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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

Universal 3D Creativity: Reality or Myth?

December 20th, 2011 by Jeff Rowe

The past couple of years we’ve been hearing that anyone can be a creative genius by using a variety of tools ranging from CAD products to rapid prototyping machines. While most people have the capacity to be creative in a certain capacity, this heady claim fails to take in to consideration that not everyone might be truly creative when it comes to creating something of real value in 3D – for either themselves or others. In other words, even with the best tools in the world, there is no guarantee that everyone will be able to create things that anybody else would really want.

The current popularity of the DIY movement has helped the “creativity for everyone” movement, but I think back 20+ years ago when another “revolution” took place in desktop publishing. Prior to desktop publishing for all, printed documents for most home computer users consisted of Courier, Helvetica, and maybe Times Roman fonts on dot matrix printers. With the introduction of Encapsulated Postscript (EPS) and more capable printers, the font possibilities were endless. So endless, in fact, that many early EPS documents with their myriad fonts looked more like ransom notes than business documents. It took a while, but eventually most people got that more fonts is not necessarily better for printed communication. I’m afraid the same thing is happening with 3D printing for visual and tactile communication, but should get more realistic and sound with time and more than just silly toys.

As an industrial designer, over the years I have critiqued designs and reviewed portfolios of ID students at design schools and conferences. The most prominent trend I’ve seen over the past several years is that students have a ton of digital tools at their disposal, but they are concentrating too much attention on the tools themselves and presentation, and not enough on the design problem they are trying to solve. Closely related to this is the fact that while a lot of pretty product designs are being created, relatively few can be manufactured economically, if at all.

When I look way back to my own creative beginnings, as a child I loved to draw on paper and Etch-A-Sketch in 2D and build things in 3D with Legos, Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, and wood with nails. Did I create anything of real value that appealed to anyone but myself? Honestly, no, but it did spark a an interest in a formal education in design and engineering, as well as fostering a lifelong interest and appreciation for good design.

With the advent of easier to use and affordable (a lot even free) 3D software and hardware, will creativity proliferate? Certainly it will to an extent, but let’s be realistic on the quality and value of the vast majority of the things produced. While there is some reality to the thought that everyone can be creative and produce things in 3D, there is also a good deal of myth with regard to what is actually being created. However, new creative hands-on skills are being learned and put into practice, which is a good thing.

I applaud the efforts that some of the 3D software and hardware vendors have put forth in getting their technologies into the hands of a new type of user. I would just caution the vendors from overselling the promise of creativity for everyone that will result in stunning designs. A small percentage of the designs might have value, but as with products coming out of the professional community, many probably won’t.

Don’t get me wrong, along with DIY, I think it’s a great movement and should be strongly encouraged, we just need to sort out myth from reality when it comes to creating things in 3D.

Since this is such an interesting, strong movement, I’ll come back to this topic many times in the future, especially as I check out a number of the 3D software and hardware products and services for myself. Let’s get creative!

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2 Responses to “Universal 3D Creativity: Reality or Myth?”

  1. David Prawel says:

    Jeff, I think you make some interesting points. First, on design… How many products do you try to use and wonder why the designers made it work this way? What could they have been thinking? Did they ever acually use this thing? Design is a creative process that has to be derived from a deep understanding of the experience that is being created, and then a concentration on form, fit and function to deliver that experience. This is the big thing Steve Jobs and his crew at Apple taught the world. Give customers an experience that they want to have with a product and THEN leverage technology to deliver the experience.
    The second point relates to a human’s innate ability to understand 3D information. The toughest issues we have to deal with in getting people to collaborate in good design are people issues. As we think about how people share information and collaborate we also need to consider how people understand information. There was a study done a few years ago by the Johnson O’Connor research Institute. (They do cognitive research.) They found that 30% of high school educated people cannot understand 3D – they simply can’t perceive it. So if you want to implement a collaborative process to design a product in 3D, remember that 30% of your people probably can’t understand it. And by the way, another 30% have a 50/50 chance and only about 40% can actually understand information presented in 3D. The good news is that this will likely improve. Our third-generation of computer users are now entering the workforce, and these people are much better trained in new technology and 3D, thanks to things like smart-phones, computer games and the new generation of great CAD tools.

  2. Mike LaCroix says:

    Hello Jeff:

    I think the idea of universal 3D creativity depends on the target market. When I look at the design area outside of “Product” design (things that people buy) most of the 3D design work is either in “game” component design or for DIY activities. And from from what I see it’s an anything goes area and it usually doesn’t require an actual item be built so in those cases whether or not the design is manufacturable or not is of no consequence. The result there is that it becomes possible for anyone to create a “Pretty” design. On the other hand (where the rubber meets the road) the constraints of being able to actually make the design hinders the idea of universal 3D creativity. Personally I am an electronics engineer and over my 30 plus years of work I have developed many products. While I am not a schooled mechanical/industrial engineer I have over the years learned to be very capable in mechanical product design. I was lucky to learn MCAD using CADAM from IBM long before Autocad. And as time went by I learned 3D using CATIA, UG, Solidworks, etc. All the while I was heavily involved with manufacturing processes used by the various companies that I worked for. Of all of my on the job training it was the understanding of actual manufacturing processes that allowed me to design product in 3D that were actually manufacturable. An old automotive engineer told me once that if you don’t know how a car is manufactured you can’t design one and he gave me all kinds of examples of young engineers who could’nt understand why their designs didn’t work. In the end, while the plethora of 3D design and analysis software available makes it possible for anyone to actual create a 3D design, these tools do not create a substitute for a trained engineer. Creating a design in 3D that is essentially a “shell” without all of the sub-components is just a picture and until the creators can actually design the sub-components as well, universal 3D won’t occur. Drawing pictures is universal, creating manufacturable 3D designs will only become universal when everyone has the ability to create all of the design components.

    Finally, in order for true universality in 3D design to occur a “Standard” file format for 3D designs needs to be created and used by all MCAD vendors. Don’t see that happening anytime soon.


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