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Students Using Solid Edge for Artful Contrivance

By Matt Lombard, December 7, 2012

Dictionary.com says engineering is defined in part as to "arrange, manage, or carry through by skillful or artful contrivance."

John Devitry is a former member of the Australian rock band Turncoats, and the inventor of the Stump Preacher compact electric guitar. He's also the CAD administrator for the Space Dynamics Lab at the Utah State University, and teaches the Engineering Graphics course as adjunct faculty.

In his course, John takes the "artful contrivance" part of the definition of engineering to a new level. When John heard that the art department’s Todd Hayes was teaching a 3D design art class for freshmen students, it sparked an idea in him. It is not uncommon to try to get engineering students to be more creative, and it’s common to get art students thinking more analytically.

So why not share a project to have the art students develop 3D forms that the engineering students would then model in 3D CAD software? (See figure 1.) All the models could then be built on a 3D printer. Mr Hayes explained that getting the students to work together by supplying artistic and analytical skills to each other was just a starting point. "The ultimate goal would be to see some cross pollination," he explained, where the students are learning from one another -- rather than just dividing the work among themselves.

Figure 1: Utah State University students participating in Tod Hayes and John Devitry's classes on 3D design and engineering graphics.
From left to right: Kelsy Hulihan, Kristen Salinas, Landon Myers, Shae Bennett, and Sam Palmer

The assignment put to the students was a three-phase project:

  1. In Mr Hayes’ 3D design art class for freshmen, the assignment was to draw an aquatic form suitable for printing on a 3D printer.
  2. In Mr Devitry’s class, the engineers had to create a CAD model from the art.
  3. The final phase was to print the parts on the 3D printer.

More than one student admitted to feeling they lacked some of the skills necessary if they were to do the entire project on their own. "Engineers think more functionally," said art student Kristen McFlyd. "We didn't really know how the art needed to be designed in order to not break."

The admission that the skill sets needed people with the other skill came from both sides. Sam Palmer was Kristen's engineering partner. "I could never have come up with the ideas that Kristen came up with," he agreed.

None of the three art students I spoke with had prior experience in 3D, except for Shae Bennet who had a brief encounter with SolidWorks as a summer intern. She had back then determined quickly that CAD wasn't the kind of work for her, proclaiming, "I never wanted to do that again."

It was mainly the CAD process that she felt didn't lend itself to her working as an artist. "Too many restrictions," she explained.

Looking at the drawings submitted by the art students, I saw a range of beautiful, artistic forms represented on paper. Their 3D forms came from appropriate shading, multiple views, and isometric views. See figure 2.

Figure 2: Shae Bennett's spiral fish.

But in the end, all but one of the designs were symmetrical, and symmetrical objects are easier to represent in 2D and 3D CAD. I singled out the one student whose drawing made the most use of asymmetrical 3D, with a twisting spiral, and the tail of the fish kicked out to one side, it didn't allow for any symmetry shortcuts. To my eye, Shae Bennett's drawing was the "most" 3D, yet certainly the most difficult to execute in CAD.

Figure 3: Kelsy Hulihan's Circle Fish drawing included a little mechanism with a small fish on a pivot.

Shae claimed that she primarily created drawings, but that this 3D project intrigued her, especially because she wanted to take advantage of the 3D printer. She also thought that working with engineers meant that she was going to have to do something mechanical, something with straight lines.

Shae's typical style is the opposite, consisting of dainty shapes that twirl around. To help communicate the 3D shape of her idea, she created drawings from three different views. I pointed out that the three-view method is a very engineering sort of thing to do. So already Mr Hayes’ class is a success, as he has an artist making use of engineering techniques.

Figure 4: Kristen Salinas original Dolphin included intricate forms which were simplified for the final model.

From the art phase in Mr Hayes’ 3D design class, the project moved to the CAD model phase in Mr Devitry’s class. One of the things that I thought was pretty interesting was that on the engineering side, Mr Devitry was taking pure beginners, and throwing them into the deep end of Solid Edge, software that might have been over its head in dealing with organic shapes. Experienced users would have some difficulty modeling some of these shapes, I'm sure.

The students had a basic course in Solid Edge that taught them about lofts and sweeps with guide curves. The skills they learned in that course were put to the test and I'm sure augmented with what they learned in this project.

Figure 5: Landon Myers built the Circle Fish model in Solid Edge

Landon Myers found that "organic forms are easier on paper than on the computer." He thought that having a tablet would make the work easier. (See his design figure 5.)

Sam Palmer chipped in that he thought being able to grab faces and pulling on them directly would have been useful. (See his design figure 6.)

Figure 6: Sam Palmer created the outer shape of the Dolphin, while Keate Despain added the decorative shapes.

The two engineering students admitted that they had some difficulty interpreting the 2D ideas from the artists as 3D geometry on the computer. To some extent, the shading skills of the artists helped, but collaboration went beyond just handing over images to the engineers. Kelsy Hulihan reported that the engineers and artists traded phone numbers, and collaborated by texting back and forth. For example, an engineer might email a screen capture, and then receive a text back from the artist with more suggestions. In another case, Landon said that he and his artist partner sat together in front of the computer to provide a live critique of the 3D interpretation.

One sentiment was universal between the disciplines: each was adamant in acknowledging that there were skills that the other brought to the table, making their projects better. Sam said, "As an engineer, I'll be working with a lot of different people, and things will have to look good."

Landon agreed, saying "This project made me realize the importance of team work. I need to give credit to other people. Kelsy had ideas that I didn't think of." (See figure 7.)

Figure 7: One of the lessons many engineers learn while prototyping is the lesson of scale. From the looks of the 3D printed output, the scale of the parts ranged greatly, while some parts were too frail to hold together.

The question of creativity in engineering is one that I'm familiar with. I know engineers with some sort of artistic avocation, such as music or literature. Engineers are, however, by nature are problem-solvers, which you cannot do well unless you are inventive and imaginative. I was a professional musician going to engineering school, as was Mr Devitry. Even the students in this class hinted at the idea that practical-minded engineers may not have the same degree of visual talent as art students, but they do consider themselves artistic to some degree.

When you look at creativity in engineering as a problem to be solved, there are at least two ways to solve the problem: We can make it easier for engineers to work with the creative professionals who provide the needed skills, or we can increase the creativity of individual engineers. I think both approaches are appropriate and useful.

Engaging Engineers with Creativity

To summary, Mr Devitry has this to say about trying to find and release the creativity in engineering students: “Over the years I’ve had many students who were great at memorizing and parroting back information, but lacked creative problem-solving skills. It’s been a continual challenge finding ways to get students to think for themselves and develop their own vision. I discovered that stepping out from the rigid framework of precision goal-oriented engineering, and instead using artistic themes to enhance creativity, students were more apt to experiment and learn for themselves. Positive things began to happen when I gave students the freedom to build something that was not tangent, parallel, or uniform, but could not easily be manufactured. No longer the villain, art has reignited the passion, beauty, and excitement previously lacking in the classroom.

Mr Hayes concluded with some equally interesting ideas about learning interdisciplinary collaboration early in a career: “It seems that in academia we get so caught up in our own worlds, that we forget how the real world works, and that it is progressively becoming more and more multi-disciplinary. We have artists relying on structural engineers to help them figure out the physical logistics of their ideas, and scientists and engineers who are more and more looking at creative approaches to solving everyday problems.”

For me, this was the crux of the assignment: exposing students early in their careers to collaborating and working with people outside their fields. By doing so, they come to understand that they have to make sacrifices in giving up some control to make projects successful. They gained a greater understanding and appreciation for different ways to solve problems.

In the end, I know that these students are lucky to have professors who understand the value of skills that are not taught as part of a traditional curriculum. A truly great artist understands how to solve problems not directly artistic in nature, and a great engineer recognizes ideas worthy from other disciplines. Both the engineer and the artist benefits from collaborating with each other, absorbing cross-disciplinary skills learned as a part of the exercise.

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About the Author

Matt Lombard is a leading expert on SolidWorks. He has written the SolidWorks Bibles as well as books about SolidWorks surfaces and SolidWorks administration. He has a BSME from RIT. More...

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