What is a STEP File? Let me Explain…

I’ve Had Many Clients ask me “What is a STEP File”? So I thought I would explain…

Let’s begin with an analogy. You’re probably familiar with Microsoft Word documents and with PDF files. Often times, you create a document using Word, then save (or print) it to PDF before sharing. PDF is more universal and not easily edited. It’s basically a snap shot of that Microsoft Word document at the time you saved it.

That’s effectively what a STEP file is to 3D engineering model data. It’s one of several universal formats we use to communicate between CAD systems. I’ve run into many clients that come to me because they “need a STEP file.” In reality, the vendor needs engineering data and could likely accept it in several formats – STEP just happens to be one of the most common.

Why Use Universal Formats like STEP?

In most cases, we introduce some revision control into the process, so the supplier gets a STEP file marked as “Rev A” or similar. This ensures that when we make changes down the road, we’ll have confidence that our supplier is quoting (and manufacturing!) the part at the correct revision level.

Comparing it back to the Word Document to PDF comparison – it also mitigates risk of the part geometry getting modified accidentally. The SolidWorks files are editable in SolidWorks. This means that your engineer (or your vendor) could screw up and accidentally change a detail and overwrite the old file. The best way to mitigate this kind of risk is to create incremented revisions (Rev A, Rev B, etc) saved out to a non-editable format – such as STEP.

How Does a Vendor Use a STEP File?

The vendor will import the 3D geometry into their tool chain. For a process such as 3D printing, the quoting has become mostly automated. Simply the upload the part into the vendor system and you’ll get instant quotes for a variety of materials.

In manufacturing, just about any modern production process will begin with a 3D model of the part to be created. Manufacturing engineers will use the model to design the tooling and/or machine paths necessary to produce the part.

Sounds Easy. How do I get a STEP File Then?

Remember, the STEP file is the final output of some design process. We create the STEP file when we are ready to prototype or manufacture some component. The act of creating the STEP file is as simple as clicking “save-as” within your CAD software of choice. Designing a part that meets its intended requirements, and is appropriately detailed for the manufacturing process it is intended for, is where the real work lies.  A well designed part could quite literally save you thousands and thousands of dollars in tooling and manufacturing costs.

So this is where vendors like me come in. If you need help generating a STEP file for a manufacturer, give me a call or send me a message.

Zalaco Featured in CAD Collaboration E-Book from Tech-Clarity

Can small engineering and design firms afford CAD collaboration?

Can small engineering and design firms afford CAD collaboration? That was the question Jim Brown addresses a brand new e-book over at Tech-Clarity. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim on the phone to discuss how modern CAD collaboration tools are dramatically improving the work flow of small service firms like Zalaco, and providing better value to the clients we serve.

To read an overview of the e-book, head over to Tech-Clarity. If you’d like to download a copy of the book, you’ll need to head over to GrabCAD and fill out a registration form.

Can small engineering and design firms afford CAD collaboration?
Can small engineering and design firms afford CAD collaboration?

The CAD  Data Problem

If you’re trying to figure out how to manage CAD data you need to solve two problems:

  1. Data Backup: Needs to be (almost) real time and invisible to the user.
  2. CAD Specific Issues: Versioning, Revision Control, and Collaboration

Ok, so item #2 is more than one problem. Fortunately, any system designed for CAD data should handle those out of the box. Unfortunately, real time (or regular) data backup is not something that meshes well with a good CAD data system.

Product Data Management (PDM) systems built for CAD work on a “check in” basis. They typically save every single version a user ever checks in.  These officially checked in versions become the basis of collaboratively working on the same assembly in CAD.  If a bunch of users were just working out of the same network drive, you’d perpetually be stepping on each others toes and overwriting each others files.

However, in the real world, we do a lot of work we don’t want to check into the official system for a myriad of reasons. As a result, we need to know that all of that “in work” data is safe and backed up somewhere. For this purpose, a traditional data back up system works just fine.

My Solution

My two pronged solution is incredibly powerful yet exceedingly simple.

  1. DropBox provides real time backup of everything I do.
  2. GrabCAD Workbench gets the official “updates” that I need to maintain version control on, share with a client, or mark as an official revision.

As a single user, they play together nicely. DropBox and GrabCAD are syncing the same directories without significant issue. However, this is a single user environment and sure it would wreak havoc if two users were doing the same thing with the same file sets

So that’s that! I love consulting on CAD Data and PDM issues, and I love the challenge of getting data into the cloud, so please feel free to contact me if I can be of service!

Mother’s Day Planter Design Project

A mother’s day project: Cedar Planter

Planter Design Project Links

See Project on GrabCAD (download model files)


Decided to have the 3 year old help me build a planter on the back porch for him and mom. Having a 3 year old “help” is always interesting, but it turned into a great couple of days. Step one was to rough out a concept in 3D because that’s just how I do things.  I wanted something roughly 2’x8′, and would let stock lumber lengths drive the actual dimensions. I also wanted something that required nothing more than a chop saw and drill. In the end, I came up with the following design:

Mother's Day Planter
Mother’s Day Planter


I used the design to come up with a material list. From there, Owen and I took off to Lowe’s to get our lumber. Since we’re going to be growing herbs and veggetables, pressure treated products are not a good choice due to the chemicals used during the treating process. Instead, an untreated wood that holds up better to the elements is preferred. In this case, we went with an all cedar construction. So here’s our story in some pictures. After filling up our cart, Owen was enjoying the sunshine on the way back out to the car.

Follow the rest of the story through the pictures below.

Haulin' Lumber
Owen probably singing “Bob the Builder” theme some in his head.
Owen helping get the supplies into the backyard.
Owen helping get the supplies into the backyard.
Owen was my designated screw inserter...
Owen was my designated screw inserter…
Reese even got in on the action.
Reese even got in on the action.
And here's what we ended up with.
And here’s what we ended up with.
And here's Owen showing off his crop to his buddy Jameson.
And here’s Owen showing off his crop to his buddy Jameson.


Kickstarter Data – StaX Campaign – Day 2

StaX Sections

This is a daily status with behind-the-scenes data from the StaX Kickstarter campaign. This is our effort to be completely transparent to our backers, and provide valuable information to other project creators.

StaX Kickstarter Summary – Day 2

Day 2 of the StaX campaign is in the books. Over the last 24 hours, we’ve had about $1,000 in additional pledges. Over the first 30 hours or so, we had about $2,500. Slow downs in campaigns are typical, but we have to figure out ways to drive more traffic to the campaign page.  One telling stat is that we’ve had so few video views off Kickstarter. This means our efforts to spread awareness have not been very successful.  I suspect the weekend to be slow, but we’ll have to figure out how to crank things up on Monday.

One interesting note from yesterday. We briefly appeared at the very top of the Staff Picks on Kickstarter’s Discover page. I’m guessing we were there for no more than 5 minutes. I don’t know how many views it created, but we had a run of 3 or 4 pledges during that brief period. That’s the kind of visibility that can really help drive the campaign.

Statistics Summary for Last 24 Hours

    • New Backers:  14
    • Total Pledged: $874
    • Video Views: 249
    • Sources of Pledges
      • Kickstarter: $737
      • Elsewhere: $137
Kickstarter Stats for StaX - Day 2
Kickstarter Stats for StaX – Day 2
Kickstarter Stats for StaX - Day 2
Kickstarter Stats for StaX – Day 2


Kickstarter Data – StaX Campaign – Day 1

StaX Kickstarter Staff Picked

This is a daily status with behind-the-scenes data from the StaX Kickstarter campaign. This is our effort to be completely transparent to our backers, and provide valuable information to other project creators.

StaX Kickstarter Summary – Day 1

StaX Kickstarter Staff Picked
StaX Kickstarter Staff Picked

We launched the Kickstarter project yesterday morning from the comfort of a Panera Bread here in Orlando. After a brief panic (the Kickstarter “Launch” button had been greyed out on the project page – fixed with a log out / log in), the project was live somewhere around 9:15am EST.

We had (obnoxiously?) emailed a large batch of our contacts the day before launch, and then again shortly thereafter. These were friends, family, past colleagues, and pretty much anyone we had connected with on LinkedIn (they make it very easy to export your email address – FYI).  We had some good success in the morning, nearing $1,000 in pledges by lunchtime. The pace slowed but new pledges kept rolling in for the rest of the day. Our day 1 total per Kickstarter was $2,028. We made it onto the first page of Popular under the Product Design category (as of this writing, we’re still there). We also showed up as a Staff Pick in the Product Design Category.

So overall, this was an OK start to the campaign. If we can average $2k in pledges per day, we’ll make our goal, but we have a long way to go. It was awesome that we made the “Popular” list, and awesome that we got picked up as a “Staff Pick.” Now we have to figure out how to ramp up the momentum and get more people involved with the project.  So far, day 2 is only on pace to 50% of what we did on day one.

So that’s today’s notes. Now on to the data. Kickstarter doesn’t provide all that much data. The only thing you can see on a day-over-day basis is the number of backers and the amount pledged. The other stats they give you, like number of video views, is just a rolling tally. They do show you where you pledges originated (from Kickstarter, from Facebook, from Twitter, etc), but not how much traffic each source created.

StaX Kickstarter Data – Day 1

Data as of 12:45pm EST on Thursday February 22nd.

Kickstarter Stats for StaX - Day 1
Kickstarter Stats for StaX – Day 1
Kickstarter Stats for StaX - Day 1
Kickstarter Stats for StaX – Day 1

StaX Goes Live on Kickstarter

I love reading all of the information that other Kickstarter projects share during and after their campaign. I hope to contribute back to this with interesting and useful information about the StaX campaign over the next month (and beyond).

What is StaX and why is it on Kickstarter?

To start, StaX is a joint effort between myself and Craig Rettew. The premise is simple – a modular container that can be extended (or shrunk) depending on how many sections you add in. It’s machined from 6061 aluminum and anodized in some awesome colors. The Kickstarter campaign aims to sell about 800 or so complete kits so that we can order the components at large enough volume to make the pricing work.

Craig and I are big fans of crowdfunding. It’s not the right answer for every aspiring inventor, entrepreneur, or designer, but its remarkable how much you can get from this process.  So please checkout our campaign here, and check back on this blog for updates over the next month to see how we are doing. I’ll try to share interesting data as it becomes available, and share our lessons when its all over.

Click here to visit the campaign page on Kickstarter

Click here for an easy path to sharing the campaign in your networks.

Five Things I Tell Inventors

I talk to quite a few individual inventors who are trying to understand where they should go with an idea they have. There is a common theme that the conversation turns to, so I thought I’d wrap up a few of the most important things here in this post. I love working with inventors because I love exploring new ideas. I also hate seeing people dump thousands of their hard earned dollars down the drain. I will only work with people once they have at least listened to me discourage them for a bit.

1 – Ideas Are Easy. Execution is Hard.

What your ideas are worth
Image Credit: SocialInnovationmn.com

This is the most important things you need to understand. You’d be surprised how often I’ve heard the phrase “world changing idea”. Unfortunately, ideas never change the world. People going out and getting things done change the world. Ideas never stand on their own and your idea is no exception. Focus on the execution. There are hundreds of great articles I could link to. Go do a Google Search on the topic and you’ll find a bunch of great resources. The graphic above is fantastic and is spot on (lifted from a post over at socialinnovationmn.com).

Ideas are essentially commodity items. Give me and some of my creative buddies one hour and a white board and we’ll have a bunch of ideas spanning the spectrum from awful to good. What’s that worth? Absolutely nothing.

2 – Your Likelihood of Success is Low

It’s hard to find really reliable statistics, but the failure rate is staggering. In general, 99.9% of ideas never become commercially viable products. I’m not just saying that because it sounds bad either. To read through a bunch of quotes regarding success rates, check out this link. In fact, the idea or product itself has little to do with it.Like the graphic above shows, a week idea + brilliant execution is far more valuable than a brilliant idea that is executed weakly.

3 – Think Twice Before Spending Money on a Patent

I’m not a patent agent or patent attorney and I do not give advice on the patentability of  particular idea. I do have a graduate degree in business and believe that above all else, individual inventors with limited capital must be very selective regarding how they allocate those limited resources. The cost for a patent will vary significantly. An independent agent may secure you a patent for as little as $4,000, but those costs can easily rise to $20,000 or more. There are some strategic things you can do here to limit the initial investment (such as writing a provisional patent application yourself), but the opportunity costs of where else you could spend that money should be evaluated.

You can reasonably launch a small company selling a simple product online for less than the patent might cost to prosecute. It could be 3 years before you even find out if you have been rejected or a patent has been granted. Don’t consume yourself with fears of having your idea copied or ripped off. This is an irrational concern in most cases (good read on the topic here). Once you internalize point number 1 above, this will make more sense. The value from your idea comes from the execution. A patent on a brilliant idea is still worthless unless someone goes out and actually does the hard part of executing. Maybe it makes sense to spend that capital on developing the product, getting it up for sale, and marketing it. If you’re successful, now you have an audience to launch your next project at and hopefully more capital for the next go around.

On the other hand, if your ultimate path is to sell or license your invention, or convince investors to bring capital to the table, patent protection may be an integral part of the strategy to get there. What I want people to realize is that the patent protection is just one part of a large equation.

4 – Bringing a Product to Market is Expensive

We’ve already touched on the costs to pursue a patent. Product development costs will vary wildly based on the complexity of your project and how well the development is managed. If you have a great deal of capital and a complex product, I recommend heading straight to full service firm. This is what big companies do when they don’t have all the resources in house. For most individual inventors, investing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars up front is often not an option. Pursuing a level-of-effort beyond the capital you have to support that effort a sure fire recipe for failure.

The good news is that it’s getting easier. The web make is much easier to outsource activities, educate yourself and become an expert, and use the crowd to launch your product. 

5 – Are you an Inventor, or an Entrepreneur?

This is a great question and I recommend you read this short blog post over at the Harvard Business Review. Succeeding as either is challenging, but it’s important you understand who you are as you choose a path. If you’re not an entrpreneur at heart, it’s doubtful you’re going to be successful bringing an idea to market and launching a company alongside the product.

Ok, so I should just give up on my dream?

If all you have is a dream then yes, it’s time to move on. If you’d like to convert that dream to an action plan, then you can consider moving forward. The web is an amazing resource of free advice. Educate yourself. Understand the challenges you are going to face and put some kind of plan in place.  Determine how much you can afford to invest and establish some milestones you must reach in order to keep pursuing the idea. You must move on from being an “idea person” to becoming someone that focuses and gets things done.

Thanks for reading this post! Feel free to contact me or schedule a consultation if you feel I might be able to help you in some way.

Orlando Mini Maker Faire Crowdfunding panel

Orlando Mini Maker Faire 2013

DeltaMaker made an appearance at the Orlando Mini Maker Faire this past Saturday. The folks at the Orlando Science Center did a great job hosting the event and hopefully it returns to the same location next year.

Craig Rettew and I were invited to sit on a panel to discuss crowdfunding as a tool for “Makers Making Money” (the title of the panel). It was a great experience and the audience had some really good questions. We were joined on the panel by Harold Timmis ($9 Arduino) and Gabriel Anzziani (Oscilliscope Watch and two other campaigns).

Crowdfunding is evolving quickly and many support tools are popping up to aid project creators with the long tail of the project – fulfillment. Craig put a great post yesterday that I recommend anyone considering a crowdfunding campaign to take a quick read through.

Me (left) and Craig Rettew (Center) and Harold Timmis (smARtMAKER)
Me (left) and Craig Rettew (Center) and Harold Timmis (smARtMAKER)

Guide to Mechanical Design and Engineering Terminology


If you’re background is not one that has you familiar with commonly used terms in mechanical design, mechanical engineering, product development, CAD, or manufacturing, this page might be useful to you.

Basically, it’s intended to be a laypersons guide to the words and phrases that I’m used to using on a daily basis. This is mean to give you just enough information to be dangerous, or more importantly, have a basic background before you approach someone for help in this area. Feel free to add suggestions in the comments for other words and phrases and I’ll do my best to keep this up to date. The goal is to keep this “un-technical” with links to more detailed information. It is by no means all encompassing and I will be adding to it over time. Please use the comments to make suggestions for the list (corrections, new terms, recommended links, etc). Thanks!

The Mechanical Design Terminology Guide

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

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ABS: A plastic commonly used in injection molding and 3D printing. Most of those plastic parts you have around your house are made of ABS. (Matweb.com)

Assembly: When two or more parts have to be put together in some way.

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Backlash: The “slop” felt in a mechanical system, typically when the system reverses direction. Parts require clearances to assemble correctly, and these clearances can be felt in moving assemblies. (Wikipedia)

Ball Bearing

Bearing: A bearing helps things move. Typically, bearings make it easier for parts to slide or rotate, and to do so for a long time without wearing down. (Wikipedia)

Boss: A generic term that describes something that sticks up on a part. An plastic part may require a hole for a screw, so the designer will add a round boss to make room.

Bushing: Sometimes used as a bearing, a bushing is typically a hollow cylinder used as an interface between a hole and a shaft.


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CAD: “Computer Aided Design” or “Computer Aided Drafting”. Basically, this is a general term for using a computer to help you design things in 2D or 3D.

CAM: “Computer Aided Manufacturing.” CAM jumps in where CAD leaves off. Once it’s designed, CAM programs help engineers and operators tell computer controlled machines how to make things.

Casting: A “cast” part is one that is made by pouring liquid into a mold.

Chamfer: Sharp edges are often bad things to have on finished parts. They wear down easily and may even be dangerous. Chamfers are angled cuts added to the edges of parts.

Conceptual Design: Working at a high-level to nail down the big idea. Trying to avoid any unnecessary detailed design work.

Counterbore: A hole with a flat bottom, usually around a smaller hole. Counterbores are often used to hide the head of a screw.

Crowdfunding: Pooling the finances of large numbers of people to fund a project, product, or business. (Wikipedia)

Crowdsourcing: Using large groups of people to generate and refine ideas. (Wikipedia)

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Datum: A datum is a reference feature that helps you interpret dimensions on an engineering drawing. (Wikipedia)

Detailed Design: Going from high-level conceptual design to something that can be manufactured. This typically includes drawings for all of the parts and assemblies required.

DFA: “Design for Assembly”. In other words, how easy will this thing to be to put together? An elegantly placed screw may  not seem so great when you realize there’s no way for a screw driver to reach it. (Wikipedia)

DFM: “Design for Manufacture”. By understanding how things are going to be made, you can design them to better accommodate these manufacturing processes. It’s not uncommon for an inexperienced engineer to make parts unnecessarily expensive by creating features in their 3D model that are not ideal for the intended manufacturing process. (Wikipedia)

Drawing: When I say “drawing”, I’m referring to a technical document that describes the necessary information to produce a particular part or assembly. Drawings come from CAD packages and conform to commonly accepted standards.

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Eccentric: When you offset the axis of two cylinders, you create an eccentric motion. Rotating one cylinder on axis creates moves the other cylinder in a rotary motion.

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Fillet: A fillet simply refers to a radius added between two intersecting surface. They might be added for aesthetics, strength, or to make a part simpler to produce.

Fixture: A tool that helps you do something during the manufacturing process. Fixtures ensure you can perform the same process over and over again and get the same result.

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Gear: A part with teeth used transfer motion. (Wikipedia)

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Industrial Design(er): Industrial design tends to refer to the look, feel, and human interaction with a product. Often times an industrial designer will be responsible for developing the look (shape, color, textures) of a product. Mechanical engineers design the functional product around these constraints.

Iterative Design: Even when you think you know exactly what you want, the process of designing, prototyping, and testing will always produce changes. You should expect this to happen.

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Lead In: A feature used to help locate parts together. A pin might use a chamfered edge to help guide itself into a hole.

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Mechanism: When something in the design needs to move in some controlled manner. (Wikipedia)

Mold: A tool used to make copies of a part. You pour in a liquid and take a out a solid.

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PDM: “Product Data Management.” Exactly what it sounds like, managing all of the data associated with a product like 3D models, drawings, manufacturing plans, etc. (Wikipedia)

Pitch: Typical of screws and gears, it describes the numbers of threads or teeth over a given distance. For threads or gears to properly mate, they must have the same pitch.

Preload: A 50lb weight sitting on the ground has a 50lb preload to the ground. It will require at least 50lb of force opposite the ground to break contact. In mechanical assemblies, things like bolts and springs are used to create preload to ensure things stay where they are supposed to.

Prototype: Simply a mock-up of the desired end result. This can be done digitally, with 3D models, renderings, and animations. It can also be done physically using tools like 3D printers.

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Rendered Image: Using 3D CAD data to generate realistic images of a design, product, or idea. Rendered images simulate the behavior of light and typically take hours to generate at high resolutions. Many product images you see in advertising and on web sites are actually rendered from 3D data, even though they may look like a photograph.

Rendered Animation: CAD data can be used to demonstrate a products function, how it goes together, or just move it around in space. When we render each frame of the animation, we can bring ideas to life on the screen.

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Tapped Hole: A hole that has threads for a fastener to engage.

Tolerance: The allowable range on a dimension.  If you want something 1.00″ thick, you have to specify how close to 1.00″ is acceptable, so you add a range like +/- .02. (Wikipedia)

Tooling: This generally refers to the production equipment required to mass produce a product. Large up front costs are amortized over large production runs.

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Zalaco: An awesome company that people love 🙂

Elon Musk’s Take on the Future of 3D Design Tools


New 3D Design Paradigm in Action?

Elon Musk and SpaceX released a video yesterday showing what might be the beginning of a revolution in how we interact with 3D space:

My Quick Thoughts

Using a spaceball type of controller is the only alternative modeling interface that I’ve seen used with any frequency. Even then, most designers I’ve worked with in industry have stuck with a keyboard and mouse most of the time (myself included). While a spaceball is nice, it’s only an incremental change in how you interact with 3D space on screen.

Is Elon Musk’s vision a disruptive shift in interaction? Will it make designing complex parts easier? Maybe not, but it will make being a mechanical designer or 3D artist alot more fun. I see this more useful for industrial design and character modeling than I do for designing rocket engines. The freeform nature of subdivision modeling makes this particularly appealing, especially when haptic feedback can be incorporated into your hands. At that point, an artist could literally sculpt in 3D space.

future-of-design-elon-musk-spacex 3d design
Elon Musk/SpaceX

I see tremendous value on the visualization side. We often refer to 3D models as “virtual prototypes.” Seeing a design through the eyes of an Occulus Rift adds a new level realism to that experience, and this has tremendous potential for gathering feedback and improving our virtual prototypes. And that’s exactly what SpaceX demonstrated in the video above. It has presented a fantastic tool for Elon Musk to review and dig into the 3D designs his engineers are working on. What we did not see were any examples of usable interaction in the design process. Nothing we saw was designed using this type of interface. That’s OK, but it’s important to realize that design utility will lag the visual utility for some time.

In my opinion, a tool that combined haptic feedback with a holographic display is when we will see the benefits during the design process. The idea of my desk surface becoming a usable volume where I can “feel” virtual parts is a game changer. Instead of double clicking a feature, I might double tap it’s surface, see dimensional information appear, and simply grab a triad and stretch a dimension. That type of demonstration will get me excited, as that has the ability to really disrupt how design is done on a day-to-day basis.

Exciting stuff, but I suspect usability is a long way away. It’s awesome to see a company like SpaceX leading the charge.