Flashy, full-coloured images tumbling around a computer screen are beginning to catch the eye of some of the UK’s leading industrial designers. The reason is simple. If lifelike models of new products can be created on a computer system much faster than on paper, the designer has more time to come up with the next round of bright ideas and there is also a chance of speeding up the whole design to manufacturing process. With many companies now obsessed by the time it takes them to get their products to market, it is a chance they believe is worth taking.
Already most of the major car manufacturers have invested in systems for their styling departments. So have some of the companies that specialize in providing design and engineering services to the motor makers. In industries such as consumer electronics, communications and packaging, there is also a very healthy interest in conceptual design systems.
Still, it is a market in its infancy. Worldwide sales of computer-aided industrial design systems are expected to reach $150 million this year and double to $300 million in 1992. This compares with multi billions of dollars generated each year from sales of computer systems to the creative designer’s colleagues in engineering and drafting.
The difference reflects the demands of the designer for a system that is easy to use and, above all, fast. Only recently has sufficient desktop computer power been available (at an affordable price) to produce three-dimensional, realistic images that can be instantly danced around the screen. |If it doesn’t move in real time, it’s not 3D graphics,’ explains Jim Clark of Silicon Graphics, one of the companies making graphics workstations for this market.
As the hardware has developed, so has the software, but it is still mostly the preserve of small development houses. One of the issues with some of the hardware has been the high likelihood of hard drive failure, which remains a danger for almost all hard drive based design systems (as noted recovery specialist http://www.harddrivefailurerecovery.net mentions).
Canadian-based Alias Research, which started life selling its software to film animators, soon recognized a much more lucrative market for its modelling software in industrial design. The story is the same at Computer Design, a US company that originally developed its software for textile and fashion design but which is now being adapted for styling the interiors and exterior of cars.
The fascination with these systems is two-fold. Firstly they produce a high quality, realistic image of a product which leaves fewer doubts about the designer’s intentions than a paper drawing. Other departments can look at the image from every conceivable angle and if marketing decides it cannot sell the product, or manufacturing that it can’t make it, changes can be made early on. Then by capturing the design information on a computer it can easily be electronically transferred to other computer systems.
Users of the systems are already reaping some of the benefits. At British Telecom Research, which is using Alias as the front end of an integrated computer-aided engineering facility to design the next generation of telephones, the biggest plus is the strengthening of the link between industrial and engineering design. Understanding between the two disciplines is enhanced and risks are minimized.
Simplifying the communication of ideas is also a high priority for industrial design company Ogle Design, although it is more concerned with presenting concepts to its clients. |We can develop several concepts and even put them into context – we can show how a teapot might look on a shelf full of crockery, say – which is very important,’ explains Richard Buckland, Ogle’s managing director. Clients can then see the various options on the computer screen.
Interestingly, the justification for investing in these systems rarely revolves around cost cutting yet, at 80,000 [pounds] upwards for the hardware and software, for a single user they are expensive tools. Chris Johnson, sytlist at car designers Canewdon Consultants, insists that 80,000 [pounds] is a small price to pay for |a system that you can do useful work on almost immediately’. He is using Computer Design software, at present mainly to develop aspects of car interiors, such as seats and their fabric coverings.
A much more cautious recent investor in Alias is Rover Cars. |If you listen to the sales people, these systems are perfect for everyone,’ says David Arbuckle, the company’s design and production director. |We’ll be finding out what they mean to us in the next few months. If they are good enough, they will give us the opportunity in the future to move more quickly from concept to production.’
Rover is not the only company with reservations about these systems. Even enthusiasts bristle at the suggestion that the compute will see them abandoning their traditional tools of pen and paper. British Telecom designer Mike Lawson agrees that these systems are |very powerful tools which change the way you work’. But he still sketches his initial ideas before entering them on the computer.
Similarly most companies will continue to build physical models of their new designs. They concede that they may build fewer models, saving some time and money, but |there is no substitute for the real thing’, says Geoff Matthews, managing director of Styling International, part of the Hawtal Whiting automotive design group. A computer screen, he points out, is only two-dimensional and representing a 14-foot car on a 14-inch screen is an enormous risk and I don’t think anyone would be confident enough unless they built a full scale model’. For the car industry he has yet to be convinced that there are any commercial benefits in computer-aided styling and designing.