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July 25, 2002

6 Min Read
Controlling the design


Mold designs for the Cico egg holder (designed by Stefano Giovannoni and produced by Alessi) required the Global Shape Modeling feature of thinkdesign to locate parting lines and maintain aesthetics.

Alessi is a world-renowned producer of tableware, kitchen utensils, and home products, yet the company has little or no in-house design staff. In a unique arrangement, Alessi works with more than 200 internationally acclaimed architects and designers such as Ettore Sottsass, Frank Gehry, and Phillipe Starck to bring their ideas to reality. Many of these superstars specify injection molded plastic for their products, and it is Alessi's job to translate the part design into a mold design. It is only possible, according to sources at Alessi, with some powerful CAD software and an ardent desire to maintain original design intent.

IMM spoke recently with Cristiano Colosio, technical design manager at Alessi in Crusinallo, Italy, about the process of turning ideas into reality. "In our last collection, 50 percent of the products were plastic, and in previous years, the number has jumped to 60 percent, so we must be able to accurately take a part or product design, sketch, or model and turn it into a mold design," says Colosio. "Designers supply the design without any idea of how it will be made into a mold. Alessi has to respect the original integrity of the design but also reengineer it for manufacturability."

Because it's company policy to use external collaborators and not internal designers, Alessi receives designs in various forms. "About 40 percent of the designs arrive as Alias, Rhino, or AutoCAD 3-D models that need to be modified for manufacturability by adding parting lines, draft, and ribs, for example. Another 40 percent are 2-D drawings or sketches, and the final 20 percent arrive as prototypes," he says. "We've selected a CAD package for mold designs that gives us the ability to accurately input, import, and rework designs."

Colosio's technical design team works with thinkdesign from think3 for this and several other reasons. For example, while molds are created by trusted suppliers in France and Italy, Alessi must ensure that the final design needs no changes once in the moldmaker's hands. "We are able to eliminate 90 percent of all problems at the moldmaker level by solving them beforehand with thinkdesign," he says. "Alessi designers create the models so that the parting line is free of any problems, so the moldmakers need only execute the design."

This is not a case of ego. Rather, Alessi must have close control over what is produced so that design intent is preserved. The final mold design and parting line must not be left up to the moldmaker's discretion to interpret (and modify) the designer's idea. If that happened, few of the 200 designers would be willing to work with Alessi again. "The parting line is very important to the style," says Colosio. "It defines the whole look. We subject the parting line to a lot of checks and controls."

Another characteristic of Alessi's operation is that many of the plastic products it offers feature complex contours. Take, for instance, the Cico egg holder by Stefano Giovannoni pictured on this page. "This was a difficult project, because at the time, we were using several software packages," says Colosio. The software used initially couldn't control the parting line properly, nor could it locate a parting line that gave good aesthetics. To compound the problem, the initial design had been done in yet another software package.


To solve a parting line dilemma, Alessi brought the original CAD file into thinkdesign. Original software could not locate a parting line for this model.


Automatic parting line generation in thinkdesign produced a complex parting plane as a means of keeping the parting line out of view.

To solve the problems, Colosio used thinkdesign's Global Shape Modeling feature. "Over the last two years, we've relied on GSM for complex shapes that need Class A surfaces for continuity, tangency, reflection line, and shadow," he says. "We split the surface, and then put the whole border in a new parting plane to uphold the aesthetics of the product."

Automatic generation of the parting plane is another reason why Colosio banks so heavily on GSM. "Creating the parting line for complex surfaces in version 8, where the parting plane is associative, allows us to save time," he says. "When you work on a model or make changes to the design, it updates the parting line automatically. It is a new method to define a silhouette of the parting line, which is powerful and gives accurate feedback."

When it comes to IM, there is another feature of the software that Colosio finds interesting. Called Smart Objects, it is a self-created library of features that becomes part of the internal know-how of the company. "When you have two shells that can be worked in different ways, for example, we put them in the libraries. These can be assemblies of several different steps. When we pull this out and apply it, we don't have to remember all of the steps." Each Smart Object can include up to 10 operations.

Alessi Profile
According to the second edition of Alessi: The Design Factory by Alberto Alessi, a member of the founding family, this company is actually a "research laboratory in the applied arts." It is able to merge industrial needs such as operations and facilities with its aesthetic design sense.

During the 1980s, Alberto Alessi steered the company in a different direction. It was originally founded in 1921 to produce metal tableware and drinkware, but focused on design through Alberto's unique collaboration with designers and architects, and the creation of two main trademarks. The most well-known, Alessi, is geared towards mass production, while Officina Alessi is used for more experimental limited editions. While not a trademark, "Alessitronics" are electrical kitchen appliances produced in association with Philips.

Contact information
think3, Santa Clara, CA
Sylvie Leotin
(925) 201-2330;
[email protected]

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