Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Three dee modeling

I have been playing with some innovations. Like feathers for scale, or brass edging of steel that look like flames or just repeating patters, that sort of thing. Most of them take an excrutiatingly long time to cut out and attach to the metal. Often doing such work is soul destroying, repetitive, boring and sometimes not what the client wanted at all. There are software programs which can create these things as required. Below is the letter I wrote to a major three dee software designer I am evaluating at the present.

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>Well, this is a sort of "chicken or the egg" isn't it! I am searching for an edge on my competition, and the use of machinery which uses three dee modeling might be the edge. Or it might not. And that means tools which can run that machinery. Or it might not. If there is a technological answer, it exists in 3-d modeling. Or it might not.

What I DO is make custom suits of armour for people. Right now, they are made the hard way....each one is a "one off custom job" with many similarities from one to t'other. By their nature, they tend to be very pricey.
They have to be able to be worn, and they have to be made from steel because, well, they have a function to perform as well as a look.

There are an increasingly large number of people doing this kind of work, many of them are offshore, and have access to remarkably inexpensive labour and some of that labour is quite skilled! Trust me, there are lots of suits of armour being made....there are plenty of people who have always wanted to be "the knight in shining armour". And the offshore people know this. For me to stay in business, I have to come up with something they don't have. That means imagination and quality and innovation.

The breakdown of processes involved in making a suit of armour is not very complicated. Imagine a tailor making a suit. You have the material. (aluminum for actors, stainless for rental firms, steel for re-enactors.) and cutting tools, hammers and rollers to fabricate the parts. And then there are the sales staff, designers, web developers, book keepers and shippers. There is a fair amount of room to grow, and not enough sales to accomplish that growth, but with a unique product, I can regain my top spot in this market.
Now, you have to remember Justin, that I am fifty six years old, and have been doing this job now for twenty two years. Its time I conserved by skills and time on the hammer and prepare for the future. And innovation is nothing new to me...every day I discover and have to master a new skill.

So what can three dee modeling do for me? Oh, lordy, who knows! However, lets start with something simple. A scale for a scale coat.
Right now, scales are labouriously cut by hand from scrap metal. Good use of scrap. Now they have to be cut, drilled, sanded and shaped into a little shield. Excellent concurrent activity for my staff who would be standing around with their thumbs up their tush anyway, but soul destroying work to do full time. So I accumulate several hundred pounds of business card sized scales on the off chance that somebody wants them someday. They sit there and go rusty and eventually I use them. But what if somebody wants an innovative scale coat? Say, one which uses scales of a different size? Or different material? Or different shape? Say, he wants feathers, or dragon scales, or fancy gauntlet fingers. I can't economically cut all the possible shapes out on the off chance that somebody might need them someday. But I CAN have the design as a template which I can get a contractor with a water jet cutter to manufactur as required. Heck, if this approach were to become popular, I might get a water jet or a trumph laser here in my shop, in which case, I would be able to bid on short time line contracts.

But for scales, Gimp or paint shop pro might be more appropriate. Perhaps easier to learn or be supported by more machinery or whatever. I don't know the answers to these questions. Which is why I am evaluationg all three at this time.

But a scale is not a three dee rendering. Nor does it require three dee software. What "would" require your product? Well, how about a steel gauntlet? Making a gauntlet is a very complex and difficult process at present. It involves a lot of cardboard and scissor work, and a lot of trial and error. Most gauntlets therefore do not have much compound curving to them. They look to be cut out of flat sheets because, well because they "are" cut out of flat sheet metal. Which provides a sort of look which is okay I guess, but that look is achieved at an ungodly low price by my competition off shore. I need to come up with ways to change it on "paper", model it on screen first, and them print out the templates. Again, it would be good to have those templates repeatable, and be able to cut out a hundred gauntlets as easily as one. To be able to have nesting compound curves is desirable and with difficulty, achievable with present methods. And then there is the issue of "sizes". Small, medium, large, and Xtra large come to mind. Or if it exists only on a program perhaps an infinite size range could be accomodated as required. (variables would be distance around the hand, length of fingers, that sort of thing.
Then there is labeling and surface details. A laser or a water cutter can be dialed back to allow for surface marking instead of cutting. To mark a size and part number into the back of every plate would ensure that we don't get them mixed up. Or imagine engraving stuff onto the surface to decorate it or texture it. Or even engrave the client's name into each piece.

This is what I have in mind for innovation. To do this, I am evaluating your product versus about three different flavors of auto cad.
So what do YOU think? So far, xxxxxx design seems to be winning out. Do you think xxxxxx 3-d modeling would accomplish my desired innovations?

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Ars.Gladius said...

For scales, I would recommend having a CAD drawing done up and then have them either laser cut or water jet cut in bulk or by job (as you mentioned). This also let's you do different materials easily.

You could even go so far as laser engraving a design on the scales (during or after production) for the more 'up-scale' orders.

Embossing of the scales would be best served on a die press. That would even allow you to cut and emboss in a single operation with the appropriate dies.

As for complex 3D shapes (eg. gauntlets), getting templates for more complex ones can be very tricky. As you know from working with the steel, all the shaping is the result of compressing or stretching the metal. Stuff that can be hard and time consuming to model, especially if there are infinite custom sizes involved. But the cost (time) may be to high for a one or few off run. Further to that, production would start from a flat sheet of steel, so you would likely be looking at a multistage stamping to get it to what you want. Each stage would have to be modeled and tested (eg. metal to thin, or stressed in an area, etc) and possibly a die remade. Again all very expensive for a relatively short run mfg.

An option that may work for you though, is to have a few standard sized blanks that can be punched out and basic pre-shaping on a die press to save some prep-labor, then you can develop the final product from that point and add the embellishments from there.

The more standardized the basic sizes are, the more economy of scale you will be able to leverage. Add to that the custom appointments (again being somewhat standardized) added on top to give you an edge over the mass produced basic item competition. But also offer the truly one-off custom work reserved for those clients with the extra money.

Sorry for the rambling. I should drop by one Saturday. :)


Ars.Gladius said...

I was looking at laser engraving for armor. But ran into issues with the current "sanely" priced (sub $20k) laser engravers on the market. They only work on a single plane (X,Y), so any curve in the surface and the laser would not be in focus anymore. They do have a jig for mugs etc, however that only deals with a curve on a single axis.

What would be really cool would be to take a finished breast plate, plop it in a machine, map the surface and then engrave in full 3 dimensions.

I was also pondering chemical etching, but again there are issues with the compound curves and getting a mask and pattern to smoothly follow it.

stag said...

If I ever managed to sell scales, I might go for a "little" punch press. The dies are not so expensive...a grand or so, and the press can be had for under five, but when you consider you can pound out thirty scales per minute, it might be worth it. However, the problem is that I don't sell scale armour. I don't think I could sell it at any price. It is just not what most people who are looking for armour think of when they are looking for armour. Red Sonja excepted of course.

Gauntlets are not made out of complex curves, really. They are pretty flat, all things considered. The idea of texturing the surface is very exciting.

The problem with the "batch" model is that you have to make so darned many of them. I paid twenty five cents a scale for the last batch I had made, and it has not proved to be very popular. So I am still sitting on those scales...hoping that someday I will be able to use them.