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Tools of the Trade #1

In this series of blogs we look at some of the tools we use at The Imagination Factory.
The landscape of software and hardware available to today's design studios has changed dramatically in recent years. With a little bit of effort to discover and learn these tools designers of all backgrounds can create professional work in a range of areas including electronics, Apps, 3D designs, prototypes and even virtual reality.
Many of the newer tools are open source or have a low cost compared with traditional methods which makes them economically viable for any design studio working hard to keep running costs under control.

Prototyping Electronics and Hardware

In this first article we look at software and services that we recently used to prototype a product for a client that required a bespoke Printed Circuit Board (PCB) and a plastic enclosure.

Fritzing

There are many tools available for designing circuit boards but we particularly like Fritzing because it is built within a batch production ecosystem. This means that once you have worked out your design you can upload it to get a quote and then order a small batch of PCBs at a reasonable cost. Because the circuit boards are made as part of a larger batch once a week the setup costs are spread out across a number of jobs making it economically viable to produce just a few boards for testing and development.
Also, the Fritzing software has been developed for all levels of user and is very easy to learn for beginners. It even has a 'breadboard' view where you can drag and drop images of components and connect them together as you would physically. Then you can switch to a schematic or PCB view and finish your circuit board ready for fabrication.
Most importantly the quality of the PCBs is exceptional. They come with a beautiful white finish as standard which helps you see clearly where your components are supposed to go once you are ready to switch on the soldering iron.

Onshape

Onshape is a new fully cloud-based CAD service that is making waves in the world of computer aided design. It has been developed by a team that includes some of the original people behind the success of the industry-standard Solidworks software. In our studio we still use Solidworks for most of the heavy lifting in terms of 3D design engineering but we have found that Onshape has some very handy capabilities that is rapidly making it one of the essential tools in our toolkit. Firstly, because it is fully cloud based those of us in the studio that are working on Macs can create, review and edit 3D models without having to find a PC available with a Solidworks license on it.
This enabled one of our team to quickly create the 3D model for the enclosure used in this project on a Macbook Air and they didn't even need to be in the studio at the time.
Secondly, Onshape has a powerful set of features for collaboration including the ability to share a model with a client anywhere in the world in a "follow me" mode so that they see exactly which bit of the design you are looking at or editing in real time.As you'd expect from any 3D design software it can output models in a variety of formats including ones that are suitable for 3D printing.

3D Printing

We use a range of suppliers for 3D printing and prototype fabrication and it would be wrong for us to highlight one over another because they each have a speciality that makes them right for certain jobs. However, in the example shown above we chose 3DPrint UK because they offer a very nice polished black 3D print service. They also price prints according to the amount of space they take up on a build so if you have a shape that you can nest together you can get a decent bang for your buck.
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