Bringing Inventions to Life: The Magic of 3D Modeling

By James Richardson
June 25, 2010

BraBall® the patented bra saver. A project Richardson did for a client.

Ideas are first created in the mind’s eye and then sketched out on paper. Then the creator of the idea quite often cobbles together a crude working prototype to give the idea form and to test the first physical aspects of the idea. This is generally referred to as a “Proof of Function” prototype. This process of testing and improving the Proof of Function prototype goes on until the inventor is satisfied that the prototype works as envisioned.

Today 3 Dimensional modeling is gaining popularity.  While it is true that 3D modeling has been around for quite a number of years, it was very expensive and was used mainly by large corporations, at least until recently. In the past 10 years the cost of the 3D modeling software has been drastically reduced, the use of 3D software to control computer controlled milling machines is widespread in manufacturing.  As a result 3D modeling is the standard method of communication in manufacturing.

What is 3D modeling and why is it a benefit to an inventor?

Until recently, once the inventor felt they had an acceptable Proof of Function prototype the next step was to have product design renderings done to add style and form to the product based on the invention. This typically meant hiring the services of a designer that is skilled in the art of rendering and has knowledge of those constraints to the design imposed by the appropriate manufacturing process. Manufacturing input is key to the marketability of the product. Historically, the parts drawings, dimensions and specifications were drawn up in 2 dimensions using drafting tools or 2 dimensional drafting programs resulting in drawings printed out on paper. These prints were the method of communication between the designer, engineer and the potential manufacturer. The inventor had only a sketch to look at and “generally difficult to visualize” views and sections of his invention in 2 dimensional engineering drawings.

That’s all out the window now. Today 3D modeling is accessible to independent inventors and more importantly it is also affordable.  So the benefits once enjoyed only by large corporations are now available to independent inventors and small businesses.  A giant leap forward.

The process followed has solid modeling building the real part inside the computer. It is not like a photograph or a virtual shape as viewed in computer games, it is made to exact dimensions. The part has to be built with all the draft angles and other restrictions imposed by the manufacturing process, and the solid modeling software has the ability to monitor all those design decisions. Parts can be attached to other parts and articulated and the results can be subjected to all sorts of engineering analysis. The best design has to use the most appropriate and cost effective manufacturing method. This makes the product cost effective at retail and keeps competition at bay when the patent protects that embodiment that is the most appropriate and cost effective to manufacture.

But here is the best part. Once the modeling is completed the part or assembly of parts can be emailed to the inventor and viewed in 3 dimensions, rotated, sectioned and if it is an assembly some parts can be made to temporarily disappear so you can see how the product is put together. The inventor can print out a view, mark it up, scan it and email it back to the designer to indicate a revision. The communications become seamless, the revisions are in scale, everything is fast, everyone saves time and money.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For those who are interested in learning more, email Jim at jamesranda@comcast.net and he will send you a free Edrawing sample that can be viewed, rotated, and manipulated. It lets you experience the magic of Solid Modeling.

The above modeling is of a thermoelectric “kegerator”. 3D modeling gives you visuals with color changes, and an exploded view to illustrate how it is constructed. These images are sent via email as E Drawings that can be viewed by the client as it appears on the designers computer screen. Although presented in 2D here you should get an idea of the power of Edrawings.

Another benefit provided by these drawings is that the image of the modeled parts or assembly is photo realistic and so it can be used in sales and market research literature before you have committed to manufacturing the parts. You can create catalog sheets and marketing literature.  You can even use these drawings to share with your patent attorney or patent agent, who will likely find them extremely helpful when trying to figure out how your invention fits together and operates.  In some cases you might even be able to use these drawings in a patent application, particularly a provisional patent application.

A computer-generated file (not a paper drawing) is not a real part, so eventually you will need to move forward toward creating a tangible prototype.  Edrawings help because you can send the drawings via email to a service provider that produces stereo-lithography reproductions (SLRs). This is like 3 dimensional printing. Several days later an exact part comes via FedEx. It is accurate to a few thousands of an inch in all dimensions. When assembled you have an exact working prototype. If you want to show it to a potential marketer they can be painted and you have what looks like, and works like, the real thing. Sales orders from retailers or distributors have been obtained using these SLR prototypes.

Stereo Lithography was used to create a catalog sheet before committing to production.

What is the cost of SLRs?

The cost is a function of the size of the part. A part 2 inches by 6 inches by 1 inch high will be in the range of $250 to $300 each.

These files generated by the solid modeling plus information about material selection, surface finish and order quantities are emailed to potential contract manufacturers. The files plug into the software they use for quoting.

In the case of molded plastic parts, the steel or aluminum production tooling is made on computer controlled milling machines. The 3D files from the solid modeling are directly converted into the software that controls the machining of the molds. Everything is seamless. Using this process you can go from a 42-part assembly in 3D in the computer, to manufacturing and first production samples that are perfect. The manufacturing can be next door or the other side of the world. The language is machine to machine by computer code. No forgetting to do something, no coffee breaks. It’s very impressive.

So what are the advantages of 3D modeling to the inventor?

It is a very efficient method of communication between the inventor and the designer responsible for transforming the idea into a manufactured product, and for incorporating revisions suggested by the inventor.   It is also a very efficient way of making prototypes, regardless of size because 3D modeling is the gateway to computer controlled prototype production, be it SLRs, direct machining of metal parts or making a wood tool for short run thermoformed parts.  Furthermore, it is an efficient way of communicating with potential manufacturers to obtain quotes.  Finally, your patent attorney or agent will almost certainly be able to use the 3D model to assist them in at least some manner, which should result in a better, quicker, more complete understanding of  your invention.

In a nutshell, 3D modeling creates efficiencies and saves “risk money.” You know, that money that you have to spend to determine if your idea makes business sense.  By saving risk money you conserve resources, keep the project under budget and don’t needlessly waste money chasing an idea that could have early on been proven to be one that should have been passed on in favor of others.  We all know inventors are creative people with plenty of other projects in mind, so whenever you can save and conserve while responsibly moving forward you are ahead of the game by a long shot.

The Author

James Richardson

James Richardson

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 4 Comments comments.

  1. Mark Nowotarski June 27, 2010 6:40 am

    How soon before we can submit 3d models with patent applications?

  2. pop June 27, 2010 3:14 pm

    -Mark

    That would require not only a standard file format for 3d models, but that the USPTO also get enough funding to equip and train all the patent examiners on how to use software to view those models. If it does ever happen, I would bet it would be a long way into the future.

  3. Gena777 June 30, 2010 12:42 am

    It’s great to see these recent IP Watchdog posts that offer innovators information and helpful tips on the nuts-and-bolts of inventing.
    http://www.generalpatent.com/media/videos/general-patent-gets-results-its-clients

  4. Tims cad training July 3, 2010 5:38 am

    With the new fabrication technology now available animating your products is becoming more and more important to show how they work or where the hinges etc should be placed.