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A Strategy for the Introduction of 3D CAD into Industrial Design Courses

by Gill Chapman, Senior Lecturer in Computer Aided Design, School of Cultural Studies, Sheffield Hallam University.

The introduction of 3D CAD into industrial design BA courses across the country has been patchy at best. CAD hardware and software has frequently appeared in institutions as a result of the enthusiasm of a few individuals who have used a particular CAD system themselves or been bowled over by an impressive demonstration. All too often, it is then left to languish largely unused because no-one has the time or the expertise to develop a clear strategy for its comprehensive introduction into the course. Sometimes a few keen students will manage to produce some impressive computer graphics which are much in demand by heads of department for New University prospectuses, but these rarely give an accurate picture of the experience of the majority of students.

At Sheffield Hallam University a conscious attempt has been made to evolve a coherent teaching and learning strategy for both our industrial design courses and to some extent for other art and design courses also. The two courses most closely involved in the strategy described in this case study are BA(Hons) Product Design and BA(Hons) Design with Applied Technology. Common problems which bedevil an exercise such as this will be investigated first, followed by a description of the major characteristics of the new strategy set up to deal with them. The teaching and learning plan will then be detailed and the results from three years experience analysed.

1. Problems for the Introduction of IT

The reasons why the introduction of computing into courses has tended to be problematic are numerous and varied. It was necessary to understand some of the problems before a strategy could be evolved to overcome them, while others became evident as the strategy progressed. Some are theoretical or even philosophical, while others are severely practical. Some of the problems relate particularly to industrial design, whereas others are shared more widely with other areas of art and design education. Michael Kitson, for example, suggests that an increasing gap is developing between what is actually taught in design schools and 'the expertise required of those pioneering and practising in the design industry' [1]. This view is supported by our own research [2]. But why is this?

1.1. Hostility to Technology

One of the most controversial problems and perhaps the most pervasive and difficult to combat is the almost subconscious fear and dislike of new technology which has bedevilled British design for more than a century [3]. This hostility is naturally reflected within design education, which is generally more comfortable with a craft tradition than a 'high tech' one. We see a threat to the former from the latter which may or may not be justified.

Joseph Wiezenbaum, in his seminal work 'Computer Power and Human Reason' [4] explains why this is so. Traditional tools have evolved over many years - in some cases centuries - to fit their function. In doing so they have taken on a larger role and come to 'symbolise the activity they enable'. It is not surprising that practitioners have confidence in these tools and see new and unfamiliar tools, such as computers, as a threat. In his recent study, Robin Baker [5] points out that we are still in a transitional phase in the development of a computer aesthetic similar to that in the development of the motor car when it was still seen as a 'horseless carriage'. Artists and designers are mostly using computers to do what they have always done and measuring their new tools against the old ones using the saxne criteria. We are only just bcginning to sce the computer as a new medium in its own right, which will lead to completely new kinds of activity. This, of course, is another threat to many people.

Fear such as this underlies the widespread feeling among many artists and designers that the computer should be used, if at all, as a 'dogs body' for boring and repetitive tasks and that it cannot be used creatively. Indeed, many feel that its use has a strongly negative effect on creativity. It is true that the results of computer art and design so far have been of very mixed quality, but this is inevitable at this early stage in the use of a new medium. Robin Baker has 'been unable to detect any fundamental problem with [the computer's] imaginative use' and feels that its creative potential is now undeniable.

Both sides of this debate were (and are) represented within industrial design staff at Sheffield, and within the student body. Certainly, previous experience suggested that many students could see the benefits of the computer for presentation work, but few were using it as a creative tool, as a means of sparking their imaginations at the concept stage of a design. Opinions differed as to whether this was an innate limitation of the tool or a result of the difficulty students had in climbing the initial learning curve to the point where they could use it so freely that they really were in a position to discover its creative possibilities. By evolving strategies to overcome the initial difficulties we hoped to find out.

1.2. No Lead from Industry

As well as concerns about technology and creativity those of us in education also tend towards a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the industry for which we provide graduates. As economic depression within design continues and jobs for our students become harder to get we have recognised that we must listen more and more closely to what industry wants, but we are uneasy about the loss of academic 'freedom' that this seems to imply. Part of this problem may be that we see our increasing closeness to industry too much in terms of following their lead and not enough in terms of supplying a lead of our own.

This is a particular problem for the area of CAD in industrial design, because there is no clear lead from industry to follow. The graphic design industry has embraced 2D computer graphics to such an extent that the practice of their profession is now almost entirely dependent upon the mastery of an Apple Macintosh. Education has had no choice but to go along with this and so graphic design courses are perhaps the best organised of all design courses in terms of their IT provision. Architecture has grudgingly accepted the benefits of at least computer aided draughting and few of their students have not been introduced to AutoCAD, although 3D CAD is still not universal. In industrial design the position is extremely confused, as our own research has shown [2]. Engineering drawings are usuaMy done on 2D CAD systems, but these are produced by technicians not by designers. Large companies sometimes have 3D CAD systems, but again these are generally used by the engineers not the designers, and there is no clear industry favourite. Design consultancies can rarely afford 3D CAD, and they also have the problem of compatibility with the different systems of their various clients. The difficulty is as much one of the radical change in working practices demanded by new technology as of the technology itself. The buzz word for this new way of working is 'concurrent engineering', which is at least party dependent on the ability to create a single 'data model'. It seems at present that industry in general is still teetering on the brink of making a full commitment to this revolution.

1.3. Doubts about Educational Value

Debates about what technological skills students actually need shade into debates about the educational value of those skills. All agree that skills teaching should not only be an end of better design education but a means towards it as well. Drawing and modelling skills are taught not only becausc students nced them, but because it is through the thoughtful exercise of these skills that they learn to become designers. If there are doubts about the creative potential of computers there will also be doubts about whether it is really good for students to spend much time on them. The fear of new technology that many staff feel is expressed in terms of concern about the time that IT teaching takes away from other activities which are perceived as being more essential to the learning process.

There is also concern over the way in which IT teaching is - or is not - integrated into the rest of design's project based learning. Computer based design usually takes place in a different place and at a separate time from other project work. Often, this problem is compounded because the teaching of such skills is in the hands of different staff from studio and workshop work, staff who may not even be designers themselves. These are very real problems which have to be addressed in any learning strategy.

1.4. Lack of Time and Expertise

Even if it is accepted that students need to learn about certain computer based activities there are a number of practical difficulties that stand in the way. As we all know only too well, new university lecturers are coming under increasing pressure both to teach more students and to do more research. Three years ago less than half the industrial design staff in Sheffield had first- hand experience of CAD, and of those who did very few had extensive or up-to-date knowledge on which to draw. Eiven those who were enthusiastic lacked the time to develop their interest to the extent of writing or supporting new course units. It is likely that this was (and perhaps still is) a fairly typical situation.

The background of the students was also a problem. All children pick up basic drawing skills at an early age, and industrial design students usually arrive with at least some basic understanding of the workshop environment. Skills teaching is therefore building on a pre-existing base, rather starting from scratch. Basic computer literacy is generally higher among incoming students than among many staff and it is continuing to rise, but few of them have used CAD before they arrive and even fewer have worked in 3D on a computer. Some still arrive without ever having touched a keyboard, so any IT teaching programme would have to begin right at the beginning.

1.5. Cost

The sheer cost of IT hardware and software seems to many people to be the major stumbling block to becoming seriously involved in teaching in this area. In the penny-pinching world of post-Thatcherite higher education how could we hope to keep up with the fast-moving and technologically sophisticated field of Computer Aided Design? It is certainly true that there is a serious resource implication for any new IT plan; however one of the aims of this report is to show that cost is not, in fact, the most important consideration and neither is it an insurmountable problem. The constantly falling price of equipment means that it is now possible to provide facilities for large numbers of students to leam the skills and concepts which they will need to operate successfully in the new environment, providing that priorities are carefully defined.

2. Maior Characteristics of the New Strategy

2.1 Mass Provision

Confronting these problems clarified the areas in which decisions had to be made. Lacking any clear lead from industry as it is now, the only option was to try and look ahead and make an intelligent guess as to the situation which our students will encounter at some point during the next ten or fifteen years. We believe that industry will then need graduates who are competent with 3D CAD and able to work within the new environment that the widespread use of this technology will create. By following the lead of the small section of industry which is looking to the future we hope to keep our graduates at the forefront of developments ratner than trailing behind them. We may even be in a position to provide a lead of our own.

One of the first and most important decisions which was taken, therefore, and it was one which we believe marks us out from most other 3D Design courses, was to provide IT skills at a high level for all the industrial design students and not just for a favoured few. But this would mean that a low-cost hardware and software platfonn would have to be accepted, while the areas of industry which have taken this route so far are generally in a position to spend millions of pounds on equipment. In this situation, the ambition to remain at the 'cutting edge' seemed ludicrous. As many people have found to their cost, it is never possible for educational institutions to keep up with the latest technological developments even if they settle for a small number of workstations, and the decision was already taken not to settle for a small number. The way out of this dilemma was to take a different approach and concentrate on the cutting edge of ideas rather than on the cutting edge of computer hardware and software development. When the real essentials were properly analysed and the options were fully examined, it became clear that an understanding of the place of CAD and the really quite basic skills necessary for exploring it can now be taught successfully using a low-cost platform.

When the opportunity arose to purchase new equipment it was decided that the basic teaching platform would be a PC network running Intergraph MicroStation, at a cost three years ago of approxa 45,000 UKpounds out of a total budget of 70,000 UKpounds (see my other case study, 'Intergraph MicroStation for 3D Industrial Design', section 5). When the teaching and learning strategy was properly thought out, it became possible to concentrate on the cutting edge of thinking about the use to be made of the new tool rather than on trying to keep up with the very latest version of the tool.

2.2. Three Dimensional CAD

The second innovative decision that was taken was to put three dimensional CAD at the heart of the strategy. In many places 2D draughting is taught first and then followed, if at all, by 3D modelling. We decided to reverse this order and put creation of the model in first place. This was pardy due to the Aeap of faith' already taken about the future of industry. Even more important was the fact that this approach has far greater educational potential for a three dimensional designer. Once the concepts of computer modelling have been grasped and the particular language of the software package learned the student should be freed to explore three dimensional ideas in ways which can often be quicker and easier than by conventional means. S/he is forced to think in three dimensions at every stage, something many students find hard if they design initially on paper. Once built, the 'working model' can be tested and analysed, altered and refined. Eventually it can be presented in a variety of imaginative ways.

Experience shows that teaching 3D before 2D also works better from the point of view of skills acquisition. It is important to encourage the students to see the screen as a window into a 3D world and not as another piece of flat paper to be drawn on. Once they are familiar with 3D the students found the drop back to 2D comparatively easy, whereas a year spent on 2D would make the transition to 3D soom unacceptably difficult for many of them.

2.3. Integration into Project Work

Studio and workshop skills are largely integrated into design projects and taught by the same people who are giving students guidance about their designs. It is arguable whether design can be 'taught' at all - it may be that it would be more true to say that we enable students to leam about design rather than that we teach it. In any case, it is often hard to detect where 'skills teaching' ends and 'design teaching' begins. The students leam to design at the same time as they leam their skills, and the fommer is at least partly dependant on the latter. Ideally, this would also be true of CAD skills, but the lack of staff time and expertise seemed to make this impossible. It was decided that a compromise would have to be reached, at least initially. The only way to ensure that a comprehensive IT strategy would be put in place and carried through was to create a new specialist post so that the responsibility for CAD development was given to someone who had both the right background and the time to devote to it. However, the eventual aim was still that IT teaching should be integrated into design activity as a whole, and it was therefore crucial that the post holder should have a design background as well as a computing one. I took the job in October l990, with qualifications in both design and in computer graphics, and from the start I saw my brief to be to develop an IT strategy in consultation with existing staff, to integrate it as far as possible into design projects and to involve my colleagues with CAD teaching so that eventually it would be done by the same staff members who were working with the students in the studios and workshops.

2.4. The necessary skills

The main planks of our philosophy for CAD education were now in place. A lead would be taken from that (still small) section of industry that we believed was in touch with future developments and a lead would be provided for the rest. All our students would be given the necessary skills to cope with the challenges of the new environment, not just a favoured few. The use of 3D CAD would be central, and would be encouraged as an educational and creative tool. IT teaching would be integrated as far as possible into the rest of design learning. It was now necessary to think about what we wanted the students to learn, in practical terms, to achieve these aims.

3. The Teaching and Learning Plan

What follows is a description of a typical student experience. It has remained the same in essence for three years, although some variations of detail have been tried over that time. See 'Intergraph MicroStation for 3D Industrial Design', section 6, for a description of the software used and more details of specific skills.

All the industrial design students now do a 'Design with Computing' unit in their first year. Because they are learning all, or many, of these new skills from scratch, we have found that the most efficient way to teach them is in formal classes until the basics are mastered, followed as soon as possible by some project work which shows the students how their new skills can be integrated into their designing while at the same time their skills are extended and enhanced. It is hoped that at some point in this process the students will find they are confident with their new tools to the point where they can begin to spark off new creative ideas. This is the point at which we feel we have succeeded.

3.1. Graphic Design with Computers

This part of the unit is intended to:

It is taught in four weekly sessions of one and a half hours each, followed by supervised project work. Students are divided into groups so that they have a computer each. Computer familiarisation is followed by word-processing, page layout and text and graphic manipulation. At least part of the course is always taught by a graphic designer. The capabilities of drawing and painting packages are demonstrated and students are encouraged to explore these further in their own time. Students are assessed via a short project involving the combination of text and graphics, such as the production of an illustrated 'self description'.

3.2. 3D CAD Modelling

This course is also part of the first year 'Design with Computing' unit and is designed to:

The course consists of eight hours of formal class teaching followed by a two week design project in which the use of the computer is compulsory. For the classes, students are divided into groups of about twelve. The teaching method is a combination of class notes which the students work through at their own pace with formal demonstrations and discussion of the modelling principles involved. Classes were initially taught by myself, but some of them are now taught by other members of industrial design staff.

The project is a fairly free conceptual 3D design project, involving myself and the studio/workshop lecturers in overlapping roles. For example, last year the brief was to design a 'family' of candlesticks for use in a restaurant of the student's choice [Fig 1]. This allowed the students to explore three dimensional form and discover how the computer can assist in this task. Marks were awarded for the quality and appropriatencss of thc design and for the way in which students had used their computer skills to benefit their work.

Having completed the first year unit, students may chose to use CAD for any of their design projects. There is at least one project in the second year where a CAD model is specified in the brief as being an appropriate, although optional, alternative to a workshop model [Fig 2]. The students who choose to extend their skills in this way lay a strong foundation for further sDecialist work in the third year.

3.3. 2D Draughting

As previously mentioned, 2D draughting is learned after modelling, not before. This is not only because this fits our philosophy better, but because experience shows that it works better educationally as well.

2D draughting is approached in two ways. Because the same software is used for modelling as for draughting [6], it seems to be the case that, once familiar with the package from their modelling course, any student can use it for traditional 2D engineering drawing with a bit of help from the manual and support from staff if necessary. At this stage their problems stem largely from a lack of understanding of technical drawing conventions rather than from difficulty with the computer. The second and more interesting approach is one that is still being worked on. Students are encouraged to take 2D drawings from an existing 3D model rather than drawing in 2D from scratch. We are constantly looking for ways of maximising the computer model in as many directions as possible, reflecting the use of a single 'data model' which is at the heart of concurrent engineering industrial practise.

3.4. Presentation and Animation

Presentation techniques, touched on in Year 1, are extended and developed in Years 2 and 3. In Year 3 some students choose to learn some animation also, with the use of this technique as a means of demonstrating 'working models' to the fore. This part of the course has been bedevilled by technical problems (See 'Intergraph MicroStation for 3D Industrial Design', section 7), but several students have managed to produce excellent work despite these. It is a popular aspect of our computer work, providing the icing on the solid cake of the students' modelling success. It is also useful showcase material. In future, we hope to approach advanced techniques in a more structured way (see section 4.2).

3.5. CNC and CADCAM

Apart from work done on an individual basis by a few students this aspect of our stated aims is only now being put in place. Last year one of the third year product designers took a design right through from a CAD model to a stereo-lithography one, with the help of two different industrial sponsors. Other students have pursued CNC and finite element analysis work for specific projects with the help of our Eingineering department, and it has also been possible to do some small-scale CNC in the design workshops.

4. Results and Future Developments

4.1. Teaching and Learning

The first year unit has now run three times in more-or-less its present form and as I write, a fourth First Year is embarking on it. Most of the students completed the course satisfactorily from the point of view of skills acquisition, particularly those using the new software. Several of thcse began to usc the computcr creatively even in their first project, experimenting extensively with 3D form and coming up with designs which they would never have thought of had they been using conventional means. We were particularly pleased with this development.

From the point of view of further specialist work it is clear that the numbers of students choosing to use the computer for project work in their second and third years is increasing every year. The standards reached do not differ much with the kind of software used . Once the student has climbed the learning curve the results depend on the design ability of the student and not on the particular tool that is used, as is the case with any other design activity. As would be expected, the only difference is that when the learning curve is easier more students persevere with it.

4.2. Specialist Work

Although almost all the students succeed in mastering 3D CAD to the point where they will feel comfortable with it in the workplace, more specialist work is still done by a minority of students only. A compulsory CAD element in a Year 2 project has been tried, but has found to be counter- productive for those students who feel - not unreasonably - that they do not wish to specialise further in this area. On the other hand, those students who have persevered have often felt that their work load is too great in comparison with those who have not. There has not been sufficient space given to the subject in Year 2 for animation techniques or CAM to be properly taught, leaving keen students to pick skills up on an individual basis in Year 3. This is not an efficient way of teaching for staff who are constantly being asked to reduce student contact time.

This means that students still need to be exceptionally keen to progress to advanced computer work. Every year several Third Year students do produce impressive presentation and animation work, but only one of our students has so far completed a project which could really be said to be at the cutting edge of new technology and the resulting new practise of design. The fact that nearly all students are proficient at an unusually high level for BA worlc and that they are all aware of the possibilities demonstrated by those who have gone further mean that this is hardly a failure. Nevertheless, improvements are being sought.

Next year a new specialised CAD unit is to be introduced into Year 2, to run alongside other options within the industrial design degrees. This option will give students the opportunity to investigate the cultural impact of computing on art and design and its effect on industry. It will also give them time to develop their skills in either presentation and animation work or in CNC and CAM. Satisfactory completion of this unit, plus a high level of computer based work in the Third Year Learning Contract, will entitle the student to the degree of BA(Hons) Industrial Design (CAD) (subject to validation).

4.3. Postgraduate Development

A major spin-off of our new strategy, combined with the findings of our research project into the impact of IT on the professional practice of Product Design [2], has been the establishment of a new MA course, Design, New Technology and Project Management. In this course we hope to produce designers and other professionals who will be in a position to take a lead in the new industrial environment which we believe is coming. We believe our BA graduates also will be well equipped to take their place in that world.


[1] Kitson, Michael 'Computer Graphics in Art-and-Design Education: the Problem of Planning for Change', Leonardo, Vol. 24, No. 5, 1991.

[2] See 'The Management of IT in the Professional Practice of 3D Design', from the Art & Design Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University.

[3] e.g. Wiener, Martin J. 'Einglish Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980', Penguin, 1985.

[4] Wiezenbaum, Joseph 'Computer Power and Human Reason', Penguin, 1984.

[5] Baker, Robin 'Designing the Future', Thames & Hudson, 1993.

[6] See 'Intergraph MicroStation for 3D Industrial Design'


Fig 1: Candlestick designed by a first-year student after experimenting with 3D form in the computer.

Fig 2: An example of second-year project work, to design play equipment.

Fig 3: A model of a Lawn Aerator designed by a third-year student,.

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