By Stephen Samuel
The purpose of Computer Aided Design (CAD) is to automate portions of the design process, therefore making it easier and more efficient. When CAD is applied well these benefits and more are achieved. However, if not used correctly CAD can do the opposite. It can stifle and complicate the design process to such a great degree that creativity suffers. This chilling effect can occur in various ways each of which can be addressed with careful consideration of the methods used, the specific CAD tools, and most of all the competency of the user.
One of the most common ways that CAD negatively impacts creativity is geometric inflexibility. For example, the design engineer who’s working on the latest design for a toaster desires to create an interesting surface where the toast comes out. He tries to create a curved surface and finds that it difficult to create, so he resorts to using a cylindrical surface instead. His final shape is dictated by the limitations of either the software or his level of competency with the software. The design that results is a compromised shape that may have a very average look and feel. On a subconscious level engineers know what their software is capable of, or at least what they are capable of doing with the software so they stay away from those forms that they would find difficult. Indeed CAD has its geometric limitations; it is difficult to create geometry that resembles broccoli and textures of any kind are very difficult if not impossible. But more often than not use competency is the limiting factor.
Another way CAD can limit creativity, especially parametric CAD, is when a designer has invested a lot of time creating complex relationships between the geometric forms and then becomes reluctant to make the kinds of changes that weren’t anticipated. The more features rely on each other, the greater the tendency for engineers to deviate very little from the original design. They fear that many of the features that have been built will suddenly be invalid. I have seen many situations where a relatively minor change in a design is required – a minor change from a geometric stand point, but the change takes all day to perform because the designer has to look at a complex geometry tree and decipher it, up dating features one by one. There’s a kind of a blindness that can go along with parametric modeling. To some degree parametric modeling forces you into a programming like mode. Soon, instead of considering form and function you end up programming features.
Yet another way CAD can work against you is by taking up valuable mental energy. The fact is, creativity requires focus and “mind space”. Using CAD can be very distracting. While trying to be creative, engineers are asked to simultaneously focus on company modeling standards, e-mail, “file save” features, down steam applications, and a myriad of other considerations that go along with using a computer in general. In addition engineers are asked to update the operating system, keep track of design files and virus scan. In some cases their file can be changed by someone else on the system. It can be daunting. It’s best summed up by that age old adage, “When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s difficult to remember your original purpose is to drain the swamp”.
These days a design engineer is expected to leverage previous designs. To a greater degree than ever before, managers expect the design schedules to be reduced commensurate with huge increases in their IT budget. An engineer that has to take an existing CAD file and create new geometry is not always given time to be creative. The situation can lock him into a “make as few changes as possible” mode. The trap of using what’s already there is very alluring. It seems like you are saving time but in many cases you spend more time figuring out what to keep and what to discard, that you could have gone a lot faster had you started from scratch.
The solutions to limiting the negative impact of CAD on creativity are as varied as the problems. First and foremost a Design engineer must be well trained in the use of the chosen CAD system. When the designer is well trained the various commands and CAD features are second nature. The modeling becomes effortless, in the same way a good musician plays a complex concerto. The notes flow effortlessly from their fingers. Geometric inflexibly is reduced when the user knows the particular CAD program extremely well. Although getting good CAD training is not always easy, it has a huge return on investment.
Another important way to limit geometric inflexibility is to ensure that users have high end CAD software – CAD software that has a huge variety of ways to create and edit geometry. In many cases the mid and low range software packages claim to be easy to use and learn. But the reason they are easy is because they limit the amount of functionality. Design engineers paint them selves into corners with less expensive mid range software.
In order to free up the “mind space” that designers need to perform, good company modeling standards and common practices must be at the optimal levels. Larger companies tend to have more rules than is ultimately useful. Small companies tend to have too few. There’s a sweet spot right in the middle.
Designers who are going out of their way to relate features to other features and the parameters of one component to another and create complex relationships can make a fantastic model that can be rapidly edited. But their creativity will be limited if they are not given the environment that supports that kind of incredibly detailed and complex modeling. They will end up wasting huge amounts of time. If they are called to too many meetings, and forced to answer many e-mails and phone calls, using a high end parametric CAD tool will be very difficult. In many cases the engineering consultant, sometimes known as a “CAD jock” has a huge advantage because he can be single minded. He can work diligently for the concentrated and extended periods that are necessary to make things work. One three minute interruption can take 20 minutes to recover from, the CAD jock tends to work straight through.
Finally, the best way to limit the negative impact of CAD on creativity is to be as creative about the way you use the tool as you are with what you are creating with the tool. You must put hours and hours into learning the tool. You must make sure that as you put those hours in you’re trying new functions and getting into the nuances of the CAD package you’re using other wise even when you put many hours in they will all be the same hour, so you don’t get the benefit. Learn the latest features and functions well, always be critical of old methods and form new ones. Fit CAD into your design process with a vigilant eye and it will pay the huge dividends that it is supposed to.
Author Stephen Samuel is an engineer who loves to use CAD. He’s been using CAD since 1983 when he graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a BSME. He’s seen CAD go from its simplest beginnings to the amazingly powerful and complex tool that it has become. To him it’s like playing the saxophone – the creativity roles out with great ease, thanks to the thousands of hours that he’s put into learning and using his tools.