3-D software revolutionizes design of consumer products

Steve Johnson / San Jose Mercury News /

Published Feb 16, 2013 at 04:00AM

While developing an electric bicycle for his San Rafael, Calif., company, Marcus Hays had planned to insert a battery into one of the bike’s supporting tubes. But then he did an analysis of his concept with three-dimensional computer-aided design software.

The technology revealed another way the bike could be built.

“We learned that if we changed the shape of the tube slightly, literally by a half an inch in one direction, we were able to reduce the cost of our goods by approximately $350,000 dollars in the first 100 bikes,” said the 53-year-old founder of Pi Mobility.

In years past, anyone designing a new product had to laboriously draw their idea on paper and then erase their work or start all over on another sheet if their boss or some customer insisted on a last-minute alteration.

But that has changed with the advent of three-dimensional computer-aided design software. Used for everything from guitars, cars, toys and furniture to houses, electronic gadgets, candy bars and clothing, 3-D CAD technology allows products to be sketched out and easily modified in stunning displays that can be tilted, spun around, flipped over and viewed in countless ways.

As a result, the task of making many products has become more efficient, less expensive and quicker than ever before, according to those who use the technology. Moreover, they say, because of the software’s growing adoption by businesses, store shelves in the future will be filled with an increasing variety of new merchandise.

“The consumer will benefit definitely from this,” predicted Nicholas Talesfore, who uses the technology at his Campbell, Calif., company, ID-3D Design, to help others create items for sale. But “the downside,” he added, is there are going to be a lot of obsolete products, because newer products will come out every six months or three months.”

Although 3-D CAD has been around for half a century, its use has exploded as the technology has improved. Just about every type of consumer industry employs it today, from makers of luxury yachts to golf clubs to health products. San Jose, Calif.-based Align Technology, for example, says its technology can create 3-D digital images of patients’ teeth, which then can be turned into veneers, inlays, crowns and bridges.

With 3-D software, instead of having to erase or redraw product concepts when adjustments are required, alterations can simply be plugged into the computer, which instantly displays the new version on its screen. That lets designers not only experiment with appearance, but also substitute parts or add features to the model, and see the changes automatically reflected in every view they look at.

“It enables you to get a look at a product in the very early design process,” said Anye Spivey, CEO of Lion Hound Technology in Oakland, Calif., which used the services of ID-3D Design to create a Bluetooth iPod nano watch case that fits on a person’s wrist so they can listen to music wirelessly while exercising. “And when you are selling an idea to investors, that is a critical component.”