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3 Top Tools with Bre Stachowski, Mechanical Engineer

(Our “3 Top Tools with” series looks at the everyday work of Bresslergroup’s strategists, researchers, designers, and engineers through the lens of their top tools for product design. It was inspired by our collective glee over our recently expanded workshop and lab and by Core77’s Tech Specs series.)

Seeing a project develop from an idea all the way to a tangible, mass-produced object has always amazed me.

Being a part of the thinking, troubleshooting, discussions, iterations, and time that go into developing a product has given me a greater appreciation for the things I interact with every day!

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When asked to come up with my top three tools, CAD and rapid prototyping equipment were no-brainers — I am, after all, a mechanical engineer — but I had a hard time deciding between “collaborating with colleagues” and sketching. The two are directly linked.

Sketching is one of the most useful ways to facilitate collaboration. On any given day you’ll see sketches up on white boards and giant Post-its around our office, and covering our notebooks. Whether it’s describing ideas in a brainstorm, or creating a quick sketch to explain a design change during a CAD working review, nothing beats sketching as a means of ensuring quick and clear communication. But in the end it’s just one of the many ways to facilities this collaborative effort, which is what really helps me push a project to be the best that it can be. That’s why it’s number one:

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1. Collaborating with Colleagues

In the two years I’ve been in product development, I’ve encountered a huge variety of manufacturing methods and materials, design challenges, and a variety of testing requirements and regulations. I’ve helped design products whose development incorporates several disciplines and targets several different demographic groups. While the Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for working toward proficiency in something new, nothing beats getting IRL feedback and advice from a colleague with direct experience.

Many of the challenges we encounter in product development aren’t black and white. Often a series of trial and error attempts is required to understand and solve the challenge. Asking a colleague for feedback or advice is almost like gaining that “end of the project insight” before the project starts. Chances are one of my colleagues has solved a design challenge similar to the one I’m facing and can offer the advice and feedback necessary to create a strong concept from the start.

Asking a colleague for feedback or advice is almost like gaining “end of the project insight” before the project starts.

Collaboration with colleagues isn’t just about learning how to solve a challenge from someone who’s been there, it’s also useful when it comes to ideation. Being able to gain insight and bounce ideas off people with diverse experiences and backgrounds has really helped me generate innovative and creative solutions I may have never considered on my own.

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CAD in action.

2. CAD Software

CAD Software is an obvious, yet essential tool for engineers. Whether you’re on Team Solidworks or Team Creo, learning to use CAD Software in an efficient and effective manner throughout the various stages of the design process is an invaluable skill.

Personally, I tend to use CAD software in two different ways during development. In the upfront, ideation stage, I’ll use “sketch CAD.” This CAD technique is all about speed and working things out on a conceptual level. These models are usually very messy and intended to help me think through challenges in a 3D space.

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“Sketch CAD” models of a video magnifier for low-vision users.

After a concept is chosen, I often use a master modeling technique to start refining the details of the model. This technique gives me the control to modify the interaction of several parts across complex surfaces in a quick, efficient matter. Modifying a model efficiently is key when it comes to carrying a concept from an idea to a manufacturing-ready state. I have yet to have come across a project that has not undergone significant design and engineering modifications from when the model was started until when it was completed.

Taking the time to anticipate how your model may change and creating a level of robustness in your master model to adapt to those changes can save a lot of time (and headaches) down the road.

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3D printers in our prototyping lab.

3. Rapid Prototyping Equipment

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), CNC milling, Urethane Casting, Laser Cutting—there seems to be an endless list of tools available to turn a 3D CAD model into a tangible object. The importance of working with this tangible object is something that should never be overlooked in the development stages of a product.

Breadboard, alpha, and beta prototypes.

Breadboard, alpha, and beta prototypes.

At Bresslergroup, we tend to think of 3D prototypes in 3 stages:

Stage 1: Proof-of-Concept Prototypes. In this stage, it’s all about exploring and testing concepts in the cheapest and fastest way possible. This stage helps me work through how the product works and feels on a very basic level. It is also a great way to bring early ergonomic factors into consideration.

Stage 2: Alpha Prototype. This prototype stage involves working though the product’s assembly and interaction details on a deeper, but not yet refined, level.

Stage 3: Beta Prototype. Beta is the “almost ready for manufacturing release” stage. Ideally, all the kinks seen in the alpha prototype have been worked out and we verify that the added manufacturing details (such as added draft) have not affected the fit and feel of the product.

Working though details on a computer screen can only get you so far. Creating tangible prototypes quickly and frequently really helps accelerate the development process and improve the overall design.

Thanks to the abundance of rapid prototyping technologies available, I am able to turn my CAD model or a sketch into something I can hold in my hands in no time!

(Researchers and engineers and designers, oh my! Read the other entries in our 3 Top Tools with series to learn about other top tools for product design across Bresslergroup’s disciplines.)