Book learning and school projects can only take you so far. Fresh out of college, some industrial design graduates are not prepared to hit the ground running as they lack pragmatic, real-world work experience. Aiming to close that gap, Australia’s AUXILIARY Design School helps entry-level designers develop more of the hands-on skills employers demand, setting them up for success with real commercial projects for their portfolios.

“Although students are being taught things like critical thinking and design strategy, the practical skill set is sometimes being left to the wayside,” explains AUXILIARY co-founder Leon Fitzpatrick. “But being a designer is very much about how you sketch, CAD and prototype to communicate and solve problems clearly and visually.”

“Australian companies now have a massive challenge hiring graduates with the right skills who can immediately transition to entry-level positions,” he adds. “I’m also frequently in the United States for consulting work and I’m hearing companies and engineering firms there saying they are noticing the same gap. One company told me they prefer to recruit from universities in France, England and Germany where they have more rigorous design programs.”

Fitzpatrick and co-founders Neil Davidson, Carolyn Yip and Leo Yip – all professional designers – established the AUXILIARY Design School in Brisbane in 2014. Students enrolled in the 17-week AUXILIARY X program are guided through a consultancy experience that starts with taking on a real client brief. After working through the various stages of product development, each student’s final design potentially could have real commercial outcomes.

“From day one, we treat you as a designer, not a student,” the course description promises. “We transfer knowledge in new ways. Engage in informative presentations and live demonstrations, practice drills and project collaboration, informal pin-up reviews, client critiques and industry PechaKucha pitches. Get ahead quicker with access to a shared data network, research and development reference materials and templates. It’s rigorous and intense, yet fun and engaging!”

AUXILIARY X students most recently worked on design challenges from BCF (Boating, Camping, Fishing), Australia’s largest outdoor goods retailer. Student projects included:

  • Capricorn (Alexandra French) – an elevated suspension tent that keeps its sleeping space away from insects, small animals and ground moisture, as well as improves interior air circulation.
  • Expanding Cooler Box (Dale Symes) – a dual-cavity hybrid between a cooler and a mini-fridge, providing the “comfort of home” in nature.
  • LIQUAD (Danielle Boyd) – a light, collapsible vessel for efficiently storing and transporting water.
  • PLEXUS (James Hadgraft) – a strong, lightweight, and quickly collapsible tensioned-fabric table for camping.

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An Onshape model of the “Capricorn” tent, which is elevated off the ground to keep away insects and promote better air circulation.

Enhancing Collaboration With Modern CAD

The students in the AUXILIARY X program use Onshape, a modern 3D professional CAD system that unites advanced modeling tools and design data management in a secure cloud workspace. The school founders were initially motivated to switch from SOLIDWORKS to Onshape because of the significant cost savings, but soon discovered the even stronger classroom benefits of modern CAD.

“Here in Australia, it’s minimum AUS $15,000 per single-use license of SOLIDWORKS, which at the moment is about US $11,000. Then on top of that, you have to pay a yearly fee to keep up the subscription,” Fitzpatrick notes.   

“With Onshape, new features and updates happen automatically when I’m asleep, and then tomorrow when I wake up there are new sheet metal features, for instance,” adds Leo Yip. “That’s fantastic and I just think it’s more in tune with the designers of today.”

With AUXILIARY’s design data stored in the cloud, authorized users can now access their data from anywhere. This enhances collaboration between students working together in teams and equally enables tutors and mentors to sign in remotely to resolve any issues the students may have with their CAD.

“Students will call or text us if they can’t get a particular feature to work and we can just jump in on our own computers to see exactly what they’ve done wrong instead of waiting until the next engagement point,” says Yip. “I would equate Onshape to a virtual design studio. I can still look over a student’s shoulder and help out even if we’re not in the same room.”

Fitzpatrick says one of Onshape’s most impactful benefits on student teams has been eliminating the confusion of managing multiple versions of the same design. Because Onshape uses a database architecture instead of files, there is always only one master copy of the design in the cloud. There are no confusing copies floating around.

“With our first AUXILIARY X program, we were always dealing with a series of questions like: ‘Which folder is it in? Which directory do you put it in? What is it called? Which is the most up-to-date version?’ We spent hours of time chasing after people,” Fitzpatrick says.

“With Onshape Documents, we can also store designs, presentations, photos, drawings and other project information all in the same place,” he adds. “It’s a very modern way of working where we don’t have to waste time looking for what we need and can focus more on our designs.”

Instant CAD Access & Quick Learning Curve

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Educational institutions value Onshape’s instant CAD access in a web browser because it keeps hardware costs low and significantly reduces I.T. overhead. Students no longer need to purchase powerful, high-performance workstations to run CAD and can just use their regular everyday laptops with an Internet connection. Unlike with a file-based CAD system, which requires a separate software installation and license for each user, Onshape requires no extra I.T.

“Installing software seems so old school to me now,” says Fitzpatrick. “Having a disk seems as outdated as having a DVD. I’ve done a lot of work in the automotive industry, which has been behind with some of the latest technology. Then Tesla rolls along and it’s like ‘No, you just update software over the air. The updates happen overnight.’ We don’t want to do things the old way anymore.”

With AUXILIARY’s students coming from many different CAD backgrounds, Onshape’s quick learning curve allows everyone to get up-to-speed quickly and focus more on their assigned projects.

“When you first enter SOLIDWORKS, it can be very intimidating and not very intuitive to use. Everything that you could possibly engage with is on the screen and there’s all these little nodes all over the place. You really have to be rote taught how to use it,” notes Yip. “Whereas I find Onshape easy to use. The screen only shows you what you can possibly use in terms of the features you’re using at that particular time.”

“To make the learning curve even less steep for students, we also gave them pre-program homework based on Onshape’s online how-to instruction videos, which are fantastic,” he adds.

Students Get a Head Start in Industry

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AUXILIARY X student Alexandra French’s Capricorn suspension tent designed for BCF, Australia’s largest boating and camping store.

As AUXILIARY X program graduates leave with more professional design skills and industry contacts, they also gain experience using a modern CAD system that they can take to their next jobs.

The school regularly submits its best student designs to the Good Design Awards, Australia’s most prestigious awards for product innovation. In May 2018, AUXILIARY X student Alexandra French won top Gold honors in the Next Gen category for her Capricorn suspension tent.

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AUXILIARY Design School graduate Alexandra French

“Some of our graduates might work as contractors for other companies or they might want to set up businesses of their own. With Onshape being so accessible and affordable, our students can continue using it after they move on,” says Yip.

“In design, it’s all about the deadlines and getting things done in the most efficient way,” adds Fitzpatrick. “Onshape offers a better way of working and collaborating. We’re thrilled to give our students the modern tools they need to succeed in the real world.”