Venturing Into the World of 3-D Die Design

10 questions to ask to make an informed decision

STAMPING Journal March 2004
March 11, 2004
By: Robert W. Harper

2-D, or not 2-D; that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to venture out into a brisk, bold, new world of 3-D or to stick with old, reliable methods in 2-D.

This question has been plaguing the tool and die industry ever since major advances in technology and software yielded this powerful potential.

It is nothing today for central processing units (CPUs) to have gigahertz speeds and gigabyte memories. With prices stable or dropping on improvements such as 512-megabyte memory chips and video pipeline speeds that make computers powerful enough to handle the huge overhead of 3-D design software, most die shops, even very small ones, now can upgrade to 3-D capabilities.

However, cost is not the only consideration. Computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) managers looking to upgrade a shop to 3-D need to approach that decision thoughtfully and carefully by asking questions of themselves, the design staff, and the shop salespeople. Even then, though, they can make only an educated guess about upgrading their equipment and software to handle full-blown 3-D design capabilities; some risk always is at hand.

When researching the feasibility of 3-D design, CADD managers should ask themselves several questions.

1. Is 3-D capability necessary to compete in the market?

This question really depends on what market a tool and die shop or design firm is in, such as appliance, automotive, or electrical, just to name a few.

For instance, the appliance market consists mostly of folded or bent sheet metal parts that can be designed easily with 2-D drawing packages. Most parts are fairly simple galvanized or prepainted sheet metal produced in a transfer, progressive, or single-hit multistation die. In automotive, for example, most parts are complex, contoured, and sculpted 3-D designs that require too much information for the 2-D world.

For a shop that supplies most of its work to this market, with no room to grow into a new market requiring 3-D, staying in the comfortable world of 2-D might be the best choice.

2. Is lack of 3-D capability holding back the shop?

Absence of 3-D capability becomes a major concern if a shop is losing customers or experiencing negative growth because of it. For instance, most automotive dies today require 3-D capabilities. Even if the tool can be designed in 2-D, 3-D geometry still must be created for the die details that require 3-D machining.

The design for the tools in Figure 1was created in 2-D, with 3-D details done on the forming stations only. This sometimes is an accepted policy that might or might not sway a shop's decision to delve fully into 3-D die design.

Figure 1
3-D sculpted automotive parts are more common in the automotive market than anywhere else.

3. What is the learning curve?

For a stamping shop with designers well-versed in CADD, the learning curve for 3-D design can be from two to six months, depending on the depth of 3-D capabilities the shop is undertaking. A full 3-D die design practice would require more time.

This is where the chosen software plays an important role. It should at least be able to store 3-D objects that can be reused in the future. A lot of suppliers have libraries of components that can be downloaded and then incorporated into a shop's designs. But what about the placement of fasteners and engagement holes? These are tedious tasks, and automation could improve a designer's learning curve.

4. How much of the shop's software will have to be upgraded?

While the previous question touched on this subject slightly, this question needs serious evaluation.

Very few design packages aid in die design. Most, if not all, are not very 3-D- friendly. Some are add-on packages that run with other software, and they can be costly.

If a shop already owns add-on packages or a stand-alone die design software and it is a simple upgrade to get 3-D capabilities, then cost might not be as much of a factor. However, shops that own a package without 3-D upgrade capability may have to purchase a full license for an expensive design package.

This question requires a lot of consideration and research. In fact, it may be the only consideration for some shops.

5. What are the benefits of 3-D design capabilities?

One of the major benefits of 3-D design, of course, is being able to see interference problems that could be overlooked in a 2-D design. This capability alone should be a big deciding factor, because interference problems can cause a lot of rework and die modifications after the build process has been completed. It's much cheaper to make changes to a 3-D die design before the steel has been bought, labor-hours have been spent in the manufacturing process, heat treating has been applied, and the die has been mounted than to find out after it's completed that all that investment has been scrapped.

Another benefit is weight analysis, which is an important factor for shops pushing the envelope on machine capabilities and limitations. If the operator enters proper information into the software, such as material properties, then weight calculations should be accurate. This process does, however, require some investment of time and research to yield good results. Several Web sites have good data on tool steel properties such as weight densities.

A few packages also perform structural analysis on steels, but the process is long and definitive and requires a lot of expertise. This technology may be a little ahead of its time and probably is not a big factor for the average shop.

6. How much time will 3-D design add to the process?

Through experience and research, this author has determined that it takes about 10 to 20 percent more time to design in 3-D as in 2-D. However, the savings on the back end resulting from fewer scrapped details and less scrap steel and labor-hours usually justify the cost of the entire process. Of course, this depends largely on software capabilities and expertise.

It's easier to build a bridge with the proper tools than to carve it from a huge chunk of steel with a saw and hammer. Software is the tool of the trade for today's die designers. The better the tools, the less time wasted.

Figure 2
This part does not require 3-D capability because it is a simple box that when flattened needs only a 2-D strip layout and die design.

7. Is there still a market for 2-D designing?

Yes, there still is a market for 2-D designing, but 2-D design work is less commonplace. The demand is swaying toward 3-D in some markets.

Figure 2shows a part that needs no 3-D capability at all. It is a simple box that when flattened needs only a 2-D strip layout and die design.

8. What is the ROI for upgrading to 3-D design capability?

This is a question each shop really has to answer for itself. If a shop has marketability as a 3-D design firm or die shop and best opportunity is prevalent, then 100 percent payback on investment could be expected within one to three years. Of course, this depends heavily on the design staff's adaptability, the availability of 3-D design work, and the capabilities of the rest of the shop to promote 3-D functionality.

For example, one small tool and die shop had only 2-D capability. Six months after upgrading its hardware, software, and processes to get into a 3-D marketplace, the shop won contracts from several automotive customers that paid off all investments and yielded a $380,000 profit for that period.

To put it in a nutshell, if the work is there and a shop can adapt, it is a wise investment.

9. If a shop's 3-D design work gets backlogged, are independent contractors available to help?

Some contractors do design in 3-D, although they may be a little pricier than the 2-D designers who have been around for years. Also, they are not as abundant as 2-D designers, and initial contact may take a little research. They are out there, however.

10. Where does a shop go from here?

  • Take a tally of current design setup, including staff, hardware, software, work backlog, and training availability.
  • Decide from the staff and work backlog if 3-D design is feasible.
  • Determine if current software has
  • 3-D capabilities or if it needs to be upgraded.
  • Research what software is out there; contact other tool shops or design firms to see what software they're using and if it's 3-D-ready.
  • Assess if current capabilities include 3-D machining or if that's another required upgrade.
  • Determine whether or not all computers can handle the extra load; 3-D design taxes these systems.
  • Determine all purchasing requirements and request pricing on everything.
  • Build an itemized inventory list of these requirements (including training) to be submitted in case financing is an issue.
  • Find out what financing routes are available, including government grants or loans for technology advancements.
  • Put the wheels in motion!

Robert W. Harper is owner/consultant of CADD Masters, 1134 Franklin Drive, Greenbrier, TN 37073, 615-347-3966,,

Robert W. Harper

Contributing Writer

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STAMPING Journal is the only industrial publication dedicated solely to serving the needs of the metal stamping market. In 1987 the American Metal Stamping Association broadened its horizons and renamed itself and its publication, known then as Metal Stamping.

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