Closing the Information Gap

Last month we looked at two different approaches to furniture design and began to explore how custom and semi-custom shops can utilize recent developments in technology to improve efficiency in the design process. This month I’ll continue to explore how this technology can help these shops share design information more effectively.

First, let’s look at the design-to-manufacture process after the designer has completed his or her work. Design information must be conveyed accurately to other people so that the product will be fabricated as the designer intended. Drawings, specifications, and discussion are the primary vehicles of communication that will illustrate details of construction, materials, etc. The people that will be receiving the information are estimators, manufacturers, suppliers, customers, etc. In addition to people, some details will to be communicated to machinery.

Among the vehicles used to communicate design information, drawings are the most important. The better the product is illustrated, the clearer the communication. The adage that a picture is worth a thousand words certainly holds true here. 3-D models have the ability to illustrate details far better than 2-D drawings, especially when the design becomes complex. When the features of 3-D modeling are utilized to their fullest, very little information is left to written specifications and verbal instructions, both of which are vulnerable to misinterpretation. Misinterpretation is what generates an information gap. This gap leads to costly errors that can sabotage the manufacturing process right from the beginning.

Another potential source of information gap occurs between man and machine. If 2-D drawings are used to illustrate a project, some of the geometric information can be taken directly from the drawing (assuming the drawing is done in CAD). The side panel of a cabinet is a simple example. The overall size as well as feature sizes and locations (holes, dadoes, rabbets, etc.) should be accurately drawn on the vertical section. The vertical section can be taken from the CAD drawing and brought into the CAM program. The CAM program can “read” the geometry. However, no depth information is included. The programmer needs to look at other views to get this information and then enter it manually. Even in this simple example, the process is subject to error. When products become more complex, the potential for misinterpretation becomes far greater.

Using a 3-D modeling program to design wood products can eliminate this potential source of information gap. Of course, the model has to be created accurately and must include all details of joinery. The designer needs to have an understanding of woodworking and modern manufacturing methods. The model should be constructed as an assembly with each part on its own layer. Each part can then be easily copied to its own separate file and imported into a CAM program. As in the previous example, the CAM program can read the geometry. The difference with a 3-D model is that all the geometric information is available; nothing is left for manual entry and its potential errors.

The 3-D model provides unparalleled clarity of information when used for hand-offs to people involved in the fabrication process. The assembly can be shown together and dimensioned at any point and from any angle. It can be “sliced” through at any angle and position to show how parts fit. Each part can be separated and dimensioned. An exploded view can show how it all comes together. Even hardware and other purchased items can be shown exactly how they fit and their action can be simulated to prove that everything will work without interference. Many manufacturers provide 3-D models of their products that can be inserted in place in the furniture design model.

Once a model of a piece of furniture is created, “materials” can be applied to each part of the assembly. A photorealistic rendering can then be created that will show the product by itself or in its planned environment. This is a great marketing tool that helps ensure complete customer satisfaction.

So why isn’t everyone using 3-D models to design furniture? Here are some possible reasons:

• You’ve had bad experiences in the past with 3-D modeling programs that didn’t perform as advertised.

• It takes a long time to create a complete 3-D model that provides these benefits.

• The cost of the program and training is too expensive for a small shop.

Based on what was available in the past, these are valid arguments. It may still be true if you select the wrong program for your needs. Make sure you see the program perform on one of your products. See the benefits for yourself before purchasing.

If you’re concerned about the upfront cost or about the learning curve, perhaps the best way to get started in 3-D modeling is to employ the services of an independent designer who works with 3-D modeling programs. Reducing the information gap enhances the ability to collaborate on projects. If, for example, you want to have parts made on CNC machinery and you don’t own that machinery, you can simply send a 3-D model of each part to a shop that specializes in CNC machining. All the geometry needed for machining is in the file. The only other information needed is material and grain direction.

It’s important to embrace 21st century technology to remain competitive in our global economy. In woodworking, 3-D modeling is an essential part of that technology.