This is a resend of a message that I sent the list last week when the server
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Hi Folks, here's an excellent article on our industry from yesterday's New
York Times. It's online at
President, Ennex Corporation
Los Angeles, USA, (310) 397-1314
November 5, 2001
Making Better Toys and Jumbo Jets by Sharing the Rough Draft
By SCOTT KIRSNER
For Mike Barbato, making changes to three-dimensional objects and beaming
them to colleagues around the world has become as easy as altering a
sentence in a shared word-processing document.
Mr. Barbato is the director of engineering at Equity Marketing in Los
Angeles, which designs many of the promotional toys that are given away by
Burger King. Like most companies that make toys, cars, cellphones and other
consumer products, Equity used to start a project with a lump of clay, from
which designers sculptured a series of models and shipped them to customers,
licensers and safety consultants for approvals. Finally, a model would be
sent to the company's manufacturing office in Hong Kong, which determined
whether the toy could be produced as designed.
Now, with the help of two novel tools that allow designers to operate in
three dimensions, Equity's employees can work simultaneously on a single
design, print out copies for review and "fax" them to the Hong Kong office
for immediate advice.
"We've found these tools to be extremely powerful," Mr. Barbato said.
"They've reduced our cycle time, from the initial product brief to tooling,
by at least two weeks."
The technologies that Equity uses -- FreeForm, a device made by SensAble
Technologies, and the ThermoJet printer, made by 3D Systems -- are part of a
raft of innovations changing how companies design products, thereby opening
the door for greater collaboration, shorter cycle times, higher quality and
wider customizing. These innovations are often grouped under the rubric
FreeForm lets designers use their hands to shape and refine objects that
exist only on a computer screen but have the same tactile qualities as the
clay or plastic foam they are accustomed to working with. The ThermoJet, a
solid-object printer about the size of a large copy machine, produces shapes
by spraying layers of plastic from a set of nozzles. A similar printer from
the Z Corporation can render objects in 64 million colors and produce a
model the size of a football in about two hours. Color scanners from
companies like Arius 3D can import existing objects into the computer to
serve as templates for changes or new designs, and a monitor being developed
by Actuality Systems displays three-dimensional objects in a dome of glass.
"The marginal cost of doing different iterations of a product design used to
be extremely high, and it took a long time to do each iteration," said
Michael Schrage, a researcher at the M.I.T. Media Lab and the author of
"Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate."
He said that these tools "completely transform the economics and the social
dynamics of model-making."
"It becomes as easy to change a slope on a car's hood as it is to change a
typeface in the company newsletter," Mr. Schrage said. He thinks that the
ability to make such changes easily can yield significant competitive
Equity Marketing has already benefited from the innovations, Mr. Barbato
said. In the industry, there has been an increase in the number of recalls
of promotional toys because of safety concerns, so designers at Equity can
now deliver the company's prototypes to safety consultants earlier in the
Now, the initial rough sculpture takes five days to make, not three weeks,
Mr. Barbato said. Designers who have worked on a character before -- Bart
Simpson, for example -- can use last year's toy as a template instead of
starting with a lump of clay. And Equity's engineers in Asia can spot
One chief advantage of the new technology is that it allows various
departments to work simultaneously, instead of sequentially, on a product.
At Gillette, Jill Shurtleff, a senior industrial designer, said that working
with digital designs allowed for "concurrent engineering."
"I can be working on the same model as a mechanical engineer," she said.
"The purchasing department can be getting quotes on the material costs, and
if vendors are within our confidential sphere, they can see it, too."
At the Ford Motor Company, some departments are sending three-dimensional
models of parts to suppliers, as well as traditional requests for price
quotations. Ford executives have found that suppliers tend to respond with
lower prices when they have a better idea of what they are expected to
Marina Hatsopoulos, the chief executive of the Z Corporation, which makes
three-dimensional printers, agreed. Companies "find they get much lower
quotes when they send a three-D model along with the request."
In designing Gillette's Venus razor for women, Ms. Shurtleff found she could
not get the "very organic, undulating form" she wanted by creating models on
a computer screen. So, she made a prototype by hand, scanned the
three-dimensional model into the computer and refined it.
Arius 3D, the maker of a new three-dimensional scanning technology, predicts
that its tool, a color scanner, will also help at the end of the design
process, when the first samples roll off the assembly line.
"You'll be able to scan the object, e-mail it around the company and get
people's feedback as to whether it's acceptable," said Walter Noot, the
chief operating officer of Arius. Because the new tools reduce the time and
cost of designing products, some companies find they can afford to produce
variations on existing designs. "Each of the retailers we supply products to
wants their own unique item," said Mike Zerbe, a senior model maker at Graco
Children's Products, which makes strollers, cribs and other baby items.
Some analysts expect the three-dimensional technology to encourage more
customizing as it becomes less expensive. A color three-dimensional printer
from the Z Corporation sells for $64,000; the FreeForm system from SensAble
For example, one thing that Nokia, the cellphone maker, is known for is
letting customers choose different faceplates for their phones, said B.
Joseph Pine, a consultant at Strategic Horizons and a co-author of "Mass
Customization." He said that one of his recent recommendations to Nokia was
that "they ought to have mass-customized skeletons that, for example, fit
the hand of the person who buys them."
One catch, however, is that buyers must be willing to pay a premium for the
customized products to justify the investment in the technology, Mr. Pine
said. But a big advantage of mass customizing, he said, is that "you have no
finished goods inventory sitting around."
Others think that the technology will be cheap enough to allow consumers to
design and customize objects at home, like bookends or picture frames,
perhaps by downloading templates from the Internet. They might print the
items out on their own three-dimensional printers or at a copy center.
Whether or not that will be possible, people using these technologies at
their jobs right now like them.
"When I started doing product design at Gillette 18 years ago," Ms.
Shurtleff said, "I was sitting at a drawing board with a big piece of paper
and lots of pencils and erasers. Now, that seems like the dark ages."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
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