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The Subtle Distinction Between Designing and Documenting Products

References Cited

Electrical Computer Aided Design (ECAD), Mechanical Computer Aided Design (MCAD)

Last week, I wrote about a topic that generated a lot of discussion over on LinkedIn: Who builds 3D models? Engineers? Designers? Drafters? It’s been an ongoing debate for quite some time. Coming out of that discussion, at least in my mind, I’ve come to some clarity on the topic. But not necessary from a role specific view. In general, I believe there are two sets of activities in the design phase.

  • Designing a Product: In this set of activities, the stakeholder iterates on the design and explores alternatives. They follow engineering rules and captures their design intent. This also includes all sorts of assessments of the product including calculations, simulations, checks against constraints and rules and even aesthetics. In essence, they are making decisions and defining the product.
  • Documenting a Product: In these scenarios, the stakeholder creates drawings that comply with engineering or industry standards, specifications and other deliverables that are required to manufacture the product. These are the deliverables that are ultimately released to manufacturing to make the product.

For many in the industry, one might think both of these types of activities naturally occur in engineering specific software like 3D MCAD, ECAD for PCB layout and IDEs. However, in discussions with those stakeholders responsible for designing products, I’m frequently finding they are not using those types of software applications. They’re getting it done with simpler tools that require minimal investment to accomplish what they need. This includes 2D MCAD or paper sketches, ECAD layouts or paper schematics and visual programming or UML diagrams. My point in all this is that even though a manufacturer might be using more advanced software applications like 3D MCAD, they aren’t necessarily using it to design products. Many are using it to document products.

Furthermore, you’ll notice that I’ve been carefully referring to the actors in these scenarios as stakeholders, which on my part is purposefully vague. In some cases engineers are the ones performing both of these activities. But in many others, the engineer is designing the product and then handing over the definition to a designer, who has specialized skills in terms of modeling geometry, to document the product.

So here are my question to you. Have you seen this distinction between designing and documenting products? Is this distinction formalized in your company’s processes? Is it formalized across any roles? Sound off and let me know what you’ve seen.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about some of the advancements in 3D MCAD software applications such as Spaceclaim, PTC’s new Creo, Siemen PLM’s Synchronous Technology in NX and Solid Edge and others in this context.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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  • Will DeB

    I have found that there is a perception that the two can be separate. In my experience however I have found that those that take this approach are typically only successful for a short time. It is at this time that the rubber meets the road and people other than the original designers have to start working with the documents and creating follow up work. What I have found that these individuals that think that they have done an adequate job either quit their position or find a way to place blame on the material processors in order to protect themselves. The real answer to this question should be that everyone participates in the construction of models. I have found myself using Pro-E (Creo) to not only create models but to recreate them in a manner that is consistent with how I want my tolerance stacks controlled and how the parts will actually be manufactured. Unfortunately I find that many engineers/designers today are unwilling to perform the second task and the models are never cleaned up to make them manufacturable. The drawings are a mess and the models are generally just as bad. They think they solve the problem by using STP or IGES file formats however this does not address the real issue of lack of tolerance control or the ability of the models/products to recreated at a later date with accurate updates to the tools and assembly procedures.

    I think this really comes down to a lack of “old school” talent. In the past products were designed and then the components were broken out and handed to specialists who handled the many small details to get parts made and assemblies processed. Currently the engineers that are entering the workforce are extremely qualified to run high level mathematics and simulations. Unfortunately they are not so good at putting the ball across the goal line as it were. By this I mean that they send models with poor or no drawings and they are unable to control tolerance stackups and processes.

    So my comment in short is to state that in many cases the first phase occurs and the second phase of creating the documention is done in a haphazard way or not at all.

    • Really interesting comments Will. You remind me of an article that I *think* was posted in Design News about the extinction of the Design Engineer.

      I also think that the advent of associativity between 3D models and documentation / drawings does give an incentive to design and document in parallel. You can definitely compress the overall design cycle if you don’t wait. However that paradigm has been around for 10 years or more.