Going Green: Digital Prototyping

I wrote an article for my company’s blog. The link went bad (Fixed!), so a brief summary of it follows;

I used to work at an ID consultancy, and we did automotive parts. When finishing these parts, we ended up using a lot of toxic materials - materials that we should be mindful of using, and avoid doing so at all possible by switching to less corrosive materials and processes. :slight_smile:

I imagine a world in the future where designers will be able to put their products into a digital world and test them before going to market. I also see intuitive simulation controls allowing for everyone, not just trained and specialized engineers, to design with FEA and aerodynamics in mind.

I would like to use it to start a discussion within the design community about digital prototyping.

From the article summary: "We’ve gone green with our products - let’s do the same for our processes. By moving our prototyping process to the digital space, we can save material, cost, and time. "

I believe there are significant challenges that lay ahead of us - our environment is changing. We should develop tools that allow us to create confidently, responsibly, and freely, in response to changing conditions around us. I am taking the position that it is worth it for designers and engineers to start developing these new systems and tools now or very soon.

What say you all?

(I’m no moderator but…It would probably work better for this forum if you included at least an edited version of the blog posting natively here…)

Most of the time I’m pushing my designers to ‘get out from behind the screen’, and emphasizing the physical over the digital in order to ‘get real’ as quickly as possible. But I also see the detritus from the prototyping activities, and how there aren’t enough trash cans in the studio to get rid of the waste, or the actual prototype when its usefulness is depleted.

Now that you can have (for example) 3D glasses and room-sized screens to evaluate car styling of interiors or exteriors the amount of waste and increased power of digital protos has definitely improved. 3D printing generates just what is needed to evaluate, with a little bit of extra binder left over (and a lot of energy used).

I sympathize with most of your blog post but there’s one stubborn fact I always come back to when it comes to “greening up” studio practices:

The waste we generate is profoundly insignificant in the context of the world’s waste.

It never hurts to be more mindful of one’s efforts but I really don’t think it’s worth putting much mental energy into. I produce more waste in shipping materials when I order a toothbrush from Amazon, than when I make a model of something.

You mention scaling up new-age prototyping technologies to a production level. But once you do that, it’s a separate discussion. It’s no longer model making waste from your small studio; it’s industrial waste.

But the overall proposal—to move physical prototyping to digital space—is an ongoing discussion. I can see why you come from this angle, if you’re at Lagoa (great service btw).

Rendering has been around for decades, and many are capable of photorealism. It’s replaced many parts of the PD workflow. However, if it was ever going to fully replace physical prototyping, that would’ve happened already. People still like to touch things; that will never change. A paint company is never going to give up physical swatches, because you can spontaneously grab swatches and hold them against any wall you fancy, and move your head around to see how its satin finish reflects the light. Unless you intend to model every interior room that you ever want to paint, you’ll never replace that physical process.

For look and feel, maybe half, at best.

For functionality, no.

Our customer cannot evaluate image on a screen. I won’t even hedge that a bit. It is impossible with today’s technology for a user to know how it works from a picture.

slippyfish; I just posted a quick summary in the original post.

I’ve been thinking that it would be awesome to integrate the Occulus Rift with design applications, and a system like the Kinect for gesture controlled modeling. The hubbub about SpaceX’s “3D Design” system is actually amusing to me, because all they’ve done is tied a gesture controller to camera movements in 3D space. You can do SO much more. I can’t program it but I know it’s possible, and relatively simple.


Totally understand it’s relative insignificance. That being said, I’m also talking about changing the way we think about everything in the design process. This change of thinking would allow us to design better design processes.

Regarding modeling every room that I want to paint; I made this post in CG Architect awhile back. From the post;

“So I had this idea that we could use a 3D scanner (Like the Matterport, for instance), and scan her room - then load the file into a renderer app like the one our company makes, and test it out. It would be perfect then if paint companies released a standardized material template that used scans of their products, so you could even get this to the point where you could test it out with different hues from individual suppliers!”

What do you think of that? :slight_smile:


Today’s technology…ever heard of programmable matter? I think that this video is all CG, but it’s an extremely interesting prospect.

The motives are fine. It is an approach that has been pitched by every CAD software seller for the last 25 years. The way of thinking that it is possible to prototype on the screen is already established. However, it is a canard. Real world objects require a real world presence to be realized and evolved. I see the change in thinking required as more prototypes, not less.

The combination of the approaches is where the strength lies, and that is already in practice at every competent design office. Work back and forth between the screen and the physically generated prototypes.

FEA is a great example, I like Scan and Solve for Rhino, it is a new approach to FEA and puts it into the reach of a designer, making it part of the process, it saves real world generation of multiple approaches.

Once you go to a factory and see hundreds of thousands of the thing you designed being made, the pallets of tons of materials, the waste on the edges of sheets of material, the calculation of the tons of volatile organic compounds that are evaporation off paint lines. You realize that your real responsibility lies in making your product as efficient and as manufacturable as possible. The prototype process should be unhindered in order to achieve responsible production.

Hypothetical turn of events: this is the first time you pick up a physical rendition of this product and there’s some detail regarding real world use you simply could not predict because all your “prototypes” were on screen lacking context. It may require only a small modification, but still the first production run is dumped. Did environment really came up on top then? This is actually a best case scenario. Things like that happen often enough WITH tons of prototypes. Going all digital increases that risk by…a really big number.

I believe that to focus on the prototyping process as the environmental culprit when you are designing for mass production is bordering on being delusional.

Ok, so digital will never replace physical in the prototyping process. Is there any way that digital tools can improve our process? Where are the bottlenecks?

Off the top of my head:

  • Better 3D scanning tools will help immensely if doing a project that requires retrofitting or parts that need a tight fit among existing components

  • User-friendlier plastics molding wizards might help designers catch molding problems early

  • High-end work tablets like Wacom’s new thing are going to be very exciting

  • “Smarter” 5-axis CNC mills that don’t need antiquated, long-winded, precalculated code telling them which paths to take around a work piece

On screen simulations don’t really compare to the actual product in your hand, it always looks and feels quite different.
You just have to experience it directly, with your body, not just behind a screen.
One interesting evaluation method is creating a haptic prototype; you can see the product in 3d with 3d glasses and feel it with a glove or stylus. This can possibly replace creating physical appearance models. But for a true embodied simulation, it is just not possible yet. But never say never! Quantum computers are coming and maybe in the not so near future you can get hooked into a virtual simulation that gives you the feeling of actually experiencing the product with all your senses, like in a lucid dream. But when will that be possible, 30 years, 50 years?

Mechanical simulations are good for initial evaluations, but in my experience you always need at least one accurate physical prototype at some point.

I agree that the waste that designers generate is relatively minimal so I wouldn’t change my process to go that little bit greener and compromise the quality of the process.

I do think that we can still change the process a bit to use less toxic chemicals - even for the benefit of the designer using them. My old boss couldn’t be in the same room with me when I was painting; he’d done it for so many years he had trouble breathing with the fumes. So there’s a human aspect that could be improved.

The haptic feedback system would make sense. I’ve actually thought a lot about basically a design “room”, where your motions are tracked by cameras around the perimeter. With VR goggles (like the Occulus Rift), your hands could shape digital clay just by moving through space. The haptic feedback setup would be interesting, I suppose you could have some sort of backpack mechanism that would tug on your hands.

While it is an interim step, I still believe the data gained from such a simulation will pale in comparison to actually using the product in the field. The Hawthorne effect alone would skew data coming from this design “room”.

I admit I could be biased as our standard practice includes field testing from a couple of weeks to many months before a launch decision is made. Even a quick (use it once) field evaluation would gain more insight than some offsite trial.

I wasn’t arguing for the room as a replacement for real-world experience; I was suggesting that it might be a more intuitive way of modeling digitally? :slight_smile: