OtterBox strives to constantly maintain the rugged quality for which the company’s products are known while upping the ante in speed and capacity. One of the company’s central tools for meeting seemingly conflicting goals is 3D reverse engineering using Geomagic Design X software by 3D Systems.
Finding the Right Tool
In early 2010, OtterBox transitioned from outsourcing most of its reverse engineering work to bringing it in-house using Geomagic Design X. This happened after a series of frustrations with another high-end reverse engineering package.
“The first reverse engineering software we tried was like learning a new CAD package,” says Zach Dunkin, OtterBox’s product development technician. “It was difficult to use and the surface offsets wouldn’t work. The time I would have invested in using it effectively would have been too great. In contrast, I was able to generate 13 surfaces for cases that came to market in the first six months of using Geomagic.”
The difference, says Dunkin, is the ability to generate clean, crisp surfaces from scan data of the actual device – whether smartphone, iPod or iPad – for which OtterBox is making a custom case. In the competitive market in which OtterBox plays, there is little room for reworking and the finished product must fit like a glove right out of the box.
Small Window of Opportunity
“We’re in a market where the life cycle of the product is very short – typically 10 to 12 months,” says Alan Morine, OtterBox’s research, and development manager. “We have to get the product out quickly or else the market opportunity decreases exponentially.”
The pressure is further increased by the number of products hitting the market and the consumer hunger for variety. OtterBox started with cases for the BlackBerry and iPhone but has rapidly expanded to cover other products from Apple, as well as devices from Motorola, Nokia, Palm, HTC, and others. To meet that small marketing window, OtterBox products need to come out simultaneously with the devices or only a couple of weeks afterward.
“We play in a market that changes so rapidly and has so many players that it’s a huge competitive challenge to stay ahead,” says Morine.
Morine and Dunkin say that doing scanning and processing in-house removes delays they would often experience from outsourcing that works. Problems stemming from outsourcing include difficulties in communicating design intent and fixing problems in SolidWorks CAD/CAM software that emanated from the scan data.
“The scan model – what I call the starting block – has to be smooth and clean when it gets to CAD or else certain things won’t propagate and you have to try multiple approaches to get what you want,” says Morine. “Little bits of time here and there really add up over the course of the design.”
Better Quality in Half the Time
Morine and Dunkin estimate that scanning and processing time has been cut about in half by using Geomagic Design X in-house, from about seven to ten days outsourced to about three to five days in-house.
OtterBox’s current approach starts with either a device provided in advance by the OEM for scanning or a CAD model. If a device is supplied, it is scanned using either a Creaform Handyscan or a Laser Design scanner, then placed in Geomagic Design X to clean up data and create surfaces. If a CAD model is provided, it is still processed in Geomagic, which is faster at removing extraneous data than CAD software according to Morine.
Bringing the scanning and processing in-house has three distinct advantages over outsourcing, says Dunkin.
“It’s absolutely necessary when you are working on top-secret devices that you cannot send to an outside vendor,” he says. “Doing the work in house also speeds turnaround time and reduces rework throughout the product development cycle. Last, but not least, it improves interaction with designers. We can find out from the beginning what shapes they need and what data we can omit, which saves time. If there is a problem with a surface, I can change it, re-import it to SolidWorks and they have a better working surface quicker.”
Freedom of Modeling Choice
Dunkin primarily uses the design-intent modeler in Geomagic Design X to clean up data and generate surfaces from the HandyScan hand-held scanner, but has also begun using the exact surface modeler to process the higher-precision scans from the Laser Design scanner.
“The dual-modeling programs in Geomagic Design X give me the flexibility to choose the modeler that’s best for a specific project,” says Dunkin.
After surfaces are generated in Geomagic, they are imported into SolidWorks to build surface layers and model product features such as buttons and screens.
Once the CAD model is developed and prototyped to the satisfaction of the industrial and mechanical designers, it is sent off for tooling and manufacturing.
Compressing the Process
Doing its reverse engineering in-house is part of an ongoing campaign by OtterBox to shave product development time and add product capacity without compromising quality. Earlier this year, the company’s typical time from initial scanning to having a manufactured product in the warehouse was 10 to 12 weeks. Morine expects OtterBox to soon reduce that time substantially.
“We’re averaging about 10-12 product releases a month, give or take a few,” he says. “We’ll turn out more than 100 products this year and that’s going to keep increasing. We’ll be adding staff, tightening our relationships with OEMs, and using technology tools such as Geomagic to keep compressing the process.”
While that might not silence the dual voices of “faster, faster” and “more, more,” it will go a long way to ensuring OtterBox’s continued market leadership in the years ahead.