Making Workbench Work: Creating Burning Man’s Penrose Triangle

As we’ve taken GrabCAD Workbench from concept to market, we’ve spent an incredible amount of time talking to our community members, trying to learn what we can do to make the best online CAD collaboration tool for engineers. Nothing, however, beats the experience of trying to do real work with the product oneself.

GrabCAD Workbench CAD collaboration

Over the past few months, I’ve been using Workbench to manage the design and fabrication of a crazy art project with a friend of mine, who is a metal fabricator and incredible craftsman. The Burning Man organization is funding the work to be brought to their famous art festival at the end of the summer. I’m the designer and I help manage the team, so Workbench seemed like the natural choice to manage the project.

I’ve learned a lot in the process, so I thought I’d share some tips.

First of all to get an idea of the context, you can view the Penrose project here on GrabCAD Community.

Also there is more information about the project on our web site and Kickstarter.

Lesson 1: It’s great to have everything in one place

What makes this project more like a real-world engineering project, than a typical art project, is that we have a customer. Our funding comes with a number of reasonable contractual provisions, one of which is to work with their own engineering team to help make sure that the project is safe. Based on the illustrations we had sent them early on, their engineers had a lot of questions about critical areas of the structure, which I had not yet detailed in the design. With each round of questions, I designed and documented the relevant parts of the structure along with simulation results (from Fusion 360 Simulation, then in beta) and hand calculations in a spreadsheet. We conversed around pins in GrabCAD’s online CAD viewer to discuss the relevant areas, used the measure tool to approximate lengths of welds, and updated 3D files and images of simulation results and key cross sections. No single format would’ve gotten the job done, so it was great to be able to put everything in one organized, versioned location.

Lesson 2: When in doubt, over-communicate

After a few rounds with the Burning Man engineering team, I probably had six folks from the art department on my Workbench project, including the department head. By my count, the team at Burning Man is managing over 80 projects, so I was a little concerned that they would be overwhelmed by the chatter generated by comments and updates to the project.

Turns out that I was dead wrong. A while later, we were on a conference call with the organizers and representatives from several other projects, and the head of the department reminded us that they needed updates on our progress on a regular basis. She explicitly pointed out how great it was that our team was using GrabCAD Workbench (by name) and that they loved seeing all the activity generated by progress on our project. For me, the takeaway is that it’s important to error on the side of more collaboration with your customer, and that GrabCAD can create deeper connections with customers by making them feel more involved with the process.

Lesson 3: Don’t underestimate mobile

Although I find my partner on the project easy to work with, there’s a reason he’s earned the nickname, “Surly.” We’re all familiar with the clichés about the ways engineers and machinists work together, and I think Surly summed it up best when he said that if I don’t hear back from him when I send him something to review, it either means that he agrees with it or he didn’t get the message.

One evening, we were at an art fundraiser for a different project, and I ran into Surly at the edge of the dance floor. When he spotted me, he reached for his iPhone, pulled up an image that I had recently sent him, and started talking excitedly and pointing at things. Before I could figure out what he was talking about, I noticed that ten feet away was our main Android and IOS app developer Andrew.  (I’d invited a few of the Grabbies to the event.) I waved him over, thinking it was the perfect opportunity to introduce him to a real user of the product he’d been working on for months. Next thing I knew, Surly was raving about the app. He said that he was always running around town, and how the app was the perfect way for him to see what I was working on to get me quick feedback so I could iterate. It turns out, when he is in the shop, he doesn’t spend much time in front of the computer, but when he’s on the road, he has the time to give me the feedback I need.

Andrew and Surly hit it off so well that I ended up getting squeezed out of the conversation and walking away. To this day, I don’t know what Surly wanted to show me that night.

Conclusions

I learned a lot putting Workbench to work. I was using the same beta product as the rest of our beta customers, and as I listened to everybody’s feedback during the day, I experienced the issues our customers described at night. It was great having a project that involved not only the dozen or so of us working on the sculpture, but also our customer’s management team and a bunch of Grabbies (including Hardi, our CEO) who could learn from the experience.

At GrabCAD, we like to say that engineering is more fun when it’s a team sport. Although I’ll confess it was a bit weird having such a close connection between my day job and my hobby. In hindsight, I’ve learned more than I expected and had a lot of fun with such an extended team involved. Most importantly, I’m left with the kind of feeling I haven’t felt since I learned solid modeling in the 1990s: now that I’ve worked with such a collaboration tool as the center of my design process, I can’t imagine ever going back.

What projects are you using Workbench to collaborate on?

  • http://www.grabcad.com/hardi.meybaum Hardi Meybaum

    Fantastic story Blake.

  • Barney Northrup

    I have a whole new respect for Burning Man. So cool

  • https://twitter.com/reedsturtevant Reed Sturtevant

    Great writeup, Blake. I’ve known Blake Courtney for years, he has made so many amazing things for our Burning Man camp…sorry that I can’t be out there this year to see the Penrose Triangle debut.