Will 2D Ever Go Away?

Will 2D ever go away? The real question is: do we want it to? You hear a lot of talk nowadays of doing away with 2D drawings and going totally paperless. It’s more efficient, they say. It’ll save trees, they say. It’ll be better, they say. But will it?

If you’ve been in business very long, you’ve heard this before: The Paperless Society. Today’s working environment, however, is not quite so paperless. Sound like a soapbox? Maybe, but it’s reality. And 2D drawings are also part of reality. But the question is, do they need to be?

Back in the days before 3D modeling, if you wanted to make something, you had to have a drawing. You couldn’t just stand behind a machinist and talk him through it. All the arm waving in the world couldn’t help. You needed to convey your “master stroke” from one brain to another. For that, you needed a drawing (a picture is worth a thousand words and all that).

If you could precisely capture what you had in your head, other people could understand you. For that, you typically had to hire a person—a draftsman—specially trained in how to document a design in such a way as to make the details clear to anyone looking at the drawing. And those drawings were beautiful! But over time, things got more and more technical. There was sometimes more information than could be adequately included on a drawing. (Not to mention some people who had difficulty interpreting 3D from 2D orthographic projections.) But when surface and solid modeling came on the scene, you had another option.

There’s a reason older technology looks the way it does. It used to be that a highly skilled artisan was necessary to make things. As tools improved, hand crafted gave way to machine-made because it was easier and more economical to get acceptable, repeatable results. With widespread mass production in the latter half of the twentieth century, cost became the driving factor. People didn’t want to pay for super high quality when they could get “good enough” cheaper. When machine automation (robots) invaded the factory floor, combining low-cost and reasonable quality became possible. That’s when people started to get serious about design. This is when CAD came into the forefront of design. Designers used computer modeling to create beautiful, organically shaped products that could still be produced economically. They could build a 3D representation of an object and send it directly to a machine to make. When organically shaped models couldn’t easily be dimensioned, they invented notes like: REFERENCE COMPUTER MODEL DATA FOR SHAPE DEFINITION.

As anyone who has ever worked with someone else’s models knows, it can be challenging to verify that 3D geometry is current and/or correct. Sure, you can measure most things on the model, but rarely at a glance. Validating a model requires setting up the appropriate measurements, taken from the relevant angles. It can be tedious. And what about information not embedded in the model, such as tolerances or surface finishes? Without a drawing to point out where to apply that texture, you’re left guessing. For instance, how do you specify a grit blast finish on a particular surface, and precisely where the finish begins and ends?

SOLIDWORKS MBD, for model-based definition, lets you specify tolerances, dimensions, surface finishes and even notes, right on the model in 3D space (see Figure 1).It feels a lot like using the measure tool, but permanently displays the results. Back in the late 1980s,this kind of functionality was in SDRC’s I-DEAS CAD software. It was impressive. Now, there are several programs that include this sort of capability. It can be very handy indeed. Will it replace a drawing? Maybe. Up to a point.

image001Figure 1. In SOLIDWORKS (SW) MBD, all the information you would normally find on a drawing is instead saved on the part. (Image courtesy of SW.)

All this functionality comes at a price. To use MBD effectively,you need the proper software tools. That may not be a problem for a big company like an automaker, but for smaller businesses, it can be a challenge. For instance, even here in 2016, some smaller companies are only now adopting solid modeling for design a good twenty to thirty years after it became available,chiefly because of the cost involved in implementing it. For one, the software isn’t cheap (though there are free modelers out there). As an example, SOLIDWORKS (SW)MBD is currently available as an add-in for $1,995 (plus a $495 subscription), yet still requires a base license of SW purchased separately. Add in the expenses for hardware and training andthe little guy often can’t justify the cost.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a moving image is worth even more. Visualization improved greatly when SW introduced eDrawings (see Figure 2), which provides the ability to rotate a displayed model. You no longer had to guess if a dashed edge shown on the front view meant what you thought it was. You could just rotate the model and see. But did that capability wholly replace the utility of a 2D drawing?

image002Figure 2. eDrawings offer a clear and easy display of your drawing yet allows you to rotate the model to get a better look at the details.

Regulatory compliance, depending on industry, is often critical for design. In order to ensure compliance with the rules of the industry, regulatory bodies mandate inspection of design data. Design documentation needs to be something tangible that can be controlled, looked over, verified and archived. For example, your incoming inspection department needs to be told what to look for when parts come in for inventory. A drawing is perfect for that. In fact, any department that has to reference your 3D data will need something to reference, and that typically will be a drawing. And SW has a lot of powerful tools for creating industry standard drawings. Once your model is finished, just drag a base view onto your drawing and start dimensioning (see Figure 3). It’s that easy.

image003Figure 3. Creating a drawing using industry standard practices is very simple with powerful and easy drawing tools.

What if you all you need is a drawing without a 3D model? That happens too. In such a case, DraftSight is a free option;well,at least for individual users. The software costs $299 for businesses wanting more powerful professional tools than the free version offers (which includes the first year of the $99 annual subscription). DraftSight looks and feels very much like AutoCAD,and it allows you to create 2D drawings. The software can also open/import your legacy AutoCAD drawings (or include external references to other drawings).

The world we live in is such a polarizing place. It often demands “this or that” when what we really need is “this and that.” Wisdom would seem to tell us to use the tools that make the most sense—that there is room for both approaches to documentation. Whether it’s 2D or 3D, we have options. Considering the cost of making a mistake, it only makes sense to use the documentation approach most appropriate for the task at hand. The end goal is always the same: Convey important product information as clearly as possible. We can’t afford to ignore good tools. Besides, as long as there are napkin sketches, 2D will never go away.

About the Author

Michael Hudspeth has been a designer for two decades, a lifelong artist, an avid model builder and author (specializing in science fiction). He, his wife, two daughters and one too many cats thrive in the great American heartland, just outside of St. Louis, Missouri.

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