By John S Chabot
The rapid improvement, even the perfecting one might call it, of solid modeling technology has ushered in a new era of manufacturing. The inventor of mechanical entities is now streamlined in his progress compared to previous drawing board technology. The product developer is more comprehensive in the extension of his product features and product functionality. The marketplace has several potentialities due to the nature of this new era. The marketplace could experience an explosion of new products due to the lightning speed at which a product can now be made ready for market. The marketplace could see a great improvement in initial engineering quality. It is now quite possible to be very thorough in our investigations of a mechanical entity prior to production tool procurement and prior to marketing. This thorough investigation can be accomplished at minimal cost. The greater integration of material science as well as a wider use of composite schemes in order to achieve a specific function is another potential of this new era. In this new era we will probably see fewer engineering changes but these few will happen with ease and with great rapidity. The engineer has so much already accomplished and on file that recalling and editing are as easy as, recall, save as, open… and then facilitate the necessary changes.
What has facilitated the speed of engineering? What is so different from previous T-square and slide rule technology? A greater depth and plurality of specific knowledge is now the norm for the inventor and the product developer. In short, far greater knowledge is made readily available to the engineer. Said knowledge is key to good judgments both proximate and remote. Immediately upon creation of a design, length, breadth, height, weight, strength, ascetic appeal, and functional capabilities can be explored with the cost of a few clicks of the mouse. The aforesaid is but the tip of the iceberg as far as specific knowledge is concerned. The most appropriate “umbrella” term to describe solid modeling in comparison to boardroom technology is far greater visualization. As extensive a value as the term great visualization is, it still does not describe completely the aforesaid comparison. The ease and almost insignificant expense with which a project engineer is now able to change paths, once a new idea dawns upon him, is but one further example of what is now possible with solid modeling technology. If an initial plan was to manufacture a casting as part of an assembly, but upon considering the model, an inexpensive purchased item could be made to work, a significant economic benefit is procured for a few clicks of the mouse. Consider even further, usually the purchased item can be imported by way of a digital file. This blows away previous technology when you consider the time required to draw just one item, even a purchased item. The very rapid rate at which problems as well as opportunities become apparent to the inventor and the product developer has made it possible to manufacture things well the first time. This is true largely because thoroughness need not cost as much as it did with boardroom technology. The project engineer might consider, “is someone else going to be more thorough and in so doing take the market for my product away from me?” This consideration, I am sure, will be a catalyst for many good engineering decisions on future products.
Solid modeling is now a very readily available service. It is now a very quick process especially when you consider the relative permanence and usefulness of the result, that is, the digital file. This file can be copied, imported, used directly to engineer a full line of tools, dies, molds, machines, and patterns to name but a few. This same file can become part of an assembly by way of a customer importing it into their own larger system. I once built a replacement tube bending gage, for the F-14 aircraft, using a digital file of the tube. The gage was entirely dimensioned from a bent tube model produced in SolidWorks. In this case the lost gage was replaced with less cost than the cost of the original gage I am sure. The door of possibilities due to modern solid modeling may just be beginning to open.
Previous technology revolved around integrity of communication. Solid modeling revolves around this same value as well. From the concept author, through the many support personnel, who process communicated ideas from infancy through to mass production, a scenario of many talented personnel working toward a very clear final cause is the norm of any day, in the manufacturing world. Supremely key to this effort is accuracy and completeness of communication as well as the accuracy and completeness of perception. This accuracy, using boardroom technology, depended heavily on the three or four view drawing. (Front, Top, Side, Bottom) The initial drawing needed to be minimal to avoid the high cost of superfluously applied lead. It needed to be sufficiently complicated to convey an unambiguous complete thing. Orthographic views, section views, detail views and more, were all kept to a minimum due to the cost of producing them. Compared to solid modeling, the four view drawing system, is at least as slow as pony express mail is compared to email. Visualization in the days of the drafting rooms and sharp pencils is far inferior to a SolidWorks digital file. In those days the mind of the person reading the blueprint still had the task of rotating the part. 3D conceptualization was accomplished in the blue print readers mind, often requiring significant time and effort. Apprenticeship programs required several years of blueprint reading in the course curriculum. With a SolidWorks solid model visualization is quick, complete, and inexpensive. It is not that uncommon to have no paper drawings for a job even though paper drawings are still in many situations a very big help. Information, upon which important decisions depend, is readily referenced and then can be acted upon saving greatly on time and material compared to the previous technology. Consider, for instance, how quickly one can get a new section view, a more specific detail view, or even a more specific set of dimensions pertaining to any part engineered in a solid modeling program. It is now only a matter of a few mouse clicks and this greater specificity is achieved. No angled orthographic drawing tools, no erasing, and no beating of calculator buttons required. If a solid modeled part requires an engineering change, a change affecting many or even all of the dimensions, the drawings need only to be reprinted they do not need to be redrawn.
Inventing, and all engineering for that matter, requires first that the engineer clearly defines a need. That being done a multiplicity of procedural paths can be taken to satisfy said need. Using boardroom technology, once the functional need was defined a race against time and expense was initiated. Authoring suitable geometry, selecting materials, procuring prototypes, judging the proper complexity of tooling and so forth, all had to be achieved usually within a budget that was quoted (and therefore concretely limited) before a single item commenced. The agonizing length, from crude concept to saleable product, was trying to say the least, on investors an all personnel involved. Many products were never produced because these articles appeared marginally risky, without anyone being willing to take that risk. With the advancement of solid modeling we may witness an explosion of new products, products whose risk has now been accurately assessed.
Formerly marginal risk products can readily be comprehensively investigated through the use of solid modeling. The solid model, once authored, reveals a sufficient quantity of specific knowledge for the investigator to make a prudent decision whether to proceed to the next step or abandon ship. Even the next step of prototype procurement is far less expensive than it was even 20 years ago. Those products possessing a more than marginal risk can now readily be explored more fully rather than being so quickly abandoned. This is because the control of the expenses necessary to product development is greatly enhanced with solid modeling technology. Cost projection is a dream compared to 40 years ago.
Solid modeling, used well, is fast. Solid modeling well used is revealing. Many things limited in previous boardroom technology to ambiguous guesses are now readily quantifiable. It took very good men to put ships in the water, planes in the sky, and high performance tools into the hands of surgeons using boardroom technology. It will take very good men again to extract the full potential from solid modeling technology. While many good things about Solidworks and solid modeling have been attested to in this article, something should be said about what it cannot do. Solid modeling can never be original. It is a tool to express ideas as well as a tool to convey ideas. Solid modeling can never produce ideas.