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17 Nov
PC designs the products of tomorrow
Modeling in 3D

Avi Cohen, the founder and CEO of VertexPD, designs and engineers award-winning products that range from semiconductor processing machines to smartphone docks.

Avi Cohen was born and raised on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, first in Tel Aviv and then in Bat Yam, a suburb eight miles south. But he really grew up on the floor of his father’s furniture factory.

“From the age of 11 or 12, as soon as he could put me to work for him, I was smelling a lot of wood chips and dust,” says Cohen. His father tossed him straight into the deep end of the pool and said swim: “I remember when he figured out I could do stuff on my own, as a test, he gave me a folding table that he found, and asked me to reverse engineer it,” he says. Cohen’s father told him he had to build two more tables identical to the sample. As it turns out, he was a natural: It only took him a week.

In the furniture shop, it was all about streamlining the production process. After all, a furniture factory doesn’t make a chest of drawers – it makes 50 chests of drawers. Or 500. That meant a lot of advance planning and a Henry Ford-like approach to production. One day, Cohen’s dad pointed to a worker cutting wood at the table saw and said “See that guy? He doesn’t even need know what he’s cutting. At the end of the process, we’ll put it together like Legos.”

But there’s a lot more Lego pieces involved in, say, a magnetic resonance imaging machine, one of the many products that Cohen has helped design and produce as the founder and CEO of VertexPD, a product development firm based out of Great Neck, New York. VertexPD has designed a wide range of stuff — really, there’s no better word for it — that runs the gamut from the highly technical and specialized (multi wafer semiconductor processing machine) to the highly utilitarian and commercial (award-winning smartphone docking systems).

That’s why, today, Cohen relies on high-powered Windows PCs running computer-aided design (CAD) software to test out countless parts and pieces. “We model every detail from the smallest screw to the largest touchscreen,” Cohen says.

CAD — 3D CAD in particular — has become standard across many industries in recent years, a go-to tool for automotive designers, architects, civil engineers, cartographers, aerospace and defense industry suppliers, film animators and more.


Cohen shows off a host of his inventions and projects at VertexPD.

The history of CAD goes all the way back to the early 1960s — Patrick Hanratty’s Ph.D. thesis at MIT laid out a plan for a very rudimentary design tool called “Sketchpad,” which involved a light pan that could manipulate digital objects displayed on a CRT monitor. Over the next few decades, computer design evolved in fits and starts. But it wasn’t until the introduction of the first IBM PC in 1981, and the subsequent release of increasingly powerful microprocessors by Intel, that CAD really took off.

In 1983, the company Autodesk released AutoCAD, the first successful CAD program for PC, and the design industries all began to make the shift from buying closed turnkey systems from vendors to purchasing separate workstations and software. By the late 1990s — after the powerful Pentium microprocessor was launched — PCs were the primary platform for the majority of CAD users, including those working on Pro/ENGINEER, another game-changing pieces of software that led an industry shift from 2D CAD to 3D CAD.

Cohen was part of the first generation of industrial designers to grow up on 3D CAD. “I was lucky,” he says. “I started a few years after 3D software was developed. We jumped straight into it.” He started on Pro/ENGINEER software — now officially called PCD Creo — and stuck with it. And since Pro/ENGINEER runs on Windows, Cohen has built a PC shop from the ground up, with two Dell Precision Workstation T3600s using Intel Xeon processors and one Dell Dimension Workstation E510.

3D CAD running on these high-powered, modern processors is the rocket fuel that has propelled industrial design so far over the last few decades. “Everything moves faster,” says Cohen. “There are less mistakes — you can catch mistakes on screen. And it’s easy to generate a new drawing — it’s a matter of two clicks.”

Despite having a name that conjures up images of welding and laser-cutting, the actual practice of industrial design is much more akin to, say, architecture or even book jacket design than it is to things like auto manufacturing or the personal tech industry. Consider that despite the fact that industrial design is a $3 billion annual industry that’s grown over 5 percent annually since 2009, there is no one, two, or even 10 companies with dominant market share. Instead, there are thousands of small, flexible shops, like VertexPD, doing custom, specialized work. In fact, some predict that the factories of the future will only tenuously resemble the modern automotive industry’s temples to mass-production; they will, instead, be craft shops, focused on mass customization.

"I always ask myself, who says it has to be this way? Who says it has to be square, who says it has to be two wheels and not three? I always offer ‘why not’ to clients."

“The future of design is in the rise of small enterprises,” says Constantin Boym, chair of Pratt Institute’s industrial design program. In many design schools, he says, there’s a trend towards a return to the pre-CAD world of “handmade and manual qualities, and embracing the freedom of visceral material exploration.” He calls the approach “post-digital.”

It’s a future Cohen seems to have anticipated. Though he admires clean lines like any good contemporary designer, he also draws inspiration from the untamed work of artists like the Italian designer and architect Gaetano Pesce. Pesce’s works are sui generis, hand-made and designed to be irreproducible — polar opposites of the requirements faced by an industrial designer like Cohen.

But Cohen, who put his grad school education on hold to spend a year working as a studio assistant for Pesce (he helped create the "Anne Frank Cabinet," a tribute to the Holocaust survivor featuring bullets, human hair and teeth, metal chains and more all encased in resin), says the spirit of experimentation developed there has been a guiding light for the more technical work he does today.

“There are no rules,” says Cohen. “There’s just us getting used to the things that people before us did. I always ask myself, who says it has to be this way? Who says it has to be square, who says it has to be two wheels and not three? I always offer ‘why not’ to clients.” Working on Windows helps make it happen; Cohen can test an endless number of configurations and see what works.

According to Cohen, great industrial design often relies on melding beauty and functionality. Ideally, a thing that so seamlessly fits into daily life that it feels barely designed at all. Consider the Anglepoise lamp, designed in 1932. It’s that desk light with the adjustable folding arm balanced by a combination of gravity and the springs near the base. It’s everywhere from car garages to office buildings to home living rooms (and shows up in the opening credits of every Pixar movie). It’s charming, but also utilitarian to the core — it was designed for working environments like workshops.

There’s a lesson here that many forget. “There are a lot of designers that have a disdain for the functionality part,” says Ricardo Fuentes. “They’ll say ‘Don’t talk to me about gears and drives and motors.’” Fuentes is president and CEO of MATECH, a company that designs and build machines to process the materials that are used in making advanced processing chips (like the kind found in lasers and space-based solar cells); MATECH and VertexPD worked together on the design for a semiconductor wafer processing machine.

Fuentes says Cohen is one of the few who seems to really get it: “Avi is a designer, but if you describe to him a machine, you’re not going to have to do it twice.”

This articla was published in on 11/16/15.


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