and designers don’t. Or how designers and 3D Prototyping made simple should inspire engineers.
This blog deals with spatial understanding as an engineer problem. It occurs during the design phase as far as the development involves a great deal of communication. Designers have found a solution for the problem: prototyping. In the automotive sector Designers and Engineers work concurrently and there the ideal prototyping method could bloom: laser sintering. 20 years of practice showed however the prototyping lead-time as being problematic. Thanks to innovation on the 3D Printer market, it is now possible to bring both 3D Prototyping and the engineering design process in harmony.
The discovery of the spatial understanding as a problem (“Pensée Solide”)
Wewrite the year 1996. Netscape is the state-of-the-art browser and students like me are thrilled about HTML, the internet and awfully slow networked UNIX stations.
A colleague student and I are in Paris as interns at a renomée aerospace company, an organisation deeply involved in the young Ariane 5 European rocket programme. We are trying to solve a real problem for our engineering degree dissertation.
Ariane 5 launch
Something went wrong. The integration of the first rocket failed upon a basic design mistake : hydrogen and oxygen piping were clocked by 90° between the tank and the engine. The teams of engineers were fooled by their CAD design tools, zoom effect and the size of their computer screens. So we tinkered them a browser based virtual reality rendering integration tool for their future programmes.
This is when I discovered the concept of the Pensée Solide (sorry for my French) as the ability to abstract volumes in your head. Not many can naturally process written, spoken, partial informations, or 2D sketches.
If so many people aren’t good at it, how do professional designers solve the problem ?
The Designers way to solve the problem
Hartmut Esslinger, Steve Jobs design spiritual father and Frog Founder advises us that we design for people and emotion. Their way to interact with those is Prototyping. According to him, Prototyping is a constant and necessary designer activity. You must get dirty with your hands as rendering is not good enough.
Hartmut Esslinger — Advice For Designers
Indeed Esslingers lecture and my experience lead me to see communication as a ladder. Gestures, words and pictures lack something to access the Pensée Solide. There is a fourth level that requires prototyping as a communication tool otherwise you are stuck in bad communication.
Where communication is important in engineering
Back to engineering working methods. The former aerospace executive I used to be, experienced the growing appetite for processes year on year in big corporations with the aim to embed learning and knowledge while embracing uncertainty. The aerospace design gated process orchestrates the interaction of relevant skilled stakeholders, typically 100 individuals, across borders in 50 meetings and it will enact exactly 1 engineering change only. It, when looked on the paper, resembles more an energetic working bees crowdsourcing project à la Wikipedia.
It is not. Rather expect a collection of awfully slow projects with a track record of bad meetings. Don’t get me wrong. Gated processes in particular in the aerospace save lifes on a daily basis, while filtering out catastrophic defects. The solution for remaining deficiencies will need to be different than just less process and less communication.
Prototyping instead of Powerpoint, please
So what kind of problems are we talking about again ? I saw misjudgment on proportion and further basic misses : engineers losing face, mechanics losing faith while watching a flat rubber part not matching a cylindric surface, a cover wrongly handed, absolutely foolish tiny designs and still believing cutting and drilling tools will get access. Indeed right now as you read those lines, engineers are killing each other in meetings with powerpoint. Multiply a gated process with the bad communication and you get the reality of many in engineering : cacophony. Why do engineers love powerpoint ? I really don’t know. My advice is very simple. Let the designers inspire you. Use prototyping instead of powerpoint.
Where engineers boosted the ideal 3D Prototyping method
This leads us back in the mid 90ies so to say in a sector where things are done the right way : the automotive sector. Dr. Hans Langer, founder of EOS GmbH was making a new way for 3D printing popular together with BMW : the laser sintering.
Dr Hans Langer (EOS CEO) story of laser sintering
Automotive has the pecularity to strongly empower two much different professions and make them work concurrently : the designer and the engineer. Adoption of designer working methods is for me an explanation why the ideal prototyping method grew there. The laser sintering found its greatest diffusion within the automotive industry, while other more solely engineering orientated sectors like aerospace keep brewing the same problems.
Laser sintering with many plastics enables an unprecedented freedom of form. Indeed not only the unsintered powder is supporting the part all around but the material properties allow manufacturing without support structures, i.e little need to design for the process as opposed to competing methods. You can even produce assemblies and functional parts. Laser sintering offers a direct link from the CAD file to the part in your hand — a potential ticket to the Pensée Solide for everybody. However, the industrial character of the machines has been an issue for 20 years until now.
The investment and the size of those incumbent laser sintering machines require an industrial operation with detrimental implications towards the prototyping lead-time.
Simply put, maximising productivity for the expensive asset imply some level of a batch production. The average customer might queue for 7–10 days. On the other hand, as a customer, you have your design process going on. Will you finish your CAD file two weeks prior the next gated review? Project managers know the student syndrom by experience and it is almost a fact of life that most project deliveries will always at best be ready between a few hours and a few days prior a scheduled review.
New patent freedom
Early 2014, key laser sintering patents went into the public domain. Entrepreneurs are since bringing new laser sintering machines along with alternative powder bed processes to life. The powder bed 3D printing technology is diffusing now in the middle of the market between the FDM and industrial machines. The front runners to my mind are Sintratec AG from Switzerland, Blueprinter from Denmark and potentially Sharebot from Italy. The quality of the parts is good enough for the rapid prototyping use.
At FREEFORMA Additive Manufacturing, we have simplified 3D Prototyping to smooth engineering design processes. We are early adopters of the Sintratec technology. We have developed an offering upon 5 printers and a service level based on a 48h production time and easier transaction for the procurement department.
We sell 3D Prototyping as b2b tariffs like a phone contract. We address thereby the recurring need of the engineering design process and believe in a new dawn for the prototyping market and its growth. Truly at FREEFORMA, we empower designers to change the World.