Engineers around the world are in the middle of a big shift towards digital tools, as these can save time, effort and money. Although it’s great to experience how these innovations can make our lives easier, the AME-3D team of product development technicians have asked themselves where the boundaries of this new digital era lie. Where does traditional form, fit and function testing sit? And how will concepts survive the ‘what ifs’ in the future?
The digital automation tools in question
As there are so many digital tools out there, let’s start by looking at which ones are most relevant for the industrial engineering sector. Topology optimisation and generative design software are the most important ones when it comes to streamlining the concept design of new products.
Both software systems have their pros and cons. While topology optimisation quickly gives us a single best solution, this solution often needs to be redesigned for the geometry to be practical. Generative design gives us multiple solutions based on the spec we’ve provided but can fall flat when it comes to material variety and can miss material thickness options.
The look, shape and size of a product is explored in form testing, as well as weight, balance and centre of mass in some scenarios. Digital tools can help to find an optimised form, but when it comes to product development you can’t underestimate the emotional response the form of a product can evoke.
Feedback in focus groups of a new product is often emotionally led. If a product doesn’t “feel” right to the consumer, then the design needs to be changed. This feeling of rightness, be it due to how it sits in the palm of a hand, how the material choice feels or how heavy the item is compared to how heavy the consumer expects it to be, can’t always be predicted by software. It usually can’t be predicted by the industrial engineer either, which is why focus groups remain valuable.
As digital tools increase the overall design options, the physical form prototypes can be narrowed down to fewer parts suitable for late-stage testing.
Fit is expected to benefit the most from new automation software. In fit testing tolerances are tested alongside how an item physically interfaces with all other components. The product development industry has one flaw when it comes to effectively using digital tools though. Most data sets are being regurgitated. The automotive and aerospace industries have a bit of a reputation for using data that’s nearly 70 years old, so even if engineers use best practice data, this may not translate into best real-life design.
One of the team’s own projects needed continuous fit testing, as it was vital to ensure the product would work in the same way, every time. The biggest challenge this fit test needed to overcome was the self-centering clamping mechanism the product needed to ensure joiners drilled in the right place of the door, every time. Consistency of the fit was key to make sure the product worked as intended.
Another thing to consider when using automation in fit testing is new materials. New materials are continuously being explored, especially in additive manufacturing. Although data on them exists, how they will respond over longer periods of time is still a bit of a theory. Also, the way they perform can vary in different axes, some physical testing is required here.
In contrast, we expect function testing to remain the least digitally automated test principle of the three F framework. As function is the physical action an object has been designed to perform, it’s critical that this function works in practice. A virtual simulation will help to speed up the design process but with function there will come a time in the process where the physical item needs to be validated.
To truly test the function and life of a product, they need real world testing. A famous furniture brand has a rigorous wear and tear testing system for their furniture designs, a neumatic chair testing system. The system is not only used to show customers the durability of the products but gives the brand’s product engineers real data on a material’s wear and tear over time. The system was introduced in the 1960s and remains one of the company’s most relevant function tests.
AME-3D’s managing director, Rich Proctor, remarks: “Digital automation tools will change how products are developed. With them, industrial designers can speed up the design process, increase design options and reduce the overall number of physical prototypes. And I have no doubt that digital tools will enable engineers to experiment with new materials and adopt new processes like additive manufacturing quicker.
Although some people view digital tools as a replacement for form, fit and function testing, I and many others see it as an opportunity to take the three F framework to the next level. By being able to iterate faster than ever before, we can enhance how form, fit and function testing is used in product development.“