The power of three - improving productivity with 3D CAD systems

19 August 2009

3D CAD systems have gone a long way to improving productivity across engineering industries, yet there are still gains to be had. Optimising your 3D workstation with a 3D mouse can reportedly cut design times by as much as 30%

There are clear advantages to designing in 3D. Companies that have embraced the technology enjoy improved productivity and considerable cost savings. Using 3D CAD models, it is possible to detect problems much earlier in the design process through accurate visualisation by subjecting them to finite-element analysis (FEA) or computational fluid dynamics (CFD) techniques. It is also possible to

generate bills of materials (BOMs) from a 3D model and to use rapid prototyping or computer aided manufacturing systems to take the time and cost out of building prototypes of finished parts. Some companies have seen design times cut by as much as 80% since the transition to 3D and realising further productivity improvements through the reuse of design data.

Yet the improvements could go further, as many forward-thinking manufacturing and engineering companies have discovered. Armed with the right input tools, designers and engineers can derive even more benefit from their 3D CAD systems.

Unlike traditional mice confined to one flat plane, 3Dconnexion 3D mice enable design engineers to move in all three dimensions simultaneously, using six degrees of freedom sensor technology.

By gently lifting, pressing and turning the controller cap on the 3D mice, engineers can simultaneously pan, zoom and rotate 3D objects without stopping to select commands. A subtle increase or decrease in pressure accelerates or slows motion, enabling precise micro-adjustments.

Combining 3D mice with a conventional mouse and keyboard set-up allows for even greater flexibility and enhanced workflow. It engages both hands into a balanced and co-operative work style.

Time flies

The move to a more efficient two-handed work style using SpacePilot 3D mouse technology has dramatically cut design cycles at Douglas Equipment, one of the world's leading suppliers of aviation towing tractors, ground support vehicles and yard shunting tractors.

Danny Hyatt is a senior design engineer at Douglas Equipment. The company uses Autodesk Inventor 2009 and AutoCAD Electrical 2009 for its design work. It also uses Autodesk Productstream PLM for data management.

Among the benefits to the business Hyatt reports fewer design errors as well as overall productivity improvements: ‘The SpacePilots give us the ability to move around CAD models very quickly and easily. The main benefits are fewer errors because we can visualise components from any angle and we have also found that productivity is up because we are not constantly switching between mouse and keyboard. The move to this more efficient work style has reduced the amount of engineering time we spend on projects by as much as 30%, and that is purely down to the ease and speed at which we can use the tools in Inventor.’

Designing and visualising requires frequent interaction with the menu- and button-rich user interfaces that are standard in today’s powerful 3D software. To modify and visualise a 3D object, the designer uses a mouse and keyboard to navigate and position the object, then switches to the edit mode, in order to select and activate several menu choices that make the required modifications to the object. Designing is a serial process involving constant switching between navigation and edit modes to achieve the desired results.

However a 3D mouse can take over the spatial navigation functions, which account for as many as half of the mouse movements. A user with a SpacePilot PRO in one hand and a conventional mouse in the other can work much more intuitively, spinning the model into the right position with the 3D mouse and working on it with the conventional, 2D mouse. There is no need to switch modes because the other hand on the 2D mouse is free to be used for editing. Adopting this two-handed work style and reducing the number of mouse movements can result in projects being completed faster and with greater comfort.

Seal of approval

The move to a more efficient two-handed work style, using 3D mouse technology, has dramatically cut design and manufacturing times at UK company AESSEAL, a designer and manufacturer of mechanical seals and engineered seal support systems. Chris Newton, senior designer at AESSEAL, has been using a 3D mouse with Solid Edge for over five years.

‘Using the 3D mouse to manipulate a model on the screen saves a lot of time,’ says Newton. ‘We’ve estimated it would take 15% longer to complete a model without a 3D mouse. On the CAM side it would take our operators twice as long if they didn’t have a 3D mouse because generally speaking they pick up a lot more items and facets than the designers do. Our fully burdened costs average £5000 (US$8000) per month for designers, so we gained £750 (US$1220) per month in increased productivity, which is well above the cost of a 3D mouse.’

Programmable buttons on the 3D mice can add even more convenience and functionality. If you use a standard interface, executing even simple moves requires a decision, followed by keystrokes and mouse clicks. However, with a SpaceExplorer, a SpacePilot or a SpacePilot PRO, the most commonly used tasks within a CAD or CAM package can be assigned to one of the buttons on the unit, saving even more time. A simple press of the button on the device can perform a command or a set of commands in one stroke. SpacePilot PRO further enhances productivity with its LCD Workflow Assistant; a colour LCD that provides at-a-glance access to email alerts, calendar and task lists, allowing users to access important information with fewer distractions.

Fuelling the debate

Another company that has adopted the two-handed work style is Delphi Diesel Systems Ltd. The company designs fuel injection equipment for diesel engines. Paul Smith is a senior design engineer at Delphi and is responsible for most of the company’s CAD development. At present Delphi is running 3Dconnexion 3D mice with SolidWorks.

Smith has noticed definite productivity benefits in two distinct areas. ‘For solid modelling, where you are trying to build up the shape and form of a single part, you tend to turn the model around quite a lot. Using a 3D mouse you can turn the model with one hand and, at the same time, run the commands of the CAD system while simultaneously manipulating the model. If you didn’t have the 3D mouse you could only do one or the other.’

Furthermore, when it comes to assembly Smith finds that it is even more productive to use a 3D mouse rather than the traditional mouse and keyboard approach. He says: ‘You can do this very interactively with a 3D mouse because you can manipulate the model at the same time that you’re thinking and interacting.’

Supporting applications

The 3D mice from 3Dconnexion are supported by more than 130 of today’s powerful 3D applications, including Autodesk Inventor, SolidWorks, CATIA, Pro/ENGINEER, NX and Solid Edge. A complete list of applications supported by 3Dconnexion can be found on the company’s website.

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