Unless you work at one of those ID firms lucky or large enough to have an onsite modeling shop, the modelmaking step of the design process is typically where you catch your breath. After hours and days of sketching and drafting, you send the files off and wait for the magic craftsmen to send you back a foam/wood/clay rendition of your design(s).
A new step that could potentially be introduced to this process is SATIN, a sort of robotic spline that "draws" a shape--primitive ones, at this stage--in 3D that a designer can actually feel, and even manipulate to directly alter the 3D file.
[The] system consists of two FCS-HapticMASTER devices, in essence robotic arms more commonly used for remote welding or dental surgery, which position and rotate a robotic spline, an electronic version of the flexible strip of material, typically wood or metal, long used by designers to draw curves. Fitted with actuators and sensors, the spline automatically twists and bends to the shape of a digital representation of the product uploaded by the designer into the system.
Standing in front of a workstation and wearing 3D glasses, the designer views, through a set of mirrors, a virtual 3D model of the product superimposed where the spline actually is. By pressing the centre or pushing or pulling the ends of the robotic spline with their hands, the designers can reshape and reform the 3D model. Models can be saved and compared, and any changes made much more quickly and simply than using traditional modelling methods.
...Additional information about the model that cannot be perceived tactilely on the spline, such as discontinuities of a curve or inflection points, is transmitted through audio signals as the designer runs a finger along it.
"Haptic technology is still not advanced enough to provide all of the information about a surface. The SATIN system, for example, can only represent curves. However, we expect improvements in materials and mechanics over the coming years to lead to systems that will allow designers to feel, handle and reshape any kind of object surface," [says researcher Monica Bordegoni, a professor at Politecnico di Milano university in Italy].
Below is a video of Bordegoni explaining the process, and a demonstration of the unit in action. (At an unedited 5:51 in length it's a bit on the dry side; we normally tell you where to fast-forward to but this one's got the good bits scattered throughout.)