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What you need depends on what you need

The last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about quality management in engineering projects. I’ve been finalising a new 3D yacht hull model that runs on the Friendship Framework, allowing yacht designers to exploit highly-integrated computer tools originally developed for high-budget ship design projects.

This got me thinking about Giovanni Belgrano’s keynote speech at the Fourth High-Performance Yacht Design Conference (HPYD4) in Auckland in 2012. The Principal Structural Engineer at Emirates Team New Zealand, Belgrano has seen computer aided design evolve from crude two-dimensional sketching applications into the highly-capable 3D modelling tools that today’s engineering students take for granted.

Setting the scene for a stimulating conference, Giovanni talked about the complex engineering that was being put into those wonderful AC72 hydrofoiling catamarans. At the time, we knew they were designing a catamaran. I was pretty sure it would foil, but I had no idea if any of the America's Cup teams would stick their necks out and make it so. Belgrano didn't say. Instead, he told us about co-ordinating dozens of engineers who would eventually produced several hundred drawings. He told us quality control had become a vital issue.

I couldn't agree more. More than once I’ve been disappointed to learn that some important design change didn’t make it into a prototype component. Usually that’s a minor irritation. Sometimes it can derail a project schedule.

An America’s Cup challenger has no room for delays. And you can’t afford to scrap major components, which often contain hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of materials.

One strategy is to build a three-dimensional computer model. Belgrano told HPYD4 delegates: “nothing goes on the boat, unless it goes on the model first.”

Sounds like a good idea.

I wonder, though, how relevant it is to other projects. Working with 3D parametric modelling tools, I’ve learned that three-dimensional computer models are actually computer programmes. I could have learned that from a book (“Elements of Parametric Design”, by Robert Woodbury). But there’s nothing like hands-on experience to hammer home the message. 3D models are computer programmes. Which means, of course, that they are prone to bugginess.

I’m working on a project for which I’ve used a mix of 3D modelling and simple two-dimensional drawings. I could do it Giovanni’s way. I could create every engineering drawing directly from the 3D design tool. It's easy to do that for simple components. Sometimes, though, it can be incredibly time-consuming to extract an engineering drawing from the 3D model..

The thing is, 3D modelling doesn’t eliminate all the risks. I still have to make sure that people have been given the latest drawings. I still have to make sure that every copy of every drawing has been updated. If a foundry feeds an outdated 3D model into its CNC-mill or 3D printer, I’ll get a component I don’t want.

Belgrano is right. Quality management is critical on any engineering project. We knew in March 2012 that he and the rest of Emirates Team New Zealand were working on something pretty special, and the result proves they did more things right than wrong.

Still, I don’t think 3D modelling is a panacea. It’s an excellent tool that allows us to dramatically reduce the risk associated with advanced engineering projects. It’s not be the right tool for every aspect of every project.

Like any tool, it’s only as clever as the people using it.


Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Parametric Modelling Consultant who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your requirements: hello {a}

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