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Using 3-D Design to Benefit Consumers

Companies find that advanced design software can generate much more useful product manuals.
April 15, 2011

Though many engineers now use sophisticated 3-D hardware instead of drafting designs on paper, the technology hasn’t filtered down to the consumer, who usually opens a box to find lengthy, confusing instruction manuals on paper. But some companies have recently begun trying to use the designs they develop in computer-aided design (CAD) software as the basis for interactive, 3-D manuals.

Exploded view: A snapshot of an assembly guide to a half-ton ball screw jack created in 3DVIA Composer.

One such company is Cane Creek Cycling Components, a private company based in North Carolina, whose engineers use a program called SolidWorks. The software lets them flip and rotate their designs, zoom in on any surface, slice cross-sections to see the inner workings of the product, and simulate how a part moves on a bike. The representation is so accurate and complete, says Cane Creek engineer Jim Morrison, that using the software has drastically cut the number of prototypes needed during the design process.

But when it comes time to create product manuals, the engineers have traditionally turned the 3-D images generated by SolidWorks into 2-D instructions, essentially by taking screen grabs from the software. It’s such a laborious process that the company tries to create general instruction sets that apply to similar parts, Morrison says. “We have to expect the consumer to generalize a little bit, so even while the part in their hand may look a little different than the part in the instruction, they’ll have to say, ‘Oh, well, this is generally the same thing.’”

Now Cane Creek is exploring whether it can pass the advantages of 3-D CAD software from the engineers to a customer fiddling with a part. Using a SolidWorks design program called 3DVIA Composer, which translates CAD data into a form suited for marketing or instructional purposes, Morrison can control which specs he wants to publish to the outside world and still give users step-by-step 3-D assembly instructions. Ultimately, Cane Creek wants to redirect customers to its website for interactive manuals. Morrison says it took him just two hours to make prototypes of instructions for a headset (which is at the front part of a bike frame) so a bike builder or owner could go online, rotate the part, and make an “exploded” view of each of its individual components.

Last year, the medical-device company Cardiovascular Systems began using 3DVIA Composer to create assembly manuals for a device that clears plaque from arteries, and recently the company began using 3-D manuals to train doctors. Even so, it isn’t using the 3-D system for training all the time. Christopher Narveson, an engineer at Cardiovascular Systems, says that’s mainly because many employees are still more familiar with how to make product guides the old-fashioned way, in 2-D.

Indeed, it may take a while for more companies to develop 3-D training materials for their customers, says Peter Rucinski, product market manager for 3DVIA Composer. Even 3-D design software itself, he says, has yet to become standard across all industries.

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