult to interact with. With ICEM, you can define the density of the tessellation based on the complexity of the sections, so the models are easier to handle,” Check says.

(Top) The use of engineering data to create photorealistic advertising content can reduce costs. (Below) Visualization artists prefer to work with polygon-based models rather than the math-heavy CAD data. With ICEM, a user can specify the degree of tessellation desired for each surface area, making it possible to export lighter models.

Getting Physical

As sophisticated as visualization technologies have become, the physical prototypes are not about to become obsolete, notes Fowler. “There’s always going to be a need to validate the physical interaction. That’s why our software tools let you output the files for rapid prototyping,” he says.

SurfaceInk’s Kraeutle has a similar observation: “Generally, the client would request a prototype, especially if you have a complex system, like a consumer electronics item that involves cables, batteries, and PC boards. More than likely, you’d want to build and review a prototype before you release the files for tooling.”

B/E Aerospace uses stereolithography, 3D printing, 3D machining, and internal/outside modeling facilities to produce the prototype cabin environments the company needs for its sales meetings. Furthermore, Concepts 2 Reality uses not only stereolithography, but also selective laser sintering. Both methods rely on the CAD files from the engineers to cut and sculpt the desired parts using special 3D printing or laser machines.

SurfaceInk uses rapid prototyping to evaluate early form and function in the design. In most cases, the design has evolved to a point where the sum of the components designed together needs to be evaluated for mechanical assembly in the factory, thermal analysis and airflow, drop testing, and a host of other concerns. “Rapid prototyping gives SurfaceInk the ability to resolve issues in the design before its clients commit thousands of dollars to procure tooling and other necessary components,” Kraeutle says.

When interviewed by Premier Guitar magazine, RKS Guitars’ Sawhney remarked, “While there are a number of manufacturers using CNC technology to build their guitars, RKS has approached this guitar from the very beginning with CNC machining in mind. Each part is designed in the computer, machined to very tight tolerances, and hand-assembled in our shop with great precision.”

In fact, all the CAD products mentioned in this article—Autodesk’s Alias­Studio, UGS NX, Dassault Systemes’ ICEM, and PTC’s Pro/Engineer—facilitate the rapid-prototyping process through STL file output, which can be fed directly into stereolithography apparatuses and CNC machines.

Not Lost in Translation

“We’ve become quite good at building mock-ups,” B/E Aerospace’s Johnson proclaims. “Some people think we can just make them appear, like magic. But it takes an amazing amount of work and effort.” About five years ago, while designing a lay-flat reclining seat for JAL’s business class, B/E came to realize that its designers and engineers didn’t speak the same language—geometric language, that is. The designers worked in various free-form conceptual design packages, whereas the engineers used a number of CAD products. When they needed to share data, they exchanged files in intermediary neutral formats such as ParaSolid, STEP, or IGES. Looking at the incoming design files, Tom Plant, vice president and general manager of engineering for B/E’s Seat Products Group, remarks: “There were no features on the surfaces that we could modify.”

So B/E decided to adopt a company­wide 3D lingua franca, otherwise known as UGS NX, a high-end mechanical CAD program from Siemens UGS PLM Software. The designers worked in NX Shape Studio, a free-form modeler, whereas the mechanical engineers worked in NX Design, a CAD application. Thus, by developing the product concurrently in the same software environment, both were able to edit, modify, and refine each other’s files without error-prone and time-dependent translation. The outcome was a business-class seat that reflects both the designers’ aesthetic sensibilities and the engineers’ manufacturing ingenuity. In 2002, the seat won the Good Design award from Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, the Japanese Good Design Award, and an ID magazine distinction award.

“Our industrial designers are able to work on the same digital model as our engineers without any translation, and that has been a big part of our speed and accuracy,” Johnson reveals.

Engineering Realism

This type of increased collaboration between engineers and designers is growing, and may eventually give birth to a new breed of CAD systems that set their sights on the wider media and entertainment horizon, ICEM’s Check speculates.

“As companies like Industrial Light & Magic and Sony Pictures Imageworks start to demand realism in their digital content, they’d want to make sure the lighting looks right, the shape looks correct. That’s difficult for the compositor to do,” Check says. “So if the engineering model is accessible, they won’t waste a lot of time rendering something overnight, only to find out the next day that it looks wrong.” 

Kenneth Wong is a freelance writer who has covered the digital video, computer gaming, and CAD industries. He can be reached at Kennethwongsf@earthlink.net.