So far I have looked at ways in which rapid manufacturing technologies might become available to consumers, and the reasons why product design for rapid manufacturing is easier than for mass manufacturing. In the final part of this extended post I want to address the only other remaining hurdle to consumers designing and manufacturing their own products: the tools they will use to design with.
Consumer co-design, sometimes called co-creation, is a topic that’s been written about at length by design researchers. At it’s purest it involves the end user, or typical representatives of end users, entering the design process and creating products or services as part of a design team. In practice though, co-design is often little more than an enhanced customer research exercise. End users might be asked about their needs and desires, encouraged to offer suggestions, and even invited to critique proposed solutions. But there is no doubt it is the designers who are expert, and who make the final decision.
As a designer myself, I confess I find it difficult to break free of this mindset – surely my training and experience mean I am able to understand what a market of consumers will want better than an individual consumer themself might? But the point is, what I think will end up being irrelevant if consumers are able to design their own products. Why should a consumer care that I think their product is crass or crude, if it’s exactly what they want, and they’ve made it? At the moment though, I have one trick up my sleeve – I can use CAD, to design a product and to communicate that design to the means of production, in a way that no non-designer can. All the time designers and design engineers can monopolise the expertise needed to create CAD data, consumer created products will not happen.
Autodesk AliasStudio, image from Diseno-art.com
Typically CAD software requires a substantial investment in time in order to gain even a basic expertise. With the first professional CAD package I learned, I-Deas (since bought out by Siemens and renamed NX), I reckon it took three years before I felt I was driving the CAD, rather than the CAD influencing the kind of designs I created. Writing about this in ‘Fab’, Neil Gershenfeld notes that “there’s been no compelling reason to make engineering software easy to use; these programs have been written by engineers, for engineers, who make a career out of using one of them.” There’s a reason for the complexity of course, designing and engineering a high technology product is a complex task, and the design of a passenger aircraft was no easier for the average person to understand before CAD software was invented. Nonetheless it’s true that for non-experts, just looking at the UI of a CAD software package such as AliasStudio is intimidating, with its seemingly endless icons and drop down menus.
Whenever reading about CAD software aimed at consumers (whether in theory or actual software products), the word I always come across is ‘intuitive’. The assumption is that anyone not trained in CAD requires software which is easy to use. To my mind this doesn’t really have any value though – saying you want software which is intuitive is like saying you want a car that looks nice. Who is ever going to ask for the alternative: “I want a car that looks rubbish” or “I want software which is difficult to understand.” In any case, intuition doesn’t necessarily mean ‘immediately understandable’, intuition also comes with practice and familiarity. What’s really being asked for is a reduction in complexity.
Cosmic Blobs © Dassault Systemes
Cosmic Blobs, made by Dassault Systemes (who also make Solidworks and Catia) is a perfect illustration of this. When I first tried to use Cosmic Blobs I found it far from intuitive, despite being aimed at children. The lack of drop down menus, no right mouse button clicks and no tool-tips meant I was totally lost as to where to start. Having spoken to a couple of people whose kids have tried Cosmic Blobs, this is also the reaction of computer literate children who are used to a typical Windows interface. But after a few minutes playing around, you start to get the hang of it. Essentially modelling consists of choosing from a few primitives, adding or subtracting them from one another, and pushing or pulling on a surface to deform it. There’s no surfacing commands, no way to analyse curvature continuity, no assembly environment and no finite element analysis. The software becomes usable to a novice because the choice of commands is so limited. Cosmic Blobs isn’t simple because you intuitively understand how it works, it’s simple because it doesn’t take long to find out what everything does.
SketchUp © Google
Of course, the downside of reducing the complexity by reducing functionality is that the capabilities of the software are necessarily reduced. This is obvious when considering another consumer oriented CAD package, Google SketchUp. SketchUp can be downloaded and used for free, and was initially envisaged as an architectural modelling package. Increasingly though, it is being used to model furniture and products. SketchUp uses a combination of solids and surfaces, which it calls faces. Faces can only ever be planar, this means that not only is SketchUp functionally easier to master than a typical CAD package, it is also conceptually easier to grasp (understanding G2 – G4 surface continuity is something most designers struggle with at some point). Of course the kinds of products which can be modelled in SketchUp cannot have the sophistication of surfacing as products modelled in Alias, Solidworks, Catia etc. But they can, and are, being modelled by people not trained as designers, who don’t have the time to master professional CAD even if they have the inclination. An ‘unsophisticated’ tool that works (for them) is better than a sophisticated one which does not.
Alternative design concepts produced using Genoform © Genometri
Stripped down alternatives to professional CAD software are not the only possibility however. I have written before about Genoform iterative design software, which works as a plug-in for Solidworks. It’s primarily intended as a tool for designers, to explore design alternatives based on a number of fixed and variable parameters. So in the example shown above, the designer has chosen a certain size of display, and decided that under the display are three buttons, with another input area below those buttons. On the right hand side are a headset jack and some kind of sliding button. The software has then generated a number of designs, and will keep generating designs up to a maximum of 10,000 variants. But it’s possible to imagine a similar system available to consumers rather than designers. The designer would still decide which parameters are fixed and which are changeable, but the consumer would decide how many variants to generate. The requirement is then no longer for a consumer to learn any kind of CAD, but simply to be able to make a decision about which option they like best.
Spore © Electronic Arts Inc.
I’d like to finish this post by talking about Spore, a computer game by Will Wright (Sim City, The Sims) which is due out later this year. Games have had a significant influence on the computer industry in the past, pushing the limits of hardware as well as experimenting with input devices and UI’s. With Spore it could be that games also influence the computer aided design process. Without going into the full scope of the game, an important part of Spore is the creature editor, shown above. Players can first set the traits of their creature (strength, speed, carnivorous tendencies etc), and then build the creature from a kit of parts. Not having played the game it’s difficult to know exactly how the editor works, but my understanding from reading about it is that the editor has built in intelligence. So if your creature has two legs, the editor knows they should be right and left, rather than both left; it knows that hands go on the end of arms and eyes go on the head etc. It’s not a big jump to imagine this idea of ‘guided design’ being applied to products, such that consumers are prevented from making bad decisions.
The software examples above work in different ways, and would expect different inputs and levels of expertise from consumers. What they have in common is the implication for industrial designers. It’s my belief, and part of my PhD’s hypothesis, that in future the designer’s role will be to define which parameters of any product are fixed, and limit or control which parameters can be changed by the consumer. I’m sure I will be returning to this subject often in the future