Viewpoint - Digital Prototyping
Issue: Volume: 30 Issue: 8 (Aug 2007)

Viewpoint - Digital Prototyping

Best-in-Class Production
By Andrew Anagnost

Just as a top-notch calculator doesn’t make a top-notch engineer, 3D solid-modeling software does not guarantee best-in-class manufacturing. However, industry research firm Aberdeen Group debunked that equation in “The Digital Product Development Benchmark Report,” a study, published in March, of top-performing manufacturers.

The report cites the ability of best-in-class manufacturers to meet revenue, cost, launch date, and quality targets for 91 percent or more of their products. Furthermore, these companies were as much as 22 percent more likely to use a single digital prototype at every phase of development. And by building one less physical prototype, these manufacturers gained as much as a 14-week edge on time to market, and saved anywhere from $7600 to more than $1 million, depending on product complexity.

What’s their secret? The study reveals that 3D alone doesn’t account for the marked difference between top and average performers. Rather, solid modeling is just one aspect of digital prototyping, a practice that’s the key to more efficient engineering and production of goods.

A Digital Pipeline
According to Aberdeen, best-in-class firms were more likely to use digital instead of paper-based communications between engineering and manufacturing. In essence, these manufacturers create what I like to call a digital pipeline. This digital pipeline lets information flow freely in both directions through all the major phases of design and production. When the design and manufacturing information and feedback can be accessed electronically, teams have greater assurance that they’re working with the latest information and they can get it as quickly as it’s available.

That multidirectional flow of information also helps to create a closed-loop cycle of efficiency. For example, Aberdeen points out that production insights help to assess the manufacturability of a design at its earliest stages.

Yet, conventions in each of the three major phases of manufacturing-ideation, engineering, and manufacturing—create obstacles to the digital pipeline. Clearing communications bottlenecks related to the way designs are conceived and communicated also clears the way for digital prototyping.


Much of the work that’s involved in design conception is done on whiteboards and on paper—formats that aren’t exactly compatible with the spreadsheet, word processing, or other applications that capture the information that precedes form and substance. Industrial designers often turn to clay models to experience their ideas, as well.

Then comes the hard work of converting that analog information into data that can be used by others who will create the product’s structure and systems. When styling and visualization is done digitally, the data may or may not be utilized by engineering applications in later phases of development. But through deliberate choices that ensure software interoperability or through some other means of integration, manufacturers can unlock the flow of information between ideation and engineering. 

This digital pipeline supports the best practices that Aberdeen found to be prevalent among top-performing manufacturers. Specifically, they tended to document engineering deliverables electronically and early on, making them “portable” across divisions. They also tended to gauge a product’s manufacturability prior to actual design, when modifications don’t require formal change orders.

For product engineers, the conventional path from concept to design for production is paved with obstacles. In addition to the compatibility issues typical in the ideation stage, design engineers for years have been asked to address functional problems with applications that represent geometry. Often, they solve these problems with one set of tools and then work with specialists in computer-aided design (CAD) software to translate their functional solutions into geometry.

Aberdeen’s research suggests that best-in-class manufacturers equip their engineers with applications that don’t require them to adapt their problem solving to suit their tools. Rather, they use software that automates the creation of models, and then test designs throughout development. In fact, top performers were four times as likely to use design models for manufacturing documentation, and also more likely to forego creation of engineering drawings entirely.

They also used electronic notification to alert multiple stakeholders in the production process when information was available, complementing multidirectional communication and helping to streamline tasks in each phase, such as materials ordering and change orders.

Once design drawings make it to the manufacturing phase, production teams often rely on e-mail or paper-based communications to clarify questions with design teams, and use physical prototypes for insight. Simply capturing more information digitally and making it more available upstream and downstream opens a digital pipeline that is further enhanced by software tools for data management in the manufacturing phase.
Aberdeen found this was beneficial for users both upstream and downstream from the design process. Industrial engineers were able to take advantage of production teams’ insight into manufacturability. Best-in-class manufacturers had a higher rate of design reuse, which, in turn, helped them meet product deadlines. And the advanced tools used by their mechanical and electrical engineers for functional simulation—in addition to 3D solid models—provided additional resources for answering manufacturing teams’ questions.

So why is digital prototyping still the exception rather than the norm? According to Chad Jackson, research and service director for Aberdeen’s Product Innovation and Engineering Practice, best-in-class manufacturers may not even use 3D solid modeling in all aspects of their design process, but they are using digital simulation. Their practices flout conventional wisdom that 3D CAD software is the major obstacle to advanced product development techniques.

Adding to common misconceptions about design technology is that most solid-modeling software focuses on 3D geometry-just one aspect of a digital prototype, and not necessarily the one product engineers need to solve functional problems. In contrast, cutting-edge applications that simulate functional 3D designs can complement and contribute to a digital pipeline, helping to bridge the disconnects among ideation, engineering, and manufacturing; carrying insights from one stage to the next; and reducing dependence on physical prototyping in search of design-phase answers. And that’s an equation that adds up to the kind of efficiency that Aberdeen says is best in class.   

Andrew Anagnost, PhD, is vice president of CAD/CAE Products, Manufacturing Solutions at Autodesk.