Customer: A-TECH Product Engineering Company. Model maker for major toys and premium toys.
A-Tech Product Engineering Company (A-Tech), based in Hong Kong, is one of the professional prototype makers in the toy industry and has two main factories in Shinzhen, South China. They first learned of Geomagic FreeForm® Plus™ about 4 years ago and implemented this unique system—a 3-D touch enabled Computer Aided Sculpting System (CAS)—into their workflow. Originally their clients in the United States, who are users of FreeForm, recommended that they use it as a modeling tool and to help improve communications about designs beyond the Pacific region. After becoming familiar with the system, other group companies in China also started to share the system, and now they use it more and more. A-Tech is one of the group companies that includes two more Rapid Prototype makers in China. They have 70 sculptors and a total of 220 employees. The General Manager of A-Tech, Mr. Eddie W. H. Kwan, says that FreeForm is the most frequently used modeling software within their production pipeline, even though they have many major CAD systems. This is why they currently have installed 15 systems.
Current Situation in China’s Toy Market—Using FreeForm Plus for Product Design
To be more compatible in the market, many Hong Kong and Chinese companies that produce toys/collectibles have already integrated CAD/CAM into their workflows. Although there are various CAD systems available and each of them has a specialty to suit different needs, a system that enables simulation to test product safety once the model has been created or modified is the core need in the toy industry. Geomagic FreeForm Plus - a unique touch-enabled system for product design that includes a haptic device that allows users to touch and manipulate virtual 3D objects - meets this need. Direct physical interaction makes the system easier to learn compared to other 3D CAD systems. The major features of FreeForm include Sculpting, Constructing, and Rendering environments; Surfacing; NURBS and Parasolid® interoperability; and Mold functionality that provides a model-to-mold workflow.
Now companies can extend the digital workflow to downstream production with different CAE/CAD/CAM applications.
Geomagic FreeForm Plus includes the 3D Systems Touch haptic device which enables modelers to use their sense of touch to sculpt with virtual clay. 3D relief/emboss designs, such as the one shown, can be easily created using 2D files such as bitmap images or Adobe® Illustrator® files.
Prototyping is an important process in the toy industry. It requires a lot of manual processes like sculpting, sanding, and painting. In the past, this tedious process usually takes several months to be completed before the physical model can be sent to the client for approval. Most of the time, a traditional prototype maker needs to repeat this time-consuming process again and again, if any modifications are needed. Based on their experience with FreeForm, A-Tech’s Eddie, W.H. Kwan says at first the system doesn’t give you an instant result in terms of improving the productivity or reducing the cost of production—due in large part to low labor costs in South China.
The Process of Communicating with Overseas Customers
Eddie explains that most of their customers, which are licensors and Marketing companies, are located overseas and in 80-90 percent of the cases have sent 2D sketches to A-Tech to use in the creation of the 3D models. Getting client approval has been very time-consuming. This problem can be solved by using FreeForm visualization features that allow a user to render a single view of the model or create a QuickTime® Virtual Reality animation for design reviews and collaboration. The rendered image or animation can be sent via email or FTP site to their overseas customers. Of course, if the client also uses FreeForm as a modeling tool and for choke testing simulation, they can exchange a native FreeForm file directly. Even if the customer does not initially approve the design and requests adjustments, especially complicated adjustments like changes in dimension and size of the product, Geomagic Freeform can do it quickly and easily. Models that took months to re-do in the past, can now be finished in just two or three days. As an example of how A-Tech collaborates with their clients, A-Tech receives a native FreeForm file as a master model from the client and then remodels and modifies in FreeForm. The product features that they frequently use on daily jobs include evaluating undercuts of models and creating a split model with many pieces in it to send back to the client. The client in the United States needs to have a split model with parting line evaluated by A-Tech for considering downstream processes.
The Use of Reverse Engineering
Moreover, Eddie mentions they rely mainly on FreeForm to do Reverse Engineering for use with 3D scanners because there are still products where they receive a physical model as the starting point. They had tried to do this with other CAD/CAM systems. They found that the result was not satisfactory, as most CAD systems require the scanned data to first be converted into a different file format (each of the CAD systems has a native file format) before they can actually use it; and, during file conversion, detail is often lost and the accuracy of the scanned data can also be affected. However, Geomagic FreeForm doesn't have this problem because all scanned data can be imported into the system directly, so it is faster, better, and more accurate. Eddie believes Freeform is a very powerful system to model anatomical figures and offers a strong advantage in developing models with organic shapes especially for some sophisticated, licensed models where consistency and accuracy are the most important issues. Usually, after they get the first approval copy, the file is saved for later use or modification on a series of the same product.
Time and Cost Reduction on the Digital Workflow
Eddie says integrating FreeForm into their workflow has saved them an average of 30% on production time and 10% on total cost. The reason why cost savings are low is because after the digital model is created they still need to output a physical model using rapid prototyping (RP) machines. RP machines are still expensive to purchase and run, so it is difficult to reduce costs instantly. Eddie believes FreeForm provides advantages for modeling and also for tooling design using the mold functionalities, as it guarantees a higher quality design and minimizes the chances of needing to make tooling adjustments.
A-Tech relies mainly on Geomagic FreeForm to do Reverse Engineering for use with 3D scanners because they often receive a physical model as the starting point. Scan data can be imported into FreeForm directly as an STL polymesh making it a fast and accurate way to work.
The Goals and Benefits
At first, Eddie encountered resistance to the idea of adding Freeform to their process. Sculptors employed for traditional clay modeling initially refused to use this new technology, but after a few trials, they learned the benefit of using FreeForm. A-Tech’s approach is to have a sculptor and an engineer work together. The engineer who operates the CAD package easily learns FreeForm. The engineer who understands each menu/tool works with the sculptor who is skilled on how to sculpt the model. This way, their individual skills and the capabilities of the company are both improved. After fully integrating FreeForm into their workflow, A-Tech gained a good reputation within the industry. Eddie adds that no matter which CAD/CAM system you are using, there is no best one. You have to try different combinations of systems to develop the best solution for success. Geomagic FreeForm, like other high-end CAD systems, requires an investment in terms of time and money, and he thinks this is why only a few companies in China are willing to invest in this kind of new technology. In other words, having a strategy that takes advantage of digital solutions that include FreeForm is the right investment. Also, it is very important to keep educating sculptors about technology more and more as the models A-Tech receives from their clients are very sophisticated and accomplished.