Help me learn to design something useful
January 5, 2013 5:02 PM   Subscribe

I'm fascinated by the smaller projects on KickStarter where a small metal item is designed and then manufactured in a machine shop. I want to have those design skills, but I'm an absolute beginner. So what do I need to learn?

I thought I would start with AutoCAD, but do you have other suggestions? What about design fundamentals? I don't know enough to ask the right questions so any suggestions are appreciated!
posted by TorontoSandy to Education (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If you're not doing anything too terribly technical I suggest that you try mechanical drawing.
posted by snsranch at 5:49 PM on January 5, 2013

You'd do well to familiarize yourself with the various ways metal things are actually made. "Machining" generally means cutting the required shape out of a larger hunk of metal, and involves very different tools and skills from casting, welding, forging, stamping, etc. Each has different strengths and limitations.
posted by jon1270 at 6:11 PM on January 5, 2013

SolidWorks seems to be the industry standard for this sort of drawing. They gave away temporary licenses a couple of years ago (ostensibly to help people retrain and survive the economic meltdown) but I don't think they're running that program any more. (I've wanted to buy a legit copy of the software for several years, but the price never comes down below US$2500 or so. People with fewer ethical qualms might direct you to cracked versions of the software that are available for free.)

A reasonable (free!) alternative is Blender, which I've used to design some objects that were successfully 3D-printed. The program seems to be directed more at movie-style animation, but you can use it for 3D design as well. It's got a helluva learning curve, though.

Stepping back a bit, you may find it useful to learn about materials and fabrication more generally -- you'll want to develop a sense for how strong things are and how they can be shaped. It's often a trade-off between one and the other.

Look for "Maker" groups near you -- there are a lot of people who like to fool around with this stuff, and you'll find a wide range of skill sets, likely including people who can give you useful pointers and help you turn your ideas into physical objects.
posted by spacewrench at 6:43 PM on January 5, 2013

Maybe you can clarify: Do you only want to draw pieces and outsource the making, or do you want to learn to work in a machine shop as well?
posted by springload at 7:29 PM on January 5, 2013

To clarify - I want to design the piece myself and outsource the making.
posted by TorontoSandy at 4:26 AM on January 6, 2013

Either Machine Design (which falls under Mechanical Engineering departments, traditionally) or Product Design/Industrial Design are the formal university programs for what you wish to be able to do.

If this is not a path that is viable for you, then as a hobbyist craftsman, you can seek to apprentice yourself to a machine shop which specializes in designing the dies, as one approach to exposure to the entire process without the formal degree.

Alternately, if there are programs available in community colleges or vocational schools that permit you to select your classes as an adult learner not part of a degree track, then I'd recommend Machine Design, both the theory and the Technical drawing aspect of it, some sort of Production engineering (if you don't know how things are made or can be made it will be a drawback when designing something to be made), Product Design, and some thing related to CAD.

But learning a software package alone, such as Autocad, will not give you the technical knowledge necessary for viable product design leading to manufacture. An analogy would be learning Microsoft Word in order to become an author.

Your handle says Toronto, go check out OCAD and get a tour as prospective student, regardless of whether you're seeking a degree or not. It should expose you to the various aspects of the whole process.

Humber College has a continuing education program.

Staff at design schools simply love (well, they should!) telling people all about the various things you can learn, so I encourage you to go visit and have a look at what they do.
posted by infini at 4:56 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I use AutoCAD, mainly because that's what I have access to, and I will take this chance to tell the world that it's a mismanaged product which frequently makes me angry. It's widely used and you can do all you want in it, but things that should be simple sometimes aren't.

The best thing is probably to take a course, and infini's suggestions look very solid. If you want to start on a more simple scale, learn about Engineering drawing and draw something not too complicated using your software of choice or even just pen and paper. Then try to get hold of a friendly person at a local workshop, explain the situation and show your drawing. As mentioned, it's hard to make good designs without knowing a little of how the machines work and what the properties are of different materials. If a workshop guy agrees to spend some time with you, he'll be able to point out if your design has any weaknesses from a production point of view, and then you can adjust your drawing accordingly.
posted by springload at 10:12 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Spend some time in a machine shop.

You have to understand how the tools work, to understand what parts are actually manufacturable. Hands-on experience, even if you don't want to do the final work yourself, is a crucial part of the education. (And it's missing in many academic programs, which is why so many designed-pretty products never make it to production -- they simply can't be economically made.)

Get to know the folks at Site3, who have some of those tools. Get to know the folks at HackLab, who do a lot of 3d design and printing. Tell 'em all that Nate from Detroit said hi. ;)
posted by Myself at 10:57 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hmm, OP I just checked your profile and it seems location might be Arizona so our Canada related suggestions might be redundant.

Arizona has a good industrial design program at ASU and I do like the hacker space idea from Myself ;p - getting too old myself to remember 3D printing is changing the world.
posted by infini at 7:20 PM on January 6, 2013

Oh yes and one more thing: Here is the first video in a series of ten, where a technician at MIT teaches various workshop techniques to students. Watch those to get a feeling for how metal is machined. A pro shop will have some more advanced tools (like spark eroders), but most work is done on automatized lathes and mills.
posted by springload at 9:20 PM on January 6, 2013

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