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Mass Customization and the Future of Engineering Software

excerpted from  

Full article is available for a fee

Dan Stanwick, April 2, 2007

I swapped emails with a colleague recently, discussing the analyst material available on Rapid Prototyping (what CADCAMNet likes to call part of the 3D Conversion market). At the end, my colleague commented that “our entire market is boring as hell.” Well, having spent the last three or four years immersing myself in the current state of the art but also doing my real job of trying to extrapolate where a number of different technologies are headed, all I could do is laugh. Boring as hell? I beg to differ; allow me to explain.

The Rise of the 3D-Literate Consumer

The younger generation is IT literate in ways their elders find mind-boggling. These same users are more 3D aware than any previous generation. Then there’s Second Life, a social networking service in which a user guides his or her avatar (virtual world persona) through a 3D environment that can be shaped by the participants. The corporate world is falling all over itself to have presence in Second Life.

Whatever the technology, now and in the future, 3D awareness will only be more prevalent. Soon there will be no need to train designers, engineers and manufacturers the art of creating or interpreting abstract and ambiguous orthogonal views from 2D drawings. You’ll have a new generation of professional user, with levels of expectation for user experience for any software that is so in advance of what ‘the industry’ currently offers.

Print Your Product

The push is for richer 3D environments everywhere in product development. Look at the advances in the Direct Manufacturing/Rapid Manufacturing/Additive Fabrication market and you have devices that can in some instances produce end-use components direct from the computer-based model. You do know that the days of the unusable, fragile and brittle resin-based RP models are quickly disappearing, don’t you? Laser sintering, while I’m sure is not the killer app, provides a means with which you can build functional parts using functional materials, either plastic or metal-based.

Herein lies the future of engineering software, placing the skills and knowledge of product development into the hands of the mass-market consumer. The average person—lacking design skills, confidence, and infrastructure to create a product—nonetheless wants the ability to customize a product the way teens “skin” their cell phone screens today. Millions will gladly pay extra for a product if they can work it over in “MyDesignSpace” and then have it arrive on their doorstep in two days.

Technologies like the Functional Design tools within CATIA and soon, Autodesk Inventor give you the ability to define the function of a part (plastics in particular) long before you define the external form.

If you look at a lot of products, particularly in the consumer space, the internals are all standard. The PCB’s, displays, the mechanical/electronic interaction features (mounting boss)—these are all standard. What changes is the external. It will become possible to create products that the user adapts to their needs (or whims) through a web-based front-end and quicky have the internal interface features update to match.

The externals could then be built on a EOSINT P machine in China. An employee on-site would snap in the internals according to the spec (perhaps located and displayed on screen above the workstation by scanning an RFID tag linking the physical part to the originating 3D CAD data and customer requirements). The whole thing could be shipped within 48 hours.

The full article is available for a fee at CADCAMNet.