3D Modeling: Philosophy Before Software

Back in the day, mechanical engineers could get away with not knowing how to build a 3D model. Instead, a designer or draftsman would take the engineering and output the model. In most companies today, those engineers are all at retirement age, and the younger generation is expected to at  least be familiar with 3D Modeling.

Unfortunately, familiarity doesn’t automatically mean they’re good at it. I’ve seen too many young engineers enter the industry as poor modelers, which is expected, but continue to be poor modelers several years into their career, which is not what’s expected of them.

This series of posts will pass along my observations and advice to make young engineers better modelers. In this post, we’ll start with a question I’m often asked: which 3D Modeling software package is the best to learn?

The answer is as complex as you would like to make it. At its simplest end, the software package in which you should invest your time is the package your school, prospective employer wants you to learn. At its complex end, should become proficient in them all.

More importantly though, regardless of the software package you choose learn, please understand it’s only a tool. Any program will let you brute force your way to eventually producing a model that conveys the needed information. However, that doesn’t mean you produced a good model. Therefore, instead of worrying about software, i believe it’s more valuable to learn the philosophy behind good 3D modeling.

Here’s an analogy: let’s say you’re a new homeowner, and on your property are several overgrown trees. You realize they require pruning, a task you’ve done only rarely in the past. You go to the hardware store and find any number of pruning tools. Regardless of which tool you select, you’ll be able to hack away at the branches.  After all, it’s not difficult to open said tool, position it on a branch, and close said tool to cut it.  But unless you understand which branches to prune, how many to prune, and where along the branch to prune, the success of your effort is questionable.

Similarly, it’s not difficult to draw a planar shape and extrude it into the third dimension.  It’s not difficult to add mounting holes, standoffs, or fillet radii.  But unless you understand geometric tolerancing, parent-child relationships of features, and machining orders of operations, you’ll end up with a poorly performing model at best, or a part that simply cannot be machined at worst.  Neither is a desirable outcome.

Future posts will discuss 3D modeling philosophy in detail, so for now, I’ll leave you with some food for thought.

Build your models matching the manner in which the part will actually be machined. Of course, this isn’t applicable 100% of the time, but it’s a good baseline.

Follow your company’s modeling standards. This, too, is not always applicable, and I have all manners of personal caveats for this guideline, but I’ll leave it at facevalue for now.

Create models that can be modified by coworkers without hours of head-scratching.  Try to update a model a coworker’s model when he/she is on vacation and you’ll know just what I’m talking about.

3D modeling is one of the most powerful means of communication available to mechanical engineers, and understanding the philosophy behind good modeling will make you a better communicator than any specific software platform ever will.

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