View from the top: A new dimension

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

Paul Fanning talks to Glenn Jarrett, Global Head of Product Marketing at RS Components, about the company's latest moves and innovations.

Once the preserve of only the largest of companies, the ability to create designs in 3D and also quickly build a prototype of that design is fast becoming available to all in a kind of democratization of design technology.

RS Components, a high service distributor of electronics and maintenance products, has recently made two major announcements in this area: new free-to-download 3D modelling software and the availability of the latest low-cost self-replicating RepRapPro 3D printer.

Although the ability to design using 3D solid modelling tools became a reality in 1980s, it has largely been available only to large organisations employing CAD specialists. Traditional 3D software employs what is called feature- or parametric-based methodologies, which essentially has evolved over time as a result of the computing hardware available at the time.

Because of the lack of number-crunching performance available, this methodology held the advantage over alternatives as it broke down a design into a list of individual parameter-driven steps or features, which acted as instructions to create the shape of the part and enabled the hardware to create and work with models in something vaguely approaching real time. However, that was then and this is today.

Developed by RS Components in conjunction with SpaceClaim, a leading provider of flexible and affordable 3D modelling software, the free-to-download DesignSpark Mechanical 3D modelling software tool takes full advantage of modern computing power and employs a powerful methodology called direct modelling.


Very different from traditional 3D tools, the software uses simple gestures that enable real-time editing and instant feedback, making it possible for engineers and others to create geometry and easily explore ideas and product concepts in 3D. All basic designs can be achieved quickly and easily via the use of four basic tools – Pull, Move, Fill and Combine – in addition to the tool's employment of familiar Windows keyboard shortcuts such as cut/paste, undo/redo, which makes it highly intuitive for new users.

DesignSpark Mechanical therefore overcomes the two major barriers to entry faced by new users that could benefit enormously from the use of 3D modelling to quickly develop sophisticated concepts and products. These impediments are the prohibitive costs and the considerable investment in learning time associated with traditional 3D CAD tools.

However, DesignSpark Mechanical is free and its ease of use means that engineers and others involved in product development can become fully conversant with the software within minutes, rather than the weeks or months required to become skilled with traditional 3D software tools.

DesignSpark Mechanical can also be used as a complementary 3D tool in the product development process for the creation of early concept designs, for instance, alongside 3D CAD tools that are already in use today. The tool can remove bottlenecks in the early design process by allowing changes and additions in seconds, rather than having to wait for the CAD department using the traditional 3D tools to rework the design.

The tool can also import circuit layout files in IDF format from any PCB design tool, including the award-winning DesignSpark PCB software, which was also developed by RS. In addition, DesignSpark Mechanical enables 3D designs to be exported in STL, the standard file format to enable rapid prototyping builds and computer-aided manufacturing.

All of which bring us to the second element in this democratization of 3D design: the ability to quickly build a prototype design via the use of 3D printing technology, which is fast becoming available at low cost and can create quick-turn-around prototypes and save months in the design cycle.

While the barriers to adoption in the past have been the cost of hardware and a lack of easy-to-use design software for non-CAD specialists, the RepRap open-source self-replicating 3D printer initiative, together with DesignSpark Mechanical, is presenting companies and developers with an opportunity to shorten the product development process and inspire innovation.

The ability to build prototypes rapidly is revolutionising product development – machine skills are not required to deliver prototypes, enabling huge time-to-market benefits as well as delivering a significant increase in design freedom. There has been significant improvement in the product-development process across a wide range of industries and 3D printing is being used to design and test new concepts in companies both large and small as an alternative to employing custom machine tools to make early prototypes of new parts or components. The method allows product developers to have a prototype in a matter of hours or days compared with weeks or months previously.

But the process offers more than just saving time and cost; rapid prototyping using 3D printing is producing more innovative and higher quality products. Product developers no longer have to wait for tools or parts to come back from outside machine shops or injection-moulding houses. 3D printers allow the physical testing and further refining and improving of prototypes before committing a product to mass production.

A major dynamic in 3D printing is the movement for open source and 3D printer self-replication. The 'Replicating Rapid Prototyper' project, also known as 'RepRap', was founded in 2004 by Adrian Bowyer, a former Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Bath University in the UK, and is an initiative to develop a low-cost 3D printer that can print most of its own components and all of its plastic parts. RepRap specifies that all the remaining components required for the construction of a duplicate machine, such as the electric motor and electronics assemblies and various other components must be relatively cheap and simple to obtain.

RepRapPro, the commercial arm of the RepRap project, has already launched Huxley and Mendel 3D printers, both selling at a cost of a few hundred pounds sterling as a kit of parts, with or without the printed plastic components. The latest RepRapPro design is the Ormerod complete 3D printing kit, which is now available via RS Components and enables design engineers around the world to develop sophisticated concepts and products incredibly quickly and inexpensively. Also suitable for small production runs, the Ormerod is one of the most versatile 3D printers available: it is easy to expand in functionality, fast to replicate and fast to assemble.

The availability of low-cost 3D printing technology with the RepRapPro Ormerod together with the free and intuitive DesignSpark Mechanical, and also an extensive library of 3D component models available from RS, means that 3D design and rapid prototyping is now available to a much wider universe of users and not just CAD specialists.

DesignSpark Mechanical is available for free download from www.designspark.com/mechanical and support for the tool can be found via the DesignSpark community at www.designspark.com. Further information on RepRapPro is available a www.reprappro.com.


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