Yes, there are now a whole host of tools out there to make the most of digital variants of this (whether that’s a PC and a Wacom tablet or Cintiq) or a tablet (insert the name of your own preferred rectangular computing device here). There’s all manner of simple (a stick with a bit of capacitive elastomer on the end) or overly complex stylus or pen-based sketching devices to complete those processes as well.
There’s also a wealth of software options (even PTC has its own, in the form of PTC Creo Sketch – available for the iPad as well as your desktop computer.)
Of course, then there’s the question of bringing that data into a digital workflow. If you’re using a digital sketching tool, then you’re half way there. If you’re sticking with the Moleskine notebook and a Rotring pencil (my personal favored combination) then it’s a question of scanning it. Most CAD systems these days give you the ability to import graphics files into workplace to base your geometry from. Whether you follow it closely or whether it’s purely for reference, the workflow is there and established.
Then you switch to the engineering side of the fence and start to explore what Concept Engineering means. This is a similarly analog process, initially at least. But when you’re talking about scheming out assembly lines, automation equipment and such, you quickly get to the point where something else is needed.
It’s here that top down assembly modelling tools and yes, direct editing, come into their own. It’s here that a design system that allows you to bring in imported geometry (from component or sub system supplies) and start to flesh out your concepts is fundamentally key. I recently interviewed a company that specialized in ridiculously complex assembly automation (think, the sort of thing that would make Rube Goldberg scratch his head but with landlines and grenades).
One of the challenges the company has was that its customers had complex ideas and requirements that required some serious planning, tentative, basic 3D modelling to work out if the machine was even feasible and appropriate to quote for, never mind actually begin work upon. It used imported models (from robotics and automation/conveyor suppliers) combined with quick direct editing and assembly motion simulation to see if they could get anywhere near a workable result. Once the quote was done, this information was, more than often scrapped and dumped for a complete reworking of the project from scratch. While that might seem wasteful in terms of doubling of effort, it’s really a case of creating something quickly to achieve the end result (a feasible quote that’s not going to kill you if you win the work).
Just as the industrial design world’s sketchbook has traditionally a single step in the process, these concept engineering models are essentially disposable with limited use downstream. But that is, perhaps starting to change. More intelligent tools are becoming available and with them, a more connected, less wasteful approach to product development (regardless of what that product might be) is coming.
Al Dean is Editor-in-Chief of DEVELOP3D Magazine (http://www.develop3d.com).