There’s no doubt about it: we’re living in a time of change. Model Based Definition (MBD) and Model Based Enterprise (MBE) initiatives are gaining more and more traction. More manufacturers are seriously looking at Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) as a means to improve activities throughout and beyond the development cycle. And believe it or not, there are some serious implications for 3D models.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the traditional role that 3D models have played in development and then the pressures that are changing it going forward.

The Traditional Roles of 3D Models

I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone parametrically change a 3D model and its drawing updated automatically. Back then, that associativity was magical. But despite the groundbreaking innovation that represented at the time, there were a few realities that limited the role of 3D models in development. Let’s take a look at them.

  1. 3D Models as transient design tools. Then and now, you can dramatically change a 3D model using Parametric or Direct Modeling capabilities. That enabled engineers to explore lots of alternatives through iteration. They could run trade studies and really understand the design space. But once the design was done, the task turned to documenting it for production.
  2. Drawings as control authority. Even though we’ve been talking about MBD for more than a decade now, most manufacturers have designated engineering drawings as the control authority. That means the drawing is the single source of truth for downstream activities like machining, sourcing, servicing and more. In fact, I know many organizations that make changes to drawings by exporting it as a DXF file and changing the 2D entities in a Computer Aided Drafting tool instead of modifying the 3D model. Why? By changing the dimensions of the 3D model, you might run into a failure. Even if I can’t condone it as a good practice, under the tremendous schedule pressures in development, I understand why people do it.

These two realities mean that 3D models have traditionally played an important role in design, but were often merely the starting point of design and documentation. But ultimately, the 3D model could be forgotten completely.

The Changing Role of 3D Models with MBD and MBE

If your company is exploring or committed to adopting MBD or MBE, all of this changes dramatically.

With MBD, the model becomes the control authority instead of the drawing. This means the 3D model must be kept up to date always and forever. I know many organizations that have truly struggled to go through this change. Think about it. Most manufacturers have used drawings as the source of truth for 30 years, 40 years, 50 years or their entire existence. It requires downstream consumers to use new technology and capabilities. In all, this represents a substantial change.

With MBE, the model is reused by downstream departments. Manufacturing uses it for their documentation. Procurement passes it out to suppliers for bidding and sourcing. Suppliers must figure out how to estimate based on the model. Service has to create their instructions using the model. If the transition to MBD is a substantial change, this one is monumental.

In both of these cases, there are other critical implications for key development processes. The design review, change, APQP and other processes come to revolve around the 3D model. It is the key definition around which discussions can be had to document and make decisions.

The Changing Role of 3D Models with AR and VR

Right now, it seems as if the collective world is losing its mind over Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) for manufacturing. And you know what? The hype is worth it. There is some serious value in using these technologies. But there are also some serious implications for the 3D model.

With VR, the 3D model is a digital representation of the product with which someone can interact. This can replace the traditional projector attached to a computer for design reviews. It can replace physical brochures with an electronic walkthrough for sales customization. It can be the means by which manufacturing processes are proven out. With AR, the 3D model is overlaid on top of a real world physical product. Animations representing service procedures can be played, walking maintenance workers through complicated steps.

In both of these cases, the implication is that the 3D model better accurately represents the final product.


So what does this all mean?

In the past, manufacturers could (and have) used the 3D model merely as a starting point, allowing it to not accurately represent the product. Instead, it was always critical to keep the drawing accurate as the control authority. Today, however, that is changing.

If you’re pursuing MBD or MBE, then you’re already started down the path. The model is the single source of truth. Everything is a derived representation.

If you’re pursuing VR or AR, then it is critical to realize that the 3D model must accurately represent the product.

This brings us to an interesting conclusion: there is a lot of synergy between these two sets of initiatives. Both require a model-centric (or at least model-accurate) approach. So if you’re considering AR or VR, you might want to seriously consider MBD and MBE. If you are going down the road towards MBD and MBE, then you might want to seriously think about AR or VR. Because in both cases, your company will need to go through a cultural change to realize the model is the control authority.

Well folks, those are my thoughts. Let me know yours in the comments below!