This article discusses that technology can ease the adversity between industrial designers and mechanical engineers. In many manufacturing organizations, engineers coexist, albeit sometimes uneasily, with the industrial designers who shape the way the product will look on the outside. While mechanical engineers take care of laying out the mechanisms inside the product’s shell, industrial designers are concerned with its external shape and appeal. At Symbol Technologies in Holtsville, NY, that uneasy alliance does not exist anymore. Symbol’s devices have to be rugged because, although they are meant to be held easily in the hand, they can just as easily be dropped. The company uses I-deas, from EDS of Plano, Texas, for CAD modeling. Before beginning to sculpt on screen, the designer now talks to the engineer about the product. The engineer might know that both a scan engine and a set of batteries must be included inside the final product. The CAID and CAD software work together in such a way that, if an industrial designer changes something about the outside shape, the mechanical features automatically update to accommodate the change. Engineers do not have to rework the internal parts each time the external changed.
In many Manufacturing Organizations, engineers coexist, albeit sometimes uneasily, with the industrial designers who shape the way the product will look on the outside.
While mechanical engineers take care of laying out the mechanisms inside the product’s shell, industrial designers are concerned with its external shape and appeal. You could say that engineers see products from the inside, while designers view them from the outside.
At Symbol Technologies in Holts-ville, N.Y., that uneasy alliance doesn’t exist anymore. And both parties couldn’t be happier. Curt Crowley, principal industrial designer at the company, which makes mobile computing devices, is the man who united engineer and designer. He did so by bringing in computer-aided industrial design technology that can be equally useful to both departments.
Jerome Swartz, one of the founders of Symbol, has his name on 150 or so patents, including one for a handheld bar-code laser scanner in the early 1980s. The company has branched out from bar-code scanners to encompass mobile computing devices that use bar-code technology. They include devices used to scan boxes shipped throughout the world, so that a carrier is able to track your packages electronically.
The Symbol devices have to be rugged because, although they’re meant to be held easily in the hand, they can just as easily be dropped. Because the products are handheld computers filled with intricate parts, it’s not hard to see at first blush why the company needs to ensure a symbiotic relationship between its engineers and industrial designers.
To explain how the two groups now function at Symbol, it’s necessary to provide background on how they formerly worked together, Crowley said.
Twenty years ago, computer-aided design was in its infancy, he said. You could do two-dimensional drawings, and you could do wireframe CAD.
At that time, industrial designers built clay or foam mock-ups. Working from those rudimentary mock-ups, the designers would draft preliminary drawings. They would then take their drawings and their physical models to the engineering group. After both parties worked together and agreed on a final version of the product, a pattern maker would cut a wooden model of the product, which was used to guide tooling.
Because the designers’ drawings were simply that, regardless of how exact they were, details were refined at the very end, even when designer and engineer collaborated, Crowley said.
With the advent of readily available CAD systems, all that changed. For one thing, the 3-D pattern makers went out of business. Still, many industrial designers continue to build foam models and make 2-D sketches based on their interpretation of the model, Crowley said. But when the model and the sketches are passed to the engineer, they are translated into a 3-D CAD system.
Now there’s no longer peer-to-peer communication because the engineers are in 3-D and the industrial designers are in 2-D, Crowley said. The onus is on the engineer to capture the subtlety and the essence of the design that was given in 2-D.
In this era of stepped-up product turnaround time, engineers are often up against a product deadline, so the subtlety is sometimes lost.
“Imagine that you’ve got to get a database to tooling and you have a designer who gives you a bunch of 2-D stuff and a physical model, and then is hanging over your shoulder, saying, ‘I want this shape a little more swoopy,’ Crowley said. “The engineer is just trying to get the job done, but the designer is saying, ‘Make it more this, make it more that.’ There’s been a rift between designers and engineers over this for about the past 10 years.”
In the middle 1980s, Crowley noticed that a group of software applications like Aldus Freehand and Photoshop were specifically useful to graphic designers. Surely, some similar application must exist for industrial designers, he thought.
“I was very frustrated in the early ’80s,” Crowley said. “Just ask any industrial designer how happy they were with their last design as it made its way into production and you’d hear them all fret and say, ‘My original concept was so pure and it got so bastardized as it wound its way through engineering and production.’ ”
In 1986, Crowley began using a computer-aided industrial design software package from Alias/Wavefront of Toronto. He didn’t work at Symbol then. He was brought onboard by the company seven years ago to help implement the technology, called StudioTools, and to find a means of reconnecting designer and engineer.
As the process now works at Symbol, an industrial designer sculpts the exterior of the part using the CAID software, which lets designers both design and sculpt on screen, in much the same way they formerly did with foam models and 2-D drawings, Crowley said.
Important to the new process is a software feature that lets designers import from the engineers’ solid modeling software what Crowley calls the product’s mechanical insides.
Symbol uses I-deas, from EDS of Plano, Texas, for CAD modeling. Before beginning to sculpt on screen, the designer now talks to the engineer about the product. The engineer might know that both a scan engine and a set of batteries must be included inside the final product. Stock digital designs of those parts can be transferred from the CAD package to the CAID package for the designer to work with. In essence, the designer can make sure everything that needs to fit inside the product is accommodated. The imported models give him an idea of how the inside will look. The designer builds the outside with that in mind.
“When I give my design to the engineer, I know it will fit with the mechanical components,” Crowley said.
No Turf Warfare
Crowley admits that he backed the CAID software implementation to help maintain industrial design integrity. He expected resistance from the engineers.
“We’re getting into their turf a little bit, and I didn’t know how they would respond, with design information coming to them from a third-party software,” Crowley said.
He and his nine fellow Symbol designers found an unexpected side effect: Engineers welcomed the change. Designers had feared the engineers would shy away from the new technology, but it meant that those engineers no longer had to sweat over the external design details.
The CAID and CAD software work together in such a way that, if an industrial designer changes something about the outside shape, the mechanical features automatically update to accommodate the change. Engineers didn’t have to rework the internal parts each time the external changed.
And changes can occur later in the process. Crowley said, “For engineers to get their job done before, they would tell the industrial designers how long they had to get their design done. Then they’d tell them to go away. Now we can swap our exteriors a variety of times because mechanical components inside are updated automatically.”
‘When I give my design to the engineer, I know it will fit with the mechanical components.’
Bringing the software on board at Symbol compressed the company’s product development time from 18 to six months, Crowley said. Sometimes a product will be able to pass from the concept to the tooling stage in just three months.
He estimates that the technology cut, by one-third to one-half, the time engineers and designers formerly spent passing the design back and forth to work out the kinks.
“My original design intent is carried through all the way to production,” Crowley said. “I’m in control of my destiny again.”
B/E Aerospace Inc. of Wellington, Fla., recently faced an industrial designer and engineer collaboration challenge when it was asked to design lie-flat seats for business-class travel. The company makes cabin-interior products for commercial aircraft. Seats that recline fully are standard for Japan Airlines’ first-class customers. But when business-class passengers started requesting the same seats, the airline asked B/E Aerospace for a seat that equals the first-class seat, but takes up less room.
Engineers had to pack the seats’ many internal components, such as electronic motors and mechanisms and audiovisual equipment, into a tight space. Working to design the seat as well as its internal components required close collaboration between industrial designers and engineers, according to Tom Plant, vice president of engineering for B/E Aerospace’s Seat Products Group.
In the past, designers and engineers sometimes had difficulty working together because they used separate software packages that weren’t compatible, Plant said.
Before files could be passed back and forth, they had to be translated into a neutral file format. However, translated files were full of errors. The receiver, whether it was the designer or engineer, spent hours fixing mistakes and sometimes even recreating the geometry, he added. When data was transferred from the industrial design to the engineering department, translation errors were sometimes so significant that it was hard to tell what the designer even had in mind. When information was transferred that way, engineers had a hard time working with the surfaces described by designers.
“There were no features on the surfaces that we could modify,” Plant said.
Because of the tight packaging required for the Japan Airlines seat, industrial designers and engineers would need to constantly send files back and forth. Thus, the company decided to take the opportunity to upgrade to software that didn’t require translation. For this, they implemented Unigraphics NX from EDS. Industrial designers use a version of the program called Unigraphics NX Shape Studio, while engineers use the mechanical engineer design capabilities of the software.
Now industrial designers and engineers work with each other’s files in native format and can pass designs back and forth as often as necessary to create the best arrangement of internal parts within the outer shell, said Glenn Johnson, industrial design manager at B/E Aerospace.
When designers handed over 3-D shapes, engineers could run with them, Johnson said.
The upgrade allows both departments to use more sophisticated modeling techniques than they could previously, which helped both designers and engineers hone the shape of the seat.
Smoothing Out the Kinks
Both Johnson and Crowley spoke of a smoother working relationship between designers and engineers following implementation of new software. Both spoke, also, of initial wariness on the part of both parties about how the technology would change working relationships.
The dynamic between industrial designer and engineer used to be somewhat adversarial. Engineers viewed designers as making demands, but not getting the job done in the end, Crowley said.
For their part, the designers, including Crowley himself, were surprised by at least one newfound capability: seeing their original design, without changes, become a finished product.
“First and foremost, I’m an industrial designer. I’m passionate about creating a design vision and having that vision carried through to production,” Crowley said. “We’re professionals and we spend a lot of time trying to create products appropriate for use, pleasing to look at, and capable of being manufactured correctly.
“Nothing is more frustrating to me than to see my original vision watered down for some reason because of inefficiencies in the engineering tool sets,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves: If we’re making design compromises unnecessarily, are we being true to our profession?
“With this new technology, we can get designs out faster and designers can work later on the designs, but all the subtleties are carried through completely to production. That’s such a relief and so powerful to me.”