Digital Sketching and the Engineering Notebook

You didn’t think we were done talking about engineering notebooks, did you?

In all seriousness, I have talked about this subject a couple times fairly recently. In a post titled The Forlorn Engineering Notebook, I wrote about the fact that technology had essentially left the engineering notebook behind. Then in a post titled Digital Notebooks for Engineering, I wrote about some potential technologies and solutions to help engineers in taking text based notes. But there’s a lot more to engineering notebooks than just text, right?

In this post, lets take a look at sketching technologies and how it relates to engineering notebooks. Ready?

What Purpose Does Sketching Fulfill in Engineering?

Ask that question to ten engineers and you’ll probably get fifteen answers. But I think the basic premise is to very quickly capture an idea for a product, part or assembly in a non-committal fashion. The medium lets you explore and iterate without being locked into one path or option. You can also quickly switch between different product concepts represented by sketches. Lay them all out side by side and you can easily compare them.

But there are other reasons too. Levent Kara at the Carnegie Mellon Department of Mechanical Engineering in his Ph.D. thesis titled Sketch Understanding for Engineering Software says it pretty well.

Sketches also serve an important role as a problem solving tool, both by aiding short term memory and by helping to make abstract problems more concrete. They compactly and efficiently represent various kinds of relationships, such as functional, temporal and geometric relationships which are often too difficult to communicate by plain text. In many disciplines, sketches provide a medium for visualizing new concepts, critiquing existing ideas and nurturing new ones, recording elusive thoughts, emphasizing key points and communicating information with other people. In the realm of engineering and architecture, sketches greatly facilitate conceptual design activities by freeing the designer from worrying about intricate details such as precise size, shape, location and color, and instead enabling him or her to focus on more critical issues that require creativity and abstraction [25]. Due to their minimalist nature, i.e. articulating only what is necessary, they enhance collaboration and communication efficiency.

Want another good answer to that question? Look no further than a post published by Chris Noessel titled Sketchnoting IxDA 2012. It gives some good insight into why and how he sketches. While this tends to be industrial-design-ish, it includes some best practices he picked up from attending the IxDA 2012 conference in Dublin. In fact, here’s Chris’ presentation from that event. Take a look.

Modern Tools for Sketching

So that sets some context for the discussion. Now. What tools are out there to help?

  • CAD-ish Sketching: In recent years, a number of CAD software providers have added tools that are quicker and easier to use than their traditional parametric feature-based offerings. These types of tools allow for an easy transition to detailed design when the time is right. This type of tool includes things like Google Sketchup and PTC’s Creo Sketch.
  • Tablet Sketching by Touch: Another trend that has emerged is sketching and conceptualizing on tablets using touch. One of the reasons I think these types of tools is gaining traction is because it resembles the interaction, at least in some ways, of using a pen and paper. Only you’re using your finger instead. And of course, accessibility in a tablet is attractive as well. Autodesk’s SketchBook app as well as less known others like Penultimate on the iPad fall into this category.

Trends For and Against CAD in Product Conceptualization

But everyone is for the latest and greatest in technology for sketching. Dr. James Self, who just completed his Doctoral Thesis on the designer’s use of design tools, wrote a very good blog post titled CAD versus Sketching, Why Ask? about some of the counter-trends with regards to CAD tools for designers. Here’s a quick excerpt outlining it.

A continuing issue in industrial design education is when to allow students to move from sketch work to 3D CAD modelling during studio practice—or whether to let them use CAD at all! I’ve heard of first year undergraduate modules where students are ‘banned’ from the use of CAD in an attempt to encourage sketchbook work and more explorative conceptual design practice.

Here are more relevant points to this discussion.

My own research has explored the increasing variety of tools the industrial designer has at their disposal to support the development and communication of design intentions. Findings indicate that sketching continues to underpin design activity. Professional experience also influences the use of sketching in support of design activity.

As part of my research I visited practicing designers at their places of work and interviewed them about their use of design tools. Interestingly, the designers often juxtaposed the affordance of sketching against the limitations of 3D CAD tools. Like many in design education, practitioners stressed the explorative, divergent affordance of sketching over the more constrained convergent nature of CAD.

Of course, when used to support design activity, both sketching and CAD tools have the ability to complement one another in a process that has at its heart the representation and communication of design intent.

I find this discussion interesting because some software providers are recognizing the points that Dr. Self is making in the prior paragraphs. And as a result, they are trying to come up with new and more freeform tools for engineers and designers to conceptualize their designs. However, it seems as if there is a perception issue that will need to be addressed longer term.

The Needs I See

While I agree with points by the folks I have referenced in this post and others in the industry, I see another need doesn’t seem to be addressed today. And that need is something akin to aggregation. By that, I mean that sketches often need to be in the context of other engineering content. Traditionally, sketches used to sit right next to textual notes, calculations, requirements and other engineering information because they were interdependent. All of this engineering information and more were captured in the engineering notebook. It was the centrally physical repository for everything that engineering authored early on in the project.

As sketching tools exist today, even with recent advances, sketches are independent ‘things’ that have little or no association with other engineering information. And engineers have little to no tools to bring them together without significant manual effort.

Conclusions and Questions

A few posts down on engineering notebooks and a few more to come. Let’s recap this one.

  • There exists a need for engineering sketching separately from creating 3D CAD models and engineering drawings. These types of sketches serve as noncommittal tools to explore design alternatives and options.
  • Modern tools for sketching seem to fall into two major categories: CAD-ish sketching tools and Tablet Touch Enabled Tools. These types of tools are making progress in emulating more freeform sketching environment.s
  • I see a need to aggregate engineering sketching into a centralized place alongside other engineering information such as text notes, calculations, requirements and more. There seems to be little to no solution for this need as of yet.

Next, I’m interested in hearing you perspective on this. What are you using for sketching today? Have you tried some of today’s modern sketching tools? What has your experience been? Sound off. Let us know your thoughts.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

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