As a young product development engineer, I never lived in a world without 3D modeling and CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software such as SolidWorks. I struggle to imagine the tediousness, frustration, and inefficiency of designing complex product assemblies by hand on a drafting table. SolidWorks allows engineers to build large, complex product assemblies with incredible detail. SolidWorks can analyze a product’s manufacturability and simulate its performance and strength in various conditions. However, while SolidWorks and other programs have revolutionized the world of product design, it is often overused in the very early stages of the development process, where the old-fashioned tools still reign supreme.
Before CAD software, designers relied on rough sketches and crude prototypes in the early stages of design, before moving on to more detailed 2D drawings made by hand on a drafting table. SolidWorks is an immensely powerful replacement for 2D drafting. However, when used early in development as a replacement for rough sketches and mock-ups, this modern tool can inhibit innovation, resulting in impressive, detailed product designs that do not address a fundamental human need.
While there are many detailed steps required to bring a product to market, the process can broadly be condensed to an iterative cycle of three basic phases: Empathize, Ideate, and Implement.
Iterative Design Process
With each cycle, the number of concepts, sketches, and prototypes decreases, but their level of detail increases. As the project progresses, the time spent on each cycle increases. Proponents of the Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design ideologies find that this iterative process is essential for innovation.
During the early concept stages of a project, old-fashioned manual design tools are more adept at this rapid iterative design because they allow the engineer to (1) explore many options, (2) receive insightful feedback, (3) discover flaws early on, and (4) evolve the concept on the fly.
1. Explore many options
Quick sketches and crude prototypes take far less time than 3D models and detailed prototypes. Even with the advent of 3D printing, digital tools still cannot match the sheer volume of concept generation that is possible with manual tools. When you come up with a great idea, it’s hard not to jump right into SolidWorks. However, even if you are a CAD wizard and a horrible artist, you should resist the temptation for now. When a project is in its infancy, it’s okay for your sketches and prototypes to be child-like as well. Pride can often limit creativity. By focusing too much on a single solution, you are blinded to what is possible, inadvertently limiting your capacity for true innovation.