How much do I have to learn about common product design software?
In reality, as with many topics in the physical product business, the more you learn the better. You should know enough about using the software to be able to have an intelligent conversation with your designer about the models.
However, you definitely do not have to become a designer yourself, or take university engineering courses. These are skills that are easily hired for or outsourced, though they do cost more than your general virtual assistants.
At the very least, watch YouTube videos of the software being used. You will find reviews, beginner tutorials, advanced tutorials, example product designs, and some fantastic videos showcasing the simulation & rendering capabilities of the software.
This will give you a good understanding of how pros use the software, how fast or slow things go, and the overall approach to 3D modelling.
Most of the major CAD packages have approx 30 day free trials and have great tutorials built right in. Take an hour a day for a couple weeks and you will have a fantastic understanding of the process used to make a parametric 3D model. There are also free consumer versions of many packages that allow you to create a rough model of your idea (i.e. Google SketchUp) – though they currently aren’t overly useful for 2D manufacturing drawing creation, injection mould design, CNC machine programming, etc.
As a bonus, having this basic understanding of the CAD design process will give you more confidence in outsourcing design projects on Odesk or Elance. Most important is being able to call someone’s bluff if they say that a design will take 100 hours of their time when you envision only 15.
The most common product design software packages
Autodesk Inventor for 3D modelling, 2D manufacturing drawings, strength analysis, and basic photo rendering
Autodesk AutoCAD is the industry standard for creating 2D drawings only
SolidWorks by Dassault Systems is the other major 3D modelling, 2D drawing, FEA, and rendering software for individual users.
As a note of interest, Dassault also produces the high-end corporate software Catia. This is used by large engineering firms and product manufactures such as Chrysler and Boing. The cost of packages such as these are not for the faint of heart, but it is interesting to watch them. They introduce technologies to the high-end software years before the standard consumer products receive this features.
Creo by PTC Parametric Technology Corp (formerly known as Pro/Engineer)
SolidEdge by Siemens. Siemens also produce the high end software NX (formerly Unigraphics). This package is comparable to SolidWorks.
As an aside, you should also have a basic understanding of the various manufacturing processes that your product undergoes. Wikipedia typically gives you a good overview of the process. I try to simplify most processes on this website as well. Having a pragmatic overview of these technical topics is very important when running a physical product business.
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