What’s Inside the Modern Engineer’s Toolkit?
Kyle Maxey posted on March 08, 2018 | | 3374 views

Every business and employee would love to have the ability to simply innovate on demand, bring that new idea to market that will beat out competitors, and shake up the world as we know it. However, not every innovation is something that is earth-shattering, nor is it necessary to reach the market before every other business. 

A metered pump created in Autodesk Inventor Professional 2018. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
A metered pump created in Autodesk Inventor Professional 2018. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Instead, innovation can often take the form of an improvement to an existing product. Perhaps more importantly, innovation isn’t something that happens by chance, but is instead the result of a clear, thought-out plan that can be executed in the real world.

Thanks to advances in computer technology, innovation is actually easier than it was for designers of the past. Imagine if there were a toolkit filled with strategies and ideas for modern software that allow innovation to be a routine part of your business. In this article, we’ll lay out an engineer’s toolkit that may change the way you approach engineering problems in the future. Many of these ideas are discussed in even greater depth in an e-book titled The Modern Engineer’s Toolkit.

Process Equals Progress When It Comes to Innovation

One of the major hurdles facing innovation is time. With tight deadlines, there may not be the time necessary to focus on cultivating innovative new features to legacy products. However, there are a number of ways that a team can make its days more efficient and productive so that week in and week out there’s more time available to conjure up innovative ideas. 

Get Some Good Data Measurement Software

At its core, every design is comprised of files—CAD files, Assembly files, CAM Pathways and others that make up the instructions needed to take a design from imagination and make it a reality. The trouble is, engineers can spend up to 15 percent of their time looking for the files they need to get the job done. With the right data management software, engineers can recoup this lost time by eliminating time-consuming file searches, getting rid of file duplications, streamlining the design approval procedure by using a paperless process, and leveraging components and assemblies that can be reused.

Automate More Design Tasks

Though it may not be the most appealing way to make more time for innovation, creating libraries of commonly used features, component parts and assemblies, and design templates can reduce the time it takes to get a project up and running while also eliminating some of the drudgery associated with kicking off a new design.

Use Software That Can Handle Different File Types

Proprietary formats have long been the bane of a CAD designer’s existence. What’s more, using multiple CAD applications has become commonplace as engineers need to work with outside suppliers whose products might be built using a software that differs from the one they use. In the past, these issues were addressed using translation software, but that process was time consuming. However, today there are CAD packages that allow you to use files created in other software applications, making the slow drag of translation time obsolete.

Upgrade to More Efficient Hardware

By far, the most exciting thing a team can do to reduce wasted time is to upgrade its workstation hardware. Not only will this give your team a morale boost (I love it when I get a new machine), but systems could also work 50 - 100 times faster than machines built in 2010. Now, this doesn’t mean that you need a hardware update every year, but it does suggest that upgrading your hardware every three years could save your team a lot of time when it comes to complex modeling and rendering.

Replacing hardware every three years can mean significant increases in productivity. (Image courtesy of “The Modern Engineer’s Toolkit” via Autodesk.)
Replacing hardware every three years can mean significant increases in productivity. (Image courtesy of “The Modern Engineer’s Toolkit” via Autodesk.)

Upgrade to More Efficient CAD Software

CAD systems are becoming more efficient every year by optimizing how they use the available hardware on a machine. When dealing with complex models and large assemblies it’s important to have a CAD software that can automatically tune its performance based on the files it’s opening. This can save time and eliminate the tedium associated with toggling graphics settings that at one time had to be adjusted before an engineer could even get to work.

Change Your Approach to Design Documentation

Drawing has been the main mode of communication since humans wanted to express an idea to another person. But today, drawings are being replaced by 3D environments that can contain all of the product manufacturing information inside the product model itself. Not only can dimensions be added to a model, but tolerances and other critical instruction can also be tacked onto a file, making it unnecessary to create a 2D drawing of a design. In fact, engineers can save up to 30 percent of their time if they don’t have to worry about creating 2D drawings for every component they create.

Update Your Approach to Complex Modeling

Modeling is getting easier, but to take advantage of its ease of use, designers need to learn to work with a hybrid modeling paradigm that leverages feature-based parametric modeling and direct modeling, which enables them to manipulate surfaces with push and pull style commands. By adapting to this new style of modeling, engineers no longer spend endless hours teasing a complex surface out of faces, curves, sweeps and lofts.

Learn to Spark Innovation

So, now that you’ve learned the best strategies for regaining lost time, the second part of The Modern Engineer’s Toolkit is understanding what it means to innovate by leveraging the tools that you have at your disposal. Equipped with a state-of-the-art CAD platform and hardware that’s ready to rev, a number of powerful tools are right at every engineer’s fingertips.

Leverage an Integrated CAM Solution

Integrated CAM solutions can enable engineers to be more agile by making it simple to move from a modeling environment to a CAM environment with a single click. What’s more, CAM environments are easier to use than ever as they can now understand that GD&T information built into a model and create milling paths that respect the designer’s intention automatically. In addition, a designer that knows how to move between modeling and milling can begin to make better decisions about the features they model based on the manufacturing knowledge they gain in the integrated CAM environment. 

Improve Collaboration

Product designs become more complicated as increasingly more electrical and mechanical systems are being integrated together. In The Modern Engineer’s Toolkit, the CAD software they use should has the ability to facilitate bidirectional communication between engineers who work in separate disciplines like electrical or mechanical design. By doing so, both teams can work more harmoniously with one another and arrive at the best possible design. 

Use Visualization

Built-in rendering and visualization suites are essential elements of a modern CAD system. Today, engineers can quickly take the designs they’ve created and apply realistic materials, textures and lighting to any product to make photo-realistic images of a design. Not only can this be an effective tool for internal product reviews, but today’s software can be harnessed to create images that are so realistic that they can be used in external marketing.

Use Simulation Throughout the Design Cycle

Simulation has become a critical part of design exploration thanks to the power and ubiquity of computing. Similar to the refrain about integrated CAM technology, integrated simulation software can make an engineer a more versatile member of a design team, as well as can lead to more avenues of inspiration based on the results of a simulation. Additionally, simulation is becoming so computationally cheap that it can be run throughout the design process, providing engineers with more certainty that their creations will stand up to the wear and tear of reality. 

Try Generative Design and Topology Optimization

A truly exciting development in the world of CAD is generative design and topology optimization. Through the use of these algorithmic tools, designers can set constraints like weight, cost and strain to a model and let software figure out the best way to build a product based on the constraints provided. Through the use of generative design and topology optimization, whole new worlds of aesthetic and functional design are being developed, proving that they are critical components of The Modern Engineer’s Toolkit.

An example of a design generated to have high stifness. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
An example of a design generated to have high stifness. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Use Prototyping

Now that 3D printing is becoming affordable, it’s critical that designers begin using it as means for creating functional prototypes on the fly. Aside from being relatively inexpensive, 3D printing material libraries are growing, meaning that prototyping applications are increasing as well. Add to that advantage the fact that 3D printing also comes with a predictable build time, and the additive technology becomes increasingly more compelling as the go-to prototyping method for many products.

Use Additive Manufacturing

Finally, it’s important to understand that 3D printing can also be used as a mass manufacturing method when it comes to building low-volume, complex products. With 3D printing, shapes that can’t be created using CNC machines can be built at speed, and the setup time for creating these designs is oftentimes much less than it is for a milling operation. That makes additive manufacturing an essential option for designers working with cutting-edge geometries.

The Future of Making Things

When it comes down to it, innovation is what buoys or sinks the fortunes of a company. No matter what a company is designing, the team it has tasked to develop a project needs to be imaginative about what a given product can become. And before a team can do its best work, a modern engineering toolkit that takes into account best practices and state-of-the-art tools must be in place.

Throughout this article, we’ve described what experts believe are the best methods for delivering the best engineering toolkit to designers. If steps like updating hardware; exercising proper data management; using advanced, end-to-end CAD suites; and putting in place appropriate prototyping and manufacturing regimes, then innovation will be all that a design team has to be concerned about. And that’s the kind of freedom that allows truly transformational and imaginative designs to be developed.

Autodesk has sponsored ENGINEERING.com to write this article. It has provided no editorial input. All opinions are mine, except where quoted or stated otherwise. —Kyle Maxey

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