Startup Series: How Fusion 360 Allows Us to Rapidly Iterate on the Cheap
Any startup has a lot of decisions to make early on. Each one has an impact on budget, time to delivery, capabilities and so much more. One of the biggest, and best, choices we made was to learn and use Autodesk’s Fusion 360 CAD software combined with a Prusa 3D Printer. The printer will be a topic of a different day, as it warrants a post all to itself.
As a quick primer, for our game, mechanical engineering is the design of the case and how everything fits together: the electrical board inside, the buttons, the screen, battery placement, you name it. I’m an electrical engineer, so I knew how to make the electronics used in Countdown, but I hadn’t used a CAD program since college (turn of the century.. so, yeah, that's not too relevant). As CTO at my previous company that made a connected GPS dog tracker, we contracted out the mechanical design to a 3rd party. That product was a much smaller and more intricate product in comparison to the game we're making now.
While that mechanical engineering firm was ahh-mazing (and I’d gladly recommend them, get in touch for a reference), they would have been overkill for Countdown early on. At the beginning, we didn’t know how our game was going to eventually look. We had to go through a lot of development and play testing to get where we are. Contracting all those revisions out would have added up to an enormous amount (to us). Instead, through Fusion 360, we’ve been able to make revisions on a daily basis, which has allowed for countless tweaks and a really intuitive design (coming in our formal 'Rev 2' beta design).
The Savings Add Up Quickly
Our original budget estimate for full mechanical engineering on Countdown was $50,000 on the low-end up to $85,000 on the high end. That was for continuous iteration of prototype designs through to design for manufacturing (DFM) checks and full release to manufacturing. By taking the prototype and design iteration in-house, our current ME estimate now is just $10-20k to allow for oversight and tweaks as we go to production.
And all it costs is my time.. which, as the founder of a startup, is ‘free’, right? Who needs sleep? Or a paycheck?
3D printed cases and UI concepts designed in Fusion 360. The video below details the process for one of these designs.
The Core Functionality of Fusion 360
Learning Fusion 360 was a breeze. There is plenty of documentation and lots of YouTube videos on how get started and more on specifics, like making a battery latch, which were extremely helpful. The system boils down to 3 main parts you need to understand:
- Sketches are basically graph paper on your screen where you draw out the 2D form of what you want. You can create a sketch anywhere: in free space or on top of another element you’ve already created.
- Extrusions take lines and shapes you make on a sketch and ‘pull’ them into a 3rd dimension.
- Parameters are variables you set for dimensions (a button is 14mm tall, has an arc of 70 degrees and should depress by 3mm when pushed). Each sketch line or extrusion should use one of these parameters so it’s easy to update later when you’re refining things.
Parameters can also be based on other parameters. For instance, we can say the each button is 8% the width of the case. Then, after playtests, if we decide to adjust the case width to make it more comfortable in a range of users hands, the buttons automatically scale up or down to fit perfectly within the case. When setup right, changing one parameter will cascade through the whole design and it’s awesome to watch. We don't have to adjust 10 different points worrying that we'll forget something, Fusion 360 takes care of that for us. We can quickly see how one change would affect the rest of the design in seconds. It’s what make rapid iteration possible.
While there is a lot to like about Fusion 360, we’ve barely touched the surface. I’m definitely not an expert and still don’t know what many of the settings mean or do, but I get by fine and learn about a new tool or widget whenever I get stuck. In the future, we still plan to contract out mechanical engineering to a full-time firms to check our work and prepare for manufacturing.
If you're an expert at Fusion 360, or CAD, the above may sound incredibly basic. To me though, even with an engineering background and having overseen large projects, I didn't know how the tools actually functioned.
We created a quick (well, quick for demo'ing all the major features of a large product) video going over using Fusion 360 to make the case for one of our game designs. If you're interested in seeing how easy it can be and how fast you can make something when you know what you're doing, check it out:
There are many different CAD packages out there that can do what Fusion 360 does, at least for our needs. Again, I use only a handful of features, so most programs likely would work. For us though, the most important requirements we needed were price, ease-of-use, price, functionality and price. Fusion 360 was the package we found with upfront 'startup' pricing for companies making <$100k in revenue (yup, that's us! *sigh*). No forms to fill out to get a sales rep, no pleads for assistance to an email address. It took 5 minutes through an automated signup process. That's slick.
While we were willing to pay something (albeit hoping not much), the price of 'free' definitely hit the mark.
Nope, I'm Not Paid
I know this post may sound over the top, but I have not been in contact with anyone at Autodesk nor have I (or plan to) receive any compensation for this post. The product has saved Pressure Games a lot of money and helped progress our product more than I expected, so this is our way to pay it forward.