Tools That Transform Concepts into a Physical Prototype

“With great power comes great responsibility.” I’ve always expected a bit more from this quote. If Peter Parker is who claims it, so be it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spiderman movies. What’s not to like about a good guy winning and getting the girl. Unfortunately, in the world of engineering, we are not always fortunate to have the same fate. We are given great power and responsibility, but without the girl (or guy, let’s stay on theme…Spiderman and all). The power to engineer and develop in the virtual world is fantastic and has granted us unimaginable vision and responsibility.

I remember when, here we go again, we worked with ink pens, eraser shields and imagination. The days of ink pens and eraser shields are gone; however, our imaginations are alive, well and running wild. In the late eighties, I recall discussing and arguing how much time (aka, money) 3D CAD was going to save. After all, if the exorbitant amount of money on hardware, software and support were to be justified, then there must be a tangible metric to substantiate the risk. That was the challenge. How do you calculate the reduced risk of greater insight with a bigger and better toolbox? I wasn’t the most popular guy in the room in those days because while everyone insisted that there would be time savings, I suggested the

Automated wake board tow-rope retriever
The image above is an automated wake board towrope retriever prototype.

exact opposite. Looking back on that time, if I was armed with my last 25 years of experience and the hindsight that comes along with it, I would’ve made a much better argument. In effect, the time savings (and money) does not come from any one discipline. It is generated throughout the entire process, “from art to part”. I loved this phrase, “from art to part.” Like everything else in marketing and sales, I’m sure it will make its’ comeback. The reason I love this phrase is because it emphasizes the fact that engineers are artists.

As we look at the whole process, from a clean sheet of paper (or computer screen) to a virtual prototype and on to the physical prototype, the engineer has a quiver of tools at their disposal. Or, do they? We’re all familiar with the cliché, “the right tool for the job.” Like most clichés, they tend to point out the obvious. The fact of the matter is we don’t always have or can afford the right tool. And, there lies the quagmire, an extremely important decision of when and how to use these tools. The term tool is a very broad and involved topic for engineers. Not only are there an enormous number of tools, the methods in which we use them expand our capabilities, exponentially.

Aviation Lightings
The image above is a Boeing 737 PSU Reading Light design utilizing the latest in LED technology.

Working for companies like Boeing, Sikorsky or NASA, these decisions are much simpler, (Friends, please don’t shoot me and hear me out). Not only are your company pockets deep, you also possess the responsibility of engineering systems for which human life is reliant, therefore giving you, the engineer, a tremendous amount of clout. However, for the other 90% of the engineering community (don’t quote me on that), we don’t have such clout, yet the responsibility is still very real and present. We work within much more modest budgets and ridiculously rapid schedules to create something from nothing, requiring creativity not only in our designs but in our engineering methods in which we bring them to fruition.

Creating something from nothing is what engineering is all about. Generating the physical prototype from virtual concept is both our friend and our foe. To create or not to create that is the question! Sorry had to do it… This brings me back to the process, the process of creating with powerful tools. These tools enhance our ability to create in a virtual world that is quite wonderful, yet empty. In the end, an engineer creates the physical prototype. This is the question I look to discuss and answer…When and how do you take a virtual concept to physical prototype? How do you resist the lures of remaining virtual or going physical? More to come soon!



  1. Virtual Concept CAD Modeling

    In my experience too many time if find that what we create in the virtual world is not always easy to achieve in realization. it becomes basically a cartoon in progress. Compound angles and radius requirements are beyond most machining capabilities. Also tolerance requirements drive cost out of control. Now with that said, I am an advocate of virtual concept CAD modeling.

    This is a very good topic for further discussion, as we as engineers will continue to evolve and hone our skills utilizing CAD modeling. my company is in the process of rolling out “minimal dimension drawings” to our supply base, and our supply base is more and more accepting of working off of “CAD STEP” files directly to their CAM machines.
    Matt, looking forward to More to come soon! Thanks.

    1. Michael, I love your “cartoon” analogy, I use it often myself. It’s important to remind your bosses/clients that they are looking at a cartoon early in the design process. Cartoon is a great analogy in the hopes that they envision Wile e Coyote and the likes…The 3D vision this gives non engineers often makes them think the design is further along than it is. It’s important to mention details, not so much that eyes begin to glass over, to the non-engineers, but enough so they realize much need to be done. But, be prepared to answer the next question, “when?”. As engineers we are trained to visualize and notice the details, most others are not. The “non dimensioned drawing is ok, however you should be sure to include critical dimensions for inspection or at least to draw attention to them. If your suppliers have the ability to read your native 3D file with tolerances, then your doing great, if not, the drawing is where you need to call those tolerances out. Additionally, there is a lot more to a drawing than geometry. SO, if you abandon the drawing entirely make sure your purchasing department is ready to bear the responsibility of notes, materials, finishes, etc. in their purchase orders! Tolerances are a necessary evil. Every manufacturing process has its own tolerance. Of course the frustration is getting the suppliers to truly take a look at the design before they make it. I could write , and probably will, quite a lot on this subject. However, in summary, “standard manufacture tolerance” for any process is an ignorant statement. Finally Michael, tolerances should help you not hurt you. A good design makes use of them appropriately. Although, I also know we’re not always in control of all aspects of the design, to put it mildly

  2. Concept to prototype.

    We have a 3D printer now!

    1. Conrad, that’s great! I’d be really interested how a 3D printer comes into play in Highway construction?

  3. Unreasonable expectations

    And of course, we have the bugaboo of ‘unreasonable expectations” from clients who have neither an understanding of engineering concepts or a grasp of what CAD systems can and cannot do. So in addition to being conversant in whatever system you are working with, one must also be a bit of a diplomat, psychiatrist, babysitter and disciplinarian. So many hats to wear and at the end of the day if the vision isn’t realized, it’s YOUR fault. And we signed up for this voluntarily! LOL!

  4. Joe, I understand what you mean to a point. Manual is a relative term, so I expect I would need to know what you are prototyping. However, on that subject, we are restricted somewhat by the methods in which we can create physical prototypes in limited quantities. Often a prototype design is different than the final or production design. This is why it is important to understand and define the prototypes goals and limitations. I believe you are talking about the extinction of the “machinist” or “model maker”, which is true. A lot of what they did has been replaced, but not everything. Although, as Engineers we must make use of what is at our disposal as effectively and efficiently as possible. I expect that I will talk more about this in upcoming blog post.

  5. Jim, how very true. I think this is true anytime we must interface with others. As you can see from my site I am trying to shed light on the process. As I mentioned to Michael, above, every manufacture process has its tolerance, rapid prototyping is no exception and its limitations are many. It’s important to highlight what the prototype’s role is and what you expect to learn from it.
    It’s true, it is our fault….(if it doesn’t work) hence, one of the great responsibilities I mention in my blog. However, fault is a really poor choice of words. We all know that hind site is 20/20, so those who choose to point blame when things don’t go smoothly are just inexperienced. Our job as a team, clients included, is to get the client to their goal as quickly, smoothly and cost effectively as possible. Much easier said then done! (need I say it again, “If it were easy…”). Finally, we definitely must wear many hats, however, there is one hat we can’t wear, the clients. And, as the client, they must be the risk assessor. Our job is to present the engineering and development risk as best we can. When it comes to the machine or product development, we hope that the client will leave that to us. But as we know, many decisions cross that line and this is where a “collective” decisions are made


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