Manufacturers Embrace Functional Design Paradigm Shift

Nov. 10, 2006

It's often been said that form follows function. I prefer to think that function drives form. Unfortunately, just the opposite is true for modern CAD tools -- function is a slave to form (or geometry). Given the current climate of intense global competition, and its associated requirements for increased innovation, form can no longer stand between an engineer and the functional problem they are trying to solve. Instead, it must support the engineer on their journey to innovation. And the fastest road for that journey is paved by Functional Design -- a paradigm shift that is ushering in the redefinition of CAD.

Bridging The Gap Between Form And Function

Take the case of a Cincinnati-based manufacturer of food processing and automation machinery, Planet Products. Its current line of food processing loaders was at risk of becoming outdated. It needed a redesign to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and meet the more stringent demands of the food industry. The ability to easily disassemble and clean the machinery was a critical requirement. Planet Products used a functional approach to design in order to develop digital prototypes that allowed them to rapidly test new ideas that redefine the industry standard. The company put function before form to design the SP3 Next Generation Loader, helping Planet Products become recognized and honored around the world for innovation in precision equipment design.

What can we learn from Planet Products' success? Their secret lies in the minds of their engineers and the CAD tools they use to explore ideas. To replicate Planet Products' success, we must look at the way engineers bridged the gap between form and function. In other words, how the software they used helped them focus on functional requirements first and geometry second. This enabled them to drive innovation while the software helped them drive productivity. This is the change Functional Design brings to the market.

Look at the way another heavy manufacturer, Kone, embraced the concept. Kone is a leading elevator and escalator company worldwide and the manufacturer of a unique solution that enables complete modernization of outdated escalators (regardless of brand) by removing all existing mechanical and electrical components and seamlessly inserting new ones. They employed a functional approach to design sub-systems of their solution and were able to quickly drive re-use and interoperability across components. This gave Kone more time to focus on the critical requirement of reducing field installation hours and improving component fit -- allowing for quick installation of the latest components without major disruption to customers. Focusing on function first, and geometry second, helps Kone best deploy their engineering talent.

At the heart of both these examples is a relentless focus on the functional requirements of design -- not the geometric modeling requirements of the CAD tool. Software should not distract the engineer from their design process -- it should enable it. In addition, in order for manufacturers to continually drive productivity and innovation, CAD software should make it fast and easy to create and use digital prototypes throughout the entire design through manufacturing process.

Harnessing The Power Of Digital Prototypes

The power of such digital prototypes is well established. Along with enabling the engineer to explore the complete function of their design over and over again without a costly physical prototype, it reduces the number of physical prototypes required to get to the final design. In the end, this lowers the cost and complexity of manufacture. Every engineer, in every manufacturing enterprise, should be able to exploit the power of digital prototyping at all stages in the design process.

Unfortunately, most modern CAD applications don't make that possible. The singular focus of CAD on creating 3D model geometry distracts the engineer from the most important work they do -- functional problem solving. Engineers are forced to become 3D modeling experts in order to document ideas they usually have to solve with pen and paper. Beyond that, they are often forced to use specials modeling methods and tools in order to "repair" geometry so it is useful. Getting to a digital prototype is even more complicated - often requiring the engineer to completely recreate model geometry. The result? No time to exploit the power of the digital prototype. Focusing on geometry not only costs engineers time, it also costs them opportunities to innovate.

On the other hand, Functional Design keeps the engineer focused on solving design and manufacturing problems, not 3D modeling problems. Beyond that, it makes it easier to exploit digital prototypes across the entire design through manufacturing process. More simply, it represents a shift in how engineers use CAD to bring new products to market. Software with Functional Design capabilities allows the engineer to work with simple (or schematic) representations to validate a design based on its real-world requirements. The software then generates 3D geometry automatically, or makes it simple to create, in order to deliver a digital prototype easily and reliably.

The powerful convergence of visualization, simulation, and automated modeling embraced by Functional Design blurs the distinction between CAD and CAE and makes it possible to dramatically decrease the number of physical prototypes while increasing an engineering team's ability to innovate.

Solving Complex Challenges

Competition is increasing for manufacturers all over the world and customers are demanding increasingly unique solutions to drive their own competitive advantage. This means manufacturers have to focus on both productivity and innovation in order to succeed. Manufacturers should expect their CAD tools, and the design processes they support, to evolve in a direction that helps them meet this increasingly complex challenge. CAD tools that make function a slave to geometry create barriers to productivity and stifle innovation. Function must drive form and manufacturers should expect nothing less from their CAD tools. The next generation of best-in-class manufacturers will be exploiting Functional Design to drive their design through manufacturing process.

Robert "Buzz" Kross is vice president of manufacturing solutions for Autodesk. Autodesk, Inc. is a software and services company for the manufacturing, infrastructure, building, media and entertainment, and wireless data services fields. Autodesk's solutions help customers create, manage and share their data and digital assets more effectively.

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