We live in a world full of amazing design software and hi-tech automated machines. These “tools” are designed to reduce design cycle times and leverage productivity. Companies spend a lot of money on these tools and expect a productivity pay off from their designers. Some of the new expectations are realistic and some are not.

For example, the knowledge that 3D printing exists is ubiquitous, but the actual details are often not so well understood. Ultimately, tools don’t actually do the design work and it is still based on the skills, creativity, and knowledge of the designer.

So how can a designer keep up with the ever increasing expectations of speed and productivity while also maintaining a high level of quality? The answer is to develop an evolved and modern engineering approach that doesn’t allow these tools to pigeonhole us; but instead uses jiu-jitsu to flip them back to our advantage.


Tip 1: Don’t Create Drawings during the Prototyping Phase

Creating engineering drawings is a time consuming process. Increasingly, vendors require only CAD files to create parts. These vendors are often faster and cheaper because they import the CAD data directly into their automated machines and eliminate the step of converting 2D data back to 3D.

Traditional Argument #1: Drawings are required, create them up-front to prevent getting overloaded at the end.

Counter to Traditional Argument #1: Projects evolve, and often initial concept parts change completely. Drawings for these grotesque parts, which are banished to an underworld and forced to live off the overlords’ scraps, are purely a wasted effort. All projects eventually run out of time and money. Having a demonstrable product without drawings is a lot more compelling than just drawings. There is often time at the end of a project, when sales and marketing take over, that can be used to catch up on drawings or outsource them.

Traditional Argument #2: Drawings ensure parts are made to specs.

Counter to Traditional Argument #2: CAD models contain the same dimensional data, and can contain additional information such as material and thread callouts. Any vendor worth their salt will honor the final product based on the model file and their standard listed tolerances. The designer can perform the initial inspection as they know the intent. Needless to say, procrastination has never felt so good.


Tip 2: Overdesign Versus Overanalyze

The ultimate end goal of every good designer is design optimization. To optimize a design is to use the ideal materials, in the minimum amounts by creating the perfect form – a noble goal which runs into the law of diminishing returns. This tip depends largely on the nature of the product/project. There are cases where risk is high and overdesigning is not an option or cases where volumes are high and cost is critical.

However, high risk aversion has bled into industries where the risk of failure is low. Often the only risk is creating an expensive paperweight. My desk could survive gale force winds.

Increasingly, industries are sprouting up based less on mass market products, and more on individualization/customization, or implementing new technologies in a way that creates products with so much perceived value that margins can be high. I will gladly overpay for the first light saber on the market. Too often perfectly adequate solutions are ignored while chasing after an idealized one. So the next time you find yourself fussing over some small detail for longer than you know you should, just beef it up, and when you do make a low rumbling guttural sound.


Tip 3: Get to Integration and Testing (Stressing the System) Before You Need To

The part doesn’t match the model. You followed guidelines and it worked but now it mysteriously doesn’t. Sound familiar?

Integrating and testing happens at many levels and stresses the system in new ways at each level. Issues are guaranteed to come up when working on something new in the real world. Debugging can be hugely time consuming because you are trying to solve a problem but don’t know what the problem is. Your precious design may look infallible in the safe and predictable world of your computer screen, but introduce it to elements outside your control, and your soft mewing kitten of a design is now a rampaging laser cat.

Do what you can to mitigate risk by testing COTS parts as soon as you get them, rig stuff up, get creative, and make tape your friend. Until the final assembly is built and run through its paces, you aren’t out of the woods. When you think about slowing down or resting on your accomplishments imagine being pursued by a horde of relentless zombies. Those zombies are the ones that took integration lightly, and they want to make you one of their own.


Tip 4: Playing the Lead Time Game

Getting others what they need in time to keep them going on their work is critical to the success of a project. Design time + vendor lead time + shipping time = total time to part in hand. Time after design time can be used to leapfrog to the next design task. Often the designer best knows the lead times and risks, and this information can be used to work backwards to plan the order of tasks. The project may dictate a task order so you are designing something (like the enclosure) without all the information you need (like the details of the inner workings). In these instances, the best thing to do is gather as much information as you can, communicate clearly, and move fast. Accomplish this by making educated guesses, utilizing best practices, engineering intuition, and not worrying about the chicken and egg paradox.

Traditional Argument #1: That isn’t “real engineering”.

Counter to Traditional Argument #1: It may not be real science but real engineering is about delivering. Prototypes can be made to accomplish their purpose using a little creativity and grit. Moving fast buys the potential (see tip 3) for more iterations.

If this all seems like a juggling act – it’s because it is. If keeping all those plates spinning in the air at once isn’t for you, maybe you should consider a career photographing potatoes that look like celebrities or famous historical figures.


Tip 5: Visible Progress is Motivational

In many ways design software packages have changed the game. A skilled designer can dive into the computer design world for weeks of analyzing and design iterations. Then – like magic – a truck backs up to the building and a part arrives in a perfect brown rectangular cuboid. To the non-designer, it is magic. But the thrill of the trick quickly fleets and disappearing in a cloud of smoke can leave people confused and even resentful. Design is not magic; it is sausage making, and you are a fat and jolly German.

Getting in parts quickly, that are often imperfect, pulls people in and allows everyone to get a sense of buy in. Everyone speaks the language of physical stuff, and a project doesn’t feel real until there are tangible things.

So remember: magic is kids’ stuff, show and tell is where it is at.

Guest contributor Daniel Slaski is a Mechanical Engineer with 12 years of experience designing electromechanical products for the robotics, military and medical sectors. He is a Certified SolidWorks Expert (CSE) with extensive knowledge and expertise in additive manufacturing processes. When he’s not engineering, he can be seen in the Washington DC area working on his own designs, assisting others with their designs, riding his bicycle and eating hummus. For hummus recipes, he can be contacted at [email protected]

(Feature Image via Colin Roberts)


Dan Slaski is the Lead Renegade for Renegade Prototyping and your new secret weapon/best friend for design domination. A Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineer with a long list of credentials to accompany his years of industry experience in fields including the medical, robotics, and military sectors. He has designed assemblies with hundreds of unique parts and moving components that have gone high into the earth's atmosphere, deep below the oceans and everything in between. All of this has contributed to his vast portfolio of knowledge dealing with difficult engineering problems, and a wide repertoire of skills in prototyping, manufacturing, and sourcing. Yet he still finds a way to remain humble. If you have a project that demands success you need to get on his client list ASAP.