Computer-aided product design is no longer the exclusive province of engineers and technicians. Now, many industrial designers are abandoning their sketch pads and clay models for workstations and innovative software.
These powerful new systems accept commands simple enough for novices to master. Some automakers say they can use the new methods to trim their product cycles by months, or more than a year.
At the Design Continuum, a Boston firm, industrial designers use a workstation, a powerful desktop computer, to shape a three-dimensional model of a new telephone. Lighting and shading are so believable that it is easy to imagine reaching into the screen to pick up the phone.
A design team clusters around a speedy Silicon Graphics workstation, using software from Alias Research Inc.
The telephone, a sleek, futuristic model, takes form on a computer screen grid as participants make suggestions and refine the model using a mouse. They can produce slides of their design that are as sharp and realistic as photographs.
This new generation of computer-aided design (CAD) systems does away with the need for knowing complicated computer techniques. Designers can change the telephone's colors, modify the lighting and turn it around to view different perspectives.
The design can be transmitted to computer-controlled lasers that can mold a preliminary model from plastic, or a milling system for making a working prototype. Then the design can go to computer-aided systems for manufacturing, even in other countries.
The costly, time-consuming process of model-building can be avoided entirely or left until the design is nearly perfected. Without computer simulation techniques, changes or corrections often require building an entirely new model.
The Alias software is the first modeling system that gives designers the ability to quickly create and manipulate a design's curves on workstations. Such techniques were unknown 10 years ago, and available only on multimillion-dollar supercomputers five years ago, said Ron Hill, chairman of the industrial design department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
"The design process is at the dawning of a whole new era," he said. The curving design of the B-2 Stealth bomber was made possible by the use of supercomputers.
The latest software, which runs on either Silicon Graphics or International Business Machines RS/6000 workstations, costs $75,000 to $100,000, but some industrial designers say it's worth it.
"You can explore options faster and give the client more choices up front," said Gianfranco Zaccai, the founder of the Design Continuum. "Technology helps you verify that the choices you make are the right ones."