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Moving into all three dimensions of product design

Moving into all three dimensions of product design

Glenn Jarrett, Global Head of Product Marketing at RS Components, discusses how the 'rapid concept and prototyping' approach is changing the development of electronic products, brought about by increasingly affordable availability of technologies such as 3D modelling software and 3D printing.

In many engineering companies today, there is a sea change in the approach to electronics and mechanical product design that is largely being enabled by new and easily accessible design tools and resources and the ability to rapidly create hardware prototypes. And this is especially true in the area of 3D design: once the preserve of only the largest companies, the ability to create new product concepts in 3D and also quickly build a prototype is fast becoming available to all in this democratisation of technology.

The 'Rapid Concept and Prototyping' approach is a very agile one and can bring multiple advantages over more traditional design methodologies. For example, the up-front requirements for a new product do not have to be as strict and 'must-have' functionality can be identified at a much higher level. It allows entire engineering departments to be involved in brainstorming and product development: multiple concepts can be created digitally and developed in parallel with the strongest concepts progressed in an evolutionary and iterative process. Advantages can include the ability to rapidly react to market demands; the encouragement of innovation among engineers and others involved in the development; and also the building of a base of experience, whether or not a potential concept is actually realised.

A key element is increasingly affordable access to the actual building of prototypes themselves. At the electronic board level, a valuable resource is the growing availability of PCB makers that can deliver prototype boards in a matter of days and at relatively low cost. At the 3D mechanical level, an important prototyping enabler is of course the 3D printer, which is having a dramatic impact on the ability to rapidly produce prototypes and realise mechanical design concepts. More and more printers are becoming available at highly affordable prices such as the RepRapPro line of self-replicating printers or low-cost models from makers including 3D Systems and Makerbot among others.

An additional enabling element in this new rapid prototyping approach has been the open-source movement, in terms of both electronics hardware and software. For example, hardware-proven reference designs and software protocol stacks are increasingly available, which enable engineers and developers to quickly try out concepts. And taking it to the next level, there are powerful and flexible compute system platforms such as the Raspberry Pi, as well as Arduino and many others, which allow the fast creation of products and systems based on these modular building blocks.

The third and crucial element is the growing availability of free design software - an innovation that has been spearheaded by RS with its DesignSpark tools, which enable engineers to quickly create electronic hardware and 3D mechanical concepts in digital form. Launched in 2010, DesignSpark PCB is now in its seventh version and is a free, powerful and easy-to-use PCB design tool that has no restrictions and no annual licence fee. The tool has removed the restriction of having to use specialist PCB layout engineers, who typically might use premium PCB software such as OrCAD, PADs or Altium.

The second part of the design software story is the ability to create 3D mechanical concepts rapidly. This has always been a major bottleneck to enabling a truly agile design approach, as traditional 3D CAD tools have been the domain of the trained CAD specialists and cost many thousands of dollars or euros with annual subscriptions. Therefore, the general engineering community has previously been unable to engage with 3D design. However, at the back end of 2013, RS launched its free-to-download DesignSpark Mechanical 3D modelling software. Developed in conjunction with SpaceClaim, this leading-edge 3D modelling software is based on 'direct-modelling' techniques, which allows non-CAD specialists to conceptualise products in 3D.

The tool's simplicity of use has meant that engineers and others involved in product development can become fully conversant with the software within minutes, rather than the weeks or months required to become skilled with traditional 3D CAD tools. And very recently, RS launched version 2.0 of DesignSpark Mechanical, which adds new features that have been requested by the now extremely wide user base. For example, it features a new simplified user interface that includes built-in help text and Quick Guide tutorials, example designs, and also makes its BOM-quote functionality even easier to find and use. In addition, the tool provides access to a new 3D catalogue allowing the rapid insertion of tens of thousands of 3D models from leading component manufacturers, as well as the integration of all the necessary purchasing data for fast BOM creation. An important element of the tool is its STL-output format, allowing the direct export of designs to 3D printers.

All these factors - rapid prototyping machines such as 3D printers, open-source platforms and the availability of free PCB-design and 3D-modelling tools - have combined to enable a new approach that democratises the design process, increases innovation and enables engineers to achieve concept to creation in a substantially faster time.

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