Digital prototyping is generally associated with complex industrial products, however this digital method of working is now spreading into other areas such as the consumer sector, where aesthetics are essential

Digital prototyping – designing, visualising, simulating and analysing a product on a computer screen before it is made –  has become common practice in many areas of manufacturing. By minimising, or in some cases eliminating, the need to create physical prototypes, products can be brought to market far faster and more cost-effectively. 

As a result, digital prototyping is often associated with complex industrial products and with operations where multiple prototypes are the norm.  Increasingly, however, it is also being used in consumer-focused sectors where the aesthetics of a design are key to its success.

Working digitally means dimension and volume calculations happen automatically, meaning designers have more time and a freer hand to experiment with new ideas, safe in the knowledge that the digital model and the database behind it will reflect the impact of any changes. The ability to visualise a product before it is made is also highly valuable here as often designers need to work closely with marketing and branding teams to ensure consistency and that launch campaigns can be developed in advance of production.

This is particularly the case in certain sectors of the drinks industry, where it has become more appropriate to talk about ‘glass packaging’ rather than just ‘bottles’.

One example is the container designed by a Leeds-based company for the premium blended whisky, The Naked Grouse (part of The Famous Grouse family). Because the whisky combined two of the world’s most renowned malts, slowly matured in sherry casks, it was felt that the product would speak for itself and didn’t need any extra packaging. This meant the bottle was more important than ever in delivering the right messages to the consumer.

Allied Glass was therefore faced with a brief to create a presentation that exuded premium values, yet still showed a modern image. So, instead of the usual labelling, the Famous Grouse image was debossed into the face of a heavy bottle using a combination of 3D modelling and hand-cut craftsmanship to ensure the moulding was as intricate and accurate as possible.

Reflecting the brand

Allied Glass has been making glass for over a century and prides itself on offering a combination of traditional skills and modern techniques, and today its portfolio includes brands such as Grant’s Family Reserve Scotch whisky, Johnnie Walker whisky, Bombay gin and Smirnoff vodka.

Chris Todd, Allied Glass product innovation manager, commented: “Premium drinks manufacturers want a bottle that reflects their brand and its values. It also needs shelf appeal to stand out in a competitive market. Consequently, glass packaging design is now an important factor in the success of a product. Shapes are becoming more complex and there’s growing demand for unusual features.”

Increasingly the  design team finds itself working closely with its clients’ design consultancies and branding experts, but it also has to consider the practical side of design. It must ensure that accurate dimensions are available to make the mould, that the bottle will hold the correct amount, its cap will close correctly and that the design will allow the bottles to run smoothly down the filling line.

The design team was using AutoCAD as its main software and producing its work in 2D, however, this was beginning to create a number of challenges, including when it came to  getting ideas onto the screen.

Steve Glover, project design engineer, explains: “We needed a more flexible way of capturing concepts. Another problem was volume calculations. There are ways of working out the cubic centimetres of a traditional bottle shape, but when it comes to more random shapes this becomes more time-consuming and error prone. Even if we produce a highly original design, it’s no good if it doesn’t quite hold the right amount of  product.”

Autodesk Platinum Partner, Symetri, had supplied Allied Glass with AutoCAD for around ten years and  just recently Autodesk had  begun to package its range of digital prototyping software products into one suite. This enabled Allied Glass to invest in an entire concept to production solution in one, cost-effective purchase.

Now, the designers are beginning to use Autodesk SketchBook which enables them to draw shapes and forms on their PCs, laptops or tablet computers, almost as if they were drawing on actual sketch pads. This gives them free rein to quickly capture their thoughts and ideas and then experiment further.

These concepts can then be easily transferred to Autodesk Inventor for more detailed and accurate 3D modelling, and this is where the design is refined to ensure it matches all the required criteria. “Because Inventor automatically works out volumes, we no longer have to take time to calculate them ourselves – and then recalculate when we make changes,” says Glover. “We still might want to make any number of revisions at this stage. But, because the design model and the documentation behind it is automatically updated with every amendment made, we can quickly measure the impact of the change on volume.”

He added: “It’s all a question of fit – right down to whether the labels will fit correctly on the bottle. Because Inventor automatically co-ordinates all changes, we can be confident that everything is accurate.”

Data from the 3D model is then used to create the product mould. For this the team use Inventor’s fully-integrated iLogic technology which simplifies rules-based design and enables easy customisation of the interior of the mould, while its external shape remains the same.

Meanwhile, the visualisation software included in Autodesk Product Design Suite takes 3D model data from Inventor to create photo-quality visuals and animations. Glover said: “Our aim was to be able to produce the same standard of presentation materials as a design agency and Autodesk Showcase enables us to do this as an integral part of our workflow.”

The team is now enjoying experimenting with the digital sculpting and painting tool, Autodesk Mudbox, also included in the product design suite. Used extensively by digital artists for games development and visual effects, Mudbox is also becoming increasingly valued in some areas of manufacturing where compelling presentations of concepts play a part in winning business.

“Thanks to Autodesk Inventor and the other products, we now speak the same language as our clients’ marketing and design teams. On the other hand, we can also talk engineering and mould-making to the production team.

“Because much of our routine work is now automated we can take time to be more creative. We are much more in control of our designs and can be far more proactive. It’s helping us to realise our vision of providing a complete solution from idea to product for our customers,” concluded Glover.