Prototyping by Voodoo

You know things are different at RKS Design the moment you walk in.

Their lobby is spacious, and it feels like you’re in a museum or a modern art gallery. Displayed under spotlights, the products created by this industrial design firm look as if they are from the future.

But bringing the visitor back to the present, and dominating the room, is the wing of an old fighter plane standing on end. Behind the wing are the doors to the machine shop, better known as Voodoo Works.

Juan Cilia, vice president of prototyping, came up with the name Voodoo Works because the machine shop is where the magic happens. Designs become reality through the use of computers and Haas CNC machines. “This is where you can see the magic of the product come to life,” says Cilia.

“We try to keep it more like a lab, not so much like a machine shop. We never pretend to be better than a machine shop, but we have the tools to be just as good for our application. We have adapted the tool and the system to our mentality of fast turnaround – from design to prototype,” says Cilia, who was born in the U.S., but raised in Colombia.

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Located in Thousand Oaks, California, RKS Design benefits from its location, designing innovative products that are influenced by the fashion, architecture, transportation and entertainment trends of Southern California. Using a proprietary methodology of “Psycho-Aesthetics”™ in the design process, RKS has worked with such well-known companies as Amana Appliances, Canon, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, SEGA, Rubbermaid, Price Pfister, Smith Corona and Panavision to create products that have the functionality and aesthetics to take consumers into the 21st century.

Industrial design firms and model shops are starting to take advantage of CNC machining and rapid milling to create prototypes that have the look and feel of real products. RKS, like many others, has moved prototyping from handmade production to stereo lithography (SLA) to CNC machining. The move to rapid milling of prototypes has many advantages over past methods.

Product development has always included a phase of creating a working model in order to test the look, function and feel of a new product. In the past, the only option was to build a model by hand – a time-consuming process that could take many weeks. With the advent of stereo lithography, designers can now quickly create life-like models. SLA uses a CAD drawing to create a model layer by layer, using a laser to cure a vat of epoxy. The advantages of SLA come from its speed and affordability over handmade models. But an SLA model is brittle and unstable, and after sanding, the accuracy is lost. It does not have the same feel as a handmade or CNC-made model.

Now, design firms such as RKS can use CNC machines to make prototypes from a variety of materials, allowing the part to be closer to production than one created from epoxy or similar processes. Besides a better look and feel, the CNC machines can create highly accurate parts with true three-dimensional surfacing that can’t be matched by SLA or handmade prototypes. With high-speed machining and fast programming, CNC machining can now compete with the speed and low cost of SLA models.

“The result is a far better product,” explains Cilia. ”We have found that by offering the clients a CNC part, they never want to go back to an SLA process. We won our respect by being able to do quality at a fast pace. There are few in the industrial design industry who can match us,” he says.

Another advantage of CNC machining is that RKS Design can make several prototypes for client inspection by simply repeating the program. “Our method is all about test verifying. It is all about cycling through the design. It (CNC machining) allows us to do the most iterations in the least amount of time, and then come up with the best product,” says Ravi Sawhney, president and CEO.

RKS Design has four Surfcam stations to turn designs into working programs, which are then loaded into a Haas VF-8 or a Haas VF-0 through the RS-232 port. The Voodoo Works staff of four are not machinists by training, but rather industrial designers who love to create prototypes on the machines. “We didn’t try to adapt to the normal mentality of machining,“ says Cilia, “because we can’t measure up to machinists. We totally admire machinists!”

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While they may not have the same skills as machinists, Cilia’s staff of industrial designers have become proficient users of Surfcam software to create programs. “Our speed is incredible. We do the work of probably 12 in an ordinary model shop,” notes Cilia, who worked in Hollywood and in other model shops before working for RKS Design.

One way RKS Design speeds up production is by creating specialized fixturing. “We came up with fixturing systems that are very flexible in order to fit the parameters of being fast and efficient. We get so impatient when we can’t machine the part, but have to spend all this time on the fixture,” notes Cilia.

Voodoo Works is proud of the work it has done creating prototypes with thin walls, something that is simple to do with SLA, but difficult with CNC machining.

“We have been able to do thin-wall machining of plastics in a way that no one has done before with such efficiency,” Cilia says. “We came up with a system to keep the piece from flexing, so we can machine with great accuracy and speed. That’s our competitive edge.”

One example of this is the prototype for the Intrigo Lapstation, a portable desk for laptop computers. The client wanted it to be lightweight, which required machining of polycarbonate down to 60 thousandths of an inch. “It was important to show in the prototype that with thin walls and ribbing, it could still be strong enough to meet specifications,” says Cilia. “It was important to engineer thin walls to reduce weight and material expense in the final product. This company doesn’t design flat parts, but rather lots of complex shapes, so we build custom fixtures. We have to solve things quickly, because we have to keep the fast turnaround, and that is why it is important to be industrial designers.”

Most of the fixtures at RKS are created out of foam, and then taped (using double-sided tape) or glued to the table of the CNC machine. The part is then taped into the fixture to allow for machining. Most of the time, prototypes are created from Renshape® (a dense urethane board stock) or ABS resin. Sometimes, prototypes are made from aluminum. “We often use Renshape for the appearance. After we paint it, you won’t see a difference between the model and the production part in a photograph,” reports Cilia.

When the decision was made in 1997 to move from model making by hand to CNC machining, RKS Design purchased a Haas VF-0. Choosing the first Haas machine came from the recommendations of other tool makers. “I was looking for something local that would have real quick turnaround on service and support,” explains Cilia. “At the time, I didn’t know how to program a CNC, machine a part or even set up a machine. So I had to make sure I had readily available support.

“It came down to two machines: Haas or Fadal,” Cilia continues. “Both are local and both have incredible reputations. I actually called some of the companies that use CNC machines to make tools. Some of them have Fadals, and they recommended that we use the Haas. One of the reasons was how smooth the finish is from the Haas machines. For all of our very complex surfacing, we need smooth precision. It paid off.”

Voodoo Works still makes parts by hand, but technology has changed their thinking. “Since we got so good at tool-pathing (programming), and so efficient at machining, we have a hard time choosing: Should I do it by hand or should I machine it? It’s actually more efficient to go on the machine and cut it, even if it is flat, instead of going to a Skil® saw or router,” Cilia says.

A story related by RKS Design president Ravi Sawhney points out the benefits of CNC machining. “We were developing a phone headset for Smith Corona. We did all the testing and developed the design. We built the prototype out of real materials. When the client was here, we had our program manager wear the headset all day. We found that it was too tight on his ears. How could you find that out with an SLA product?” Sawhney asks. ”So we revised the data, made a new prototype, and by the time the client was back in upstate New York, the new prototype was waiting for him.”

CNC machining is changing industrial design by providing unmatchable options. Now, prototypes can have the look, feel, accuracy and durability of the final product. “We think the Haas machines are the best thing since sliced bread,” says Cilia. “I don’t think Haas and the machine tool industry realize how fast industrial design is changing, and what a difference CNC machining makes in prototyping.”