When Austin McGee, an executive director of San Francisco tech start-up WellDone, brought a 3D-printer with him to Tanzania in 2014, the customs officers were perplexed. “They had never seen a 3D printer before,” McGee says. “They were very skeptical about what we wanted to do and why we wanted to bring it into the country.”

McGee was in Tanzania to test MoMo—a mobile monitoring device that reports whether village water pumps are working and how much water is passing through them. It is meant to help local utility companies and NGOs working on water infrastructure projects track pump performance, which they otherwise could not do because most pumps are not built with a central monitoring function.

But because the design of pumps, pipes and faucets varies from one village to another, MoMo has to be custom-built for each site—hence McGee’s the need for a 3D printer in Tanzania.

MoMo’s customization process would have been cumbersome—and expensive—in the past: McGee would have had to physically build the device to each set of specifications from the field and try them out. Now, thanks to a host of digital modelling packages, designers like McGee can approximate how their products will fare without leaving their computer screens. What’s more, they can work in real-time with teams spread around the world.

For WellDone’s project in Tanzania, McGee collected measurements from the different pumps and emailed the specs to his design partner 16,000 kilometers away in San Francisco. Using a digital modelling package called Inventor, his partner tweaked MoMo to the new specs, “pulled” the designs out of the package and emailed them to McGee, who then 3D-printed each customized gadget.

Evolving with the Times

Computer Assisted Design, or CAD, tools like Autodesk Inc.’s Inventor or Dassault Systèmes’s SolidWorks have been mainstays of engineering design for decades, allowing engineers to easily create and modify concepts. Since the 1980s, CAD tools have evolved from simple 2D and 3D realms, becoming ever more sophisticated. SolidWorks’s 1993 release had a breakthrough feature that allowed designers to automatically adjust the parameters of their sketch as they changed related parameters of other components. For example, if they sketched a matching nut and bolt, they could change the bolt’s diameter, and the nut would automatically adjust to fit. Autodesk’s 1999 Inventor release had that feature as well.

Built-in simulation functions for product testing provide significant cost and time benefits to start-ups with small budgets.

Now, many CAD programs aim to be more than modelling tools; they offer complete “innovation platforms” that allow users to not only design, but also test and launch their products on the market. Some of the latest tools now offer simulation features for product testing, production cost estimation, and even cloud-based design sharing.

These new capabilities are having an impact on frugal design companies like WellDone, whose focus on low-resource environments means their products have to be developed and produced as affordably as possible. Simulation functions in particular provide significant cost and time benefits to startups, which operate on small budgets. Tools like Fusion 360—Autodesk’s latest modelling package—and SolidWorks contain embedded simulation logic that allows users to test and modify their products’ safety and stability.

“You can simulate stress for a robotic arm to see if it will pick up a certain load,” says Marie Planchard, director of business strategy for SolidWorks at Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp. “If your part has a kink, you can test that kink under pressure, and if it has a valve, you can simulate the flow inside the valve.”

Drawing on years of material science and other research, SolidWorks can also approximate different component costs, how sustainably they can be manufactured and their carbon footprints. Fusion 360 also offers designers similar stress, thermal and vibration testing features. The team at Loowatt, a U.K.-based start-up that has developed a toilet that converts waste into biogas, used the simulation feature in Fusion 360 when devising a particularly tricky ratchet.

“We’ve used this tool quite a bit to see how different geometries flex [when positioned together],” explains Chris Holden who builds Loowatt’s inner gears and various other parts.

To help design surfaces that have complex, curvy shapes, like the plastic exterior of a hair dryer or a toilet bowl, Fusion 360 also has a sculpting feature. This capability lets designers “grab and pull” pieces of surfaces and build objects from them instead of creating traditional sketches, which are difficult and labor intensive for these kinds of shapes.

“We have used that feature to model quite complex parts that are quite hard to model in other ways,” Holden says. Once modellers reach a comfortable place with their designs, the latest modelling packages allow them to create 3D renderings, which they can demo to prospective customers. They can also generate a machine code for manufacturers or 3D-printing shops to speed up the process of building their physical parts. Or they can 3D-print parts themselves like McGee did.

As modelling software developers work to catch up to design entrepreneurs' needs, designers say it is hard to find everything in one place; most resort to using multiple tools.

“There’s a myriad of different programs, and they are all specialized, depending on the industry or what you want to achieve,” explains Noel Wilson, creative director at Catapult Design, a company that helps organizations develop innovative products for low-income populations. For example, Wilson says he finds Fusion 360’s parametric features helpful and unlike what other packages offer. But for sharing and demonstrating products to collaborators without access to a modelling system, he prefers the 3D model viewer SketchFab, which allows anyone using an Internet browser to see a designer's uploaded drawings and manipulate the viewing angle.

Meanwhile, the Loowatt team, which relies on Fusion 360 for product simulation, uses SolidWorks when working with the industry. “We use SolidWorks with suppliers because a lot of suppliers in the U.K. use it,” says Holden. For sculpting, Holden has previously used yet another modelling package, called Rhinoceros, though it lacks parametric functionality.

For start-ups and low-cost product developers, the costs for all of these different software packages can add up quickly. Fortunately for them, newer packages seem to be moving away from charging users a standard—and often steep—upfront fee. Instead, software developers are trying different pricing models to accommodate innovators who are operating with tight budgets. SolidWorks offers low-cost licenses. Fusion 360 offers monthly subscriptions and lets students download it for free. Autodesk also has a special program that gives qualifying entrepreneurs free access.

Connectivity is Key

The one feature all designers seem to uniformly embrace is global connectivity, without which their projects—often set in remote corners of the world—would be much harder to accomplish. Modelling companies recognize that need and are starting to make headway in this domain: Fusion 360, for example, offers cloud-sharing to let designers exchange their work.

“Connectivity was one of the universal problems that was not addressed in traditional design tools,” says Daniel Graham, a senior project manager for Fusion 360. In today’s ultra-connected world, however, these tools have to be able to interact with the same ease as smartphones, he adds.

When Autodesk began exploring how to do this, its idea was to integrate modelling, simulation, rendering and other tools into a unified operation and to remove all communication barriers by connecting modellers with each other. Cloud access made this possible.

"Connectivity was one of the universal problems not addressed in traditional design tools."

“If I want to bring someone from around the world onto my project, I can do it easily,” Graham says. “I just invite [them] and from wherever they are, and they can collaborate with me.”

From there, the feature effectively works like Google docs for designing parts and products, except that users have to take turns with editing, rather than being able to edit simultaneously. The software also has an app where users can see and share data on their phones.

SolidWorks is currently working on a similar kind of cloud capability, which Planchard says the company intends to release in the near future. For now, users can try the package in the cloud on a trail basis.

For companies like Loowatt and WellDone, whose design teams span multiple continents, seamless communication is crucial to the success of their products, and design software could not advance soon enough. Loowatt made the switch to Fusion 360 primarily because of its cloud-sharing capability, which it relies on heavily to communicate with its team in Madagascar, where it is piloting its toilet.

Meanwhile, had McGee had this option while testing MoMo in Tanzania, he would not have had to rely on email to share drawings with his team in San Francisco.

Nevertheless, he says, “It was particularly interesting to work globally.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Autodesk grantees receive free access to Fusion 360; rather, entrepreneurs who qualify for Autodesk's "Entrepreneur Impact Program" receive free access.

The Autodesk Foundation and Catapult Design are partners of ASME ISHOW.