The Role of SolidWorks in the Product Design Process: Promoting...
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The Role of SolidWorks in the Product Design Process: Promoting Innovation with a Strategic Use of New and Old Tools

By Zack Carlins, Senior Mechanical Engineer, Klein Tools

Zack Carlins, Senior Mechanical Engineer, Klein Tools

As a young product development engineer, I never lived in a world without 3D modeling and CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software such as SolidWorks. I struggle to imagine the tediousness, frustration, and inefficiency of designing complex product assemblies by hand on a drafting table. SolidWorks allows engineers to build large, complex product assemblies with incredible detail. SolidWorks can analyze a product’s manufacturability and simulate its performance and strength in various conditions. However, while SolidWorks and other programs have revolutionized the world of product design, it is often overused in the very early stages of the development process, where the old-fashioned tools still reign supreme.

Before CAD software, designers relied on rough sketches and crude prototypes in the early stages of design, before moving on to more detailed 2D drawings made by hand on a drafting table. SolidWorks is an immensely powerful replacement for 2D drafting. However, when used early in development as a replacement for rough sketches and mock-ups, this modern tool can inhibit innovation, resulting in impressive, detailed product designs that do not address a fundamental human need.

While there are many detailed steps required to bring a product to market, the process can broadly be condensed to an iterative cycle of three basic phases: Empathize, Ideate, and Implement.

With each cycle, the number of concepts, sketches, and prototypes decreases, but their level of detail increases. As the project progresses, the time spent on each cycle increases.

Proponents of the Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design ideologies find that this iterative process is essential for innovation.

During the early concept stages of a project, old-fashioned manual design tools are more adept at this rapid iterative design because they allow the engineer to (1) explore many options, (2) receive insightful feedback, (3) discover flaws early on, and (4) evolve the concept on the fly.

1. Explore many options

Quick sketches and crude prototypes take far less time than 3D models and detailed prototypes. Even with the advent of 3D printing, digital tools still cannot match the sheer volume of concept generation that is possible with manual tools. When you come up with a great idea, it’s hard not to jump right into SolidWorks. However, even if you are a CAD wizard and a horrible artist, you should resist the temptation for now. When a project is in its infancy, it’s okay for your sketches and prototypes to be child-like as well. Pride can often limit creativity. By focusing too much on a single solution, you are blinded to what is possible, inadvertently limiting your capacity for true innovation.

2. Receive insightful feedback

In the early stages of designing, prototyping should be a vehicle for gaining user empathy rather than a physical test of functionality and performance. The type of feedback you will receive from users depends on the level of fidelity of your prototype. Your goal is not to make your prototype look, feel, and function as close to the finished product as possible. Your goal is to effectively convey the apparent intrinsic value of your concept and then see if your users value it as well. A high fidelity prototype will draw narrow feedback on shallow details such as color, finish, and material. A low-fidelity prototype invites feedback on the broader merit of your concept. This frees the user to ask big questions or criticize intrinsic flaws because it doesn’t seem too late to change them.

3. Discover flaws early on

SolidWorks tempts you to invest too much time in a promising idea before you have validated its intrinsic value. Often, an inherent design flaw learned after months of 3D modeling, and high-cost prototyping could have been learned in just a week of rough sketching and crude prototyping. If you jump into SolidWorks too soon, you will inevitably spend time on details that are not important at this stage in development. This results in not only an investment of time and money but also an emotional investment that makes it harder to change your design.

4. Evolve your concept on the fly

A rough sketch takes minutes to modify or redraw while a detailed 3D model is less malleable, often requiring hours depending on the change. Similarly, a crude mock-up can easily be modified or rebuilt, while a high-fidelity prototype takes time and money to alter. Materials used in high-fidelity prototypes are generally more difficult to modify (hard plastic, metal) than those used in low-fidelity prototypes (cardboard, foam, clay, wood).

Pushing Digital Tools Further

While hand sketches are still superior for early concept generation, SolidWorks is pushing the envelope of digital brainstorming with new tools such as SolidWorks Industrial Designer (SWID) and SolidWorks Conceptual Designer (SWCD).

Advanced simulations in SolidWorks can save on time and cost by serving as a digital prototype for strength or performance testing. A physical prototype is still needed for testing usability. However, new advancements in technology are making progress in this arena as well; Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) simulations allow the designer and user to visualize the product in its actual environment.

The Power of SolidWorks in Executing on Your Concept

While manual tools such as sketching and rough prototyping are great for discovering and validating an early concept, modern digital tools such as SolidWorks are far superior in executing on that concept. After the early concept generation phase, SolidWorks helps engineers work out important details and then prototype them with incredible accuracy. Later in the process, SolidWorks allows them to make quick changes to their design that automatically propagate through the entire assembly. Before the digital revolution, engineers had to re-make drawings for every affected part, taking days to implement a change that now takes seconds.

Engineers excel at analysis and detailed design work such as strength calculations, material selection, or design for manufacturing. But in the early stages of a project, that same critical thinking can be a liability to innovation as we focus in on a single solution too soon. SolidWorks is a powerful tool that amplifies our strengths as engineers, but when used blindly, it can also enable us to indulge in a narrow-minded approach to design.

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