Punching above your weight: small companies empowered at AU2011

Posted on 1 Dec 2011
Tim Miller tells a group at AU2011 why Autodesk's Design Suite has helped Green Lite Motors to compete with the big boys

Smaller companies can take on a wider range of work, get designs to market more quickly and compete on more even terms with the big players, say customers of Autodesk Design Suite. Will Stirling meets the empowered small guy.

Howdy from Las Vegas.

Autodesk publishes a big portfolio of design, CAD and simulation software, each with their own strengths. Pure illustrator designers have favoured tools like Sketchpad and Showcase, where the latter ‘beautifies’ the product design for better visualisation, while real engineers model and test parts in programmes like Inventor, MoldFlow and AutodeskCFD.

In March, Autodesk launched Design Suite and Factory Suite, the former covering the main design tools – AutoCAD, SketchBook Designer (formerly Autodesk Alias Sketch), Autodesk Showcase, Autodesk Mudbox in its simplest version – going up to a version that includes the whiz bang animation tool, 3DSMax.

AU, three customer case studies talked about how Autodesk Design Suite was saving them time, making them money, and allowing the small guy to punch above their weight.

London-based design consultancy Marcello Martino Design creates its own designs, takes briefs from studios who need to subcontract and does some software development in MIAware. Using the Design Suite in a full workflow has  reset the company’s entire workflow experience for its main product, designer eyeware, says creative director Marcello Martino.

Traditionally eyewear is designed in flat 2D artwork, drawings were sent to the manufacturer who fabricated a draft version with an element of guesswork, that led to high design failure rate. “Samples would be received 6-8 weeks after technical drawings were approved. Then you might find they didn’t work,” he says.

His case study, a customer called Prophet, wanted to create its own line of ‘modern rock’ sunglasses.

The client was bowled over with the visual renderings and speed of iteration. They went from design approval to manufacture in five weeks, saving two weeks, which included receiving several prototypes. The time saved allowed them to source and price different manufacturers.  “We used Sketchbook rather than technical drawings, and providing new versions quickly kept Prophet informed all the way through the concept phase. These sunglasses would not have happened without the full suite of tools.”

The workflow process Marcello used goes: AutoCAD to build the main structure > Alias, to design the  surface of the glasses >  Inventor Fusion for more functions, to finetune > final design into Showcase, used to select colour pallettes, visualise and communicate specific details. This extra level of visualisation, even for a relatively low tech product like sunglasses, really impressed Prophet and new business is in the pipeline.

Mr Martino lists the advantages of having Design Suite over his previous system include role reversal for his business and his supplier: more enriched designs means the manufacturer has had to adapt his process to make the glasses rather than telling the designer to change the design.

Also having a common suite allowed him to communicate the designs at any time and keep the client informed of the effect of specific changes along the way using clear 3D renderings that reveal tiny changes and imperfections.

The functionality of the full range of programmes also means his company has taken on work it has previously had to refuse and his staff have learned a wider range of skills. The company is much more engaged in the actual manufacturing, whereas before this stage was at arms length for the designer.

Next step: Martino has designed a sculpted bar as a one-off. “It looked like it wouldn’t come in on budget,” he says. “We used different manufacturing techniques learned from Design Suite to make a six metre bar, using a 5-axis CNC machine to cut out panels and flew a guy in from Europe to spray it with copper. It was made in two weeks for £18,000 while under the normal method we’d estimate about £100k.”


CAD for manufacturability

Tim Miller’s job is to drink coffee with and give stock options to venture capitalists in exchange for finance for his eco-car project. The CEO of Green Lite Motors tries to persuade investors that this two-person, three- wheeled 600cc vehicle is a viable low cost, low carb city car that will give commuters in big cities the freedom and efficiencies they don’t get with other vehicles. Green Lite is up against global OEMs, “a huge challenge,” he says.

The GO car has a unique boxy front-end design, measuring 4’ x 8’ which makes it easy to park. To keep the design stable, it needs to be able to lean acutely into corners.

The company got its Design Suite for free via the Autodesk GreenTech partner programme. When they started, they were able to pull hundreds of disparate components into Inventor and make the front-end actually work. But the chief designer said they needed a parametric design to make it work properly, where changing one AR reflected in all the ARs, etc.

Over three weeks they rebuilt the front end to make it lighter, more efficient and easier to manufacture. Skype was very useful, Mr Miller says, “so fast” in helping to compare iterations in real-time between he and a colleague, one in Seattle the other San Francisco. Inventor and Showcase helped the small team to collaborate but also kept investors in the loop along the way.

There were challenges in building the body too. The other designer pulled an old model into Design Suite, made an Alias of it and modified it so Mr Miller could discuss the latest version with investors. Speed was a key factor here where, different colour schemes were modelled on different backgrounds to make them easier to see even on poor, web resolution. The work took about 16 hours – fast compared with the pre- Inventor > Alias > Showcase method. Speed = savings, Miller says, because the money men don’t wait.

The latest Design Suite package can work with photos. One guy sent Miller an all new Alias model of their vehicle from just images he’d found on the web, which only took him 16-hours. “This type of speed gives small companies competing against big firms a big advantage,” Miller says. “We’re using CAD modelling to assess manufacturability. It has enabled a small company to approach big markets in a very capital efficient way.

Another example for empowering the small guy is that Green Lite found an app to download that does adequate wind tunnel modelling, “ perfect for small company like ours.”

The next step for the company is to progress to manufacturing, and Miller expects to explore a PLM solution for this.