In today’s fast paced world of CAD tools and 3D printers, the term “Rapid Prototyping” is no joke. As a young engineer I often take for granted the incredible toolset at my disposal. I can take a design from the handwaving theoretical stage all the way to a detailed physical prototype in just a few days. That’s something designers and engineers in the industrial revolution era would likely have given an appendage for. I won’t pretend to understand the prototyping challenges they faced, but my limited knowledge tells me it was extremely tedious and intensive when compared to today’s methods.
The subject often reminds me of a photograph a former colleague of mine kept as his desktop background. The black and white picture (likely from the 1930s) consisted of multiple engineers and draftsmen literally laying on a city block plan the size of a large conference room. Each had special drafting pencils and was hard at work on his hands and knees drawing minute details one by one. The amount of work that has been automated or outright eliminated by our modern tools is overwhelming.
Wonderment and nostalgia aside, the fact still remains that the precedent has now been set. Today’s designers, engineers, and managers have become accustomed to getting precisely what they want, and getting it now. From my perspective this new mindset presses hard on the question: When do I stop thinking and start doing? In other words, when is my design good enough to go ahead with the inexpensive first prototype? As long as the physical size will fit into a 3d printer bed, I can be holding a model of that widget currently on my screen in just a day or two. Additionally, the cost is often so trivial it can still be useful even if I don’t consider it “done” yet.
If I am completely honest with myself I believe I know exactly what causes me to hesitate or want to analyze it “just a bit longer” before pressing the go button. This widget in front of me that I’ve been spinning around and tweaking in SolidWorks for the past several days or weeks; it is my creation. Every surface, every curve, every line has flowed down from my mind, to my fingers, to my mouse and keyboard, and into the software. At this point it’s still safe. I can show it to my colleagues and superiors for verification and they will almost unanimously say “Looks good!” or “That should work”.
As soon as I take that next step and give it a physical body, it becomes a reality. Any dimensions I transposed or interferences I overlooked will be revealed. My errors will be exposed. I believe the very foundation of human nature tells me to avoid that. I’m sure that as I advance in my career and gain experience, my fear of failure will become less and less significant. For now, though, it is something I must consciously overcome on a daily basis in order to maintain a competitive edge in today’s fast paced world of rapid prototyping. I have to draw a line in the proverbial sand and just build it!