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Educator Highlight

Educator Highlight: Huw Thomas

Huw Thomas is an Associate Professor in the department of design at the University of Kansas.  For 20 years, he worked as a course leader in industrial design, product design, product design technology, and VFX (film and game) degree programs at universities in the United Kingdom. In 2013, he began a four year position at the University of Kansas, delivering classes mainly to BFA industrial design students.


What classes and age level do you teach?
My classes have always been with degree level students, starting way back in the 1990’s when I started introducing Autodesk’s 3D Studio to our UK curriculum (before it became 3DS Max). So, typically students are at least 18 years of age, but it’s encouraging to see more mature students also (e.g. 35 years and older).

My eventual specialty in the UK was rendering of computer models using Autodesk’s Maya (Mental Ray) and developing an image-based lighting approach using bespoke high dynamic range (HDR) images shot using a Spheron 32-bit SceneCam.

In the US, I have taught similar classes, helping students understand Maya as a modeler, and the principles behind image based lighting through both Maya (Mental Ray) and integration into Keyshot. More typically, I have supported classes that cover ID Senior Thesis work and classes working with external sponsors such as GARMIN, Kicker and Bayer Healthcare.

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Image based lighting (IBL) techniques using Spheron captured high dynamic range (HDR) image. Rendering and HDR by Huw Thomas.

What led you to design education? 
After working as an in-house industrial designer at GE Plastics Europe bv in Holland and as a consultant in the UK, I was invited to support two brand new industrial design awards at a university in the UK – this was a great opportunity to help shape the curriculum and look for software solutions that would provide students with key skillsets.

In 2005, after 8 years of industrial design / product design instruction, I developed a completely new VFX degree program for my employer; a new film and games degree program that would aim to service the growing demand for content artists within these industries. These industries rely upon a plethora of software solutions, many of which Autodesk provides, e.g. Maya, 3D Studio Max, Mudbox and Combustion – so Autodesk has always been a key part of the curriculum I develop.

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Former UK  VFX student, Pedrom Dagostar’s ‘fairground’ model realized in Autodesk Maya.

Originating and managing an award that developed 2D and 3D content artists for the film and games industry was an exciting experience, although it was challenging to keep pace with both software and hardware advances too. Vendors providing free or discounted software solutions to students, faculty and institutions was a significant help to the academic sector, as the cost of providing high-end workstations that can manage complex still and real-time rendering games engine technology is significant.

In the US, I developed my network of contacts, and visits by Autodesk staff, such as Reid Johnson also helped consolidate the relationship between vendors and academia, providing students and faculty with insights into the Autodesk product roadmap and expectations for the future of new product development.

What is the most rewarding thing about being an educator and how do you encourage creativity in your classroom?
Undoubtedly seeing students develop their skills and confidence and ultimately achieving their employment aspirations. Design is an extremely competitive field, yet features many facets of opportunity for those prepared to rise to that challenge. Introducing students to 3D software solutions, then seeing them rise to positions with employers such as McLaren, Dassault Systèmes 3DEXCITE or WETA is highly rewarding.

Experimentation and the ability to rapidly explore alternative designs has to led to more creative solutions. My experiences of design education happened just before the arrival of so many pivotal design software solutions, so I have witnessed the impact of design realization and visualization tools firsthand. Today’s student have unparalleled processing power at their fingertips and the ability to realize ideas too complex or time consuming to fabricate using traditional methods. ‘Experiment and practice with the tools’ is my usual mantra – unlike physical workshop tools, software is much more forgiving and less harmful to the operator.

How do you bring innovation into the classroom?
Keeping pace with software developments is an arduous task for academics and students, and often leads to innovative solutions. A former colleague, Tony Smith, and myself pioneered the generation of bespoke training videos whilst at our former employer, providing students with custom walkthroughs of subjects such as character rigging and rendering within Maya. Of recent years, vendors have been more proactive in the development of training videos, which means we can focus on bespoke content that address assignment based challenges. I still produce videos where possible to support student assignments, providing ‘after hours’ support for those embarking upon CAD for the first time.

Integrating cutting edge technology into the curriculum builds upon established concepts and one hopes an edge in a competitive job workplace. My adoption of Spheron’s 32-bit SceneCam hardware and software solutions into the curriculum provided students on our VFX and Forensics degree programs with revolutionary technology and workflow experiences. 

Exposure to applications such as Fusion 360 promote Autodesk’s proactive approach to design realization – from initial concept to prototyped part. Utilization of collaborative tools such as the A360 hub is another great way to promote collaborative teamwork by students and provides a great platform for assessment of student work.

Please tell us more about your use of Fusion 360 and how the product has influenced your Industrial Design classes.
Having seen Autodesk talks on Fusion 360 at an IDSA event in Chicago in 2013, I was keen to embrace a more traditional modeling solution (having spent the last 8 years using Maya), that was appropriate for industrial design students and incorporated all the key elements they would likely require, namely modeling, rendering, collaboration and physical realization via CAD/CAM and 3D printing.

Fusion 360 was the logical choice as a cross-platform ‘all-in-one’ solution. In 2014, I set up a class with the clear objective of students designing conceptual airport seating solutions using Fusion 360 as the tool – and for some, being a user friendly introduction to computer modelling and rendering it provided a great ‘first step’ into CAD.

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KU ID Sophomore (at time of project) Brenton Hilbig’s airport seating design concept, realized in Fusion 360.

In March 2016, we launched another Fusion 360 focused assignment within a Sophomore ID class, working upon the design of a consumer flashlight – this will see over 30 ID students working with Fusion 360 and the A360 hub – for many, it is their first venture into computer modeling.

Are there any other special projects you’ve worked on?
As part of my research, I have been working with the Combat Air Museum (CAM). Located at the Topeka Regional Airport on Forbes Field in Topeka, Kansas, the Combat Air Museum is a non-profit institution dedicated to the creation of facilities and resources for the education of the local and regional communities through the collection, preservation, conservation and exhibition of aircraft, information, artifacts, technology and art associated with the military aviation history of the United States of America.

My original involvement was to help CAM realize ‘virtual tours’ of their exhibits using Spheron technology; our first being the static Lockheed EC-121 displayed outside the main hangar. Whilst working on these photographic scans, museum chairperson Gene Howeter pointed out a recently donated aircraft replica, an Airco DH2 and the fact it lacked an engine. The challenge was, could I do anything to complete the exhibit?

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CAM ‘DH2’ Crew – Left to Right : Gene Howeter (Volunteer, Chairman of the Board), Dave Murray (Volunteer, Deputy Chairman), Don Dawson (Volunteer, machine shop) and Danny San Romani (Curator). Main photo by Huw Thomas.

Initially, we only had a single technical drawing to work from, but eventually I sourced a copy of the original maintenance manual for the 9 cylinder rotary GNOME Monosoupape 100HP engine that was fitted to the WW1 fighter. Using a combination of the more detailed cross sectional views and maintenance photos, I was able to build an exterior model using Autodesk’s Fusion 360 – the ambition to 3D print the unit, using facilities at the University of Kansas’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning workshops.

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Fusion 360 computer model and render of GNOME Monosoupape engine by Huw Thomas.

Translating the original design into a 3D printable version was an interesting exercise, and with the intimidating challenge of printing the engine, I was grateful to receive tremendous support and interest from KU technical staff and some of the KU industrial design students.

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KU ‘Team GNOME’ – Clockwise from left to right : Jake Johannes (KU Art/Design Lab Specialist), Ian Ward (KU ID Junior student), Huw Thomas (KU Associate Professor / CAM volunteer), Kevin Bower (KU ID Junior student) and Zach Kessler ((KU Art/Design Lab Specialist) together with initial piston halve prints and rocker assembly (in my hands). Photo by Bruce Wagman

The final 3D printed engine will feature just under 100 distinct parts, and will have taken about 400 hours to print using 3 Lulzbot TAZ 5 3D printers (two owned by KU and one being my personal printer) and will be a great example of academia supporting a local business, whilst enhancing visitor experiences at the museum. It will consist of predominantly self-colored ABS parts. It will be assembled and mounted to the DH2 in April 2016.

A potential follow-up project to complement GNOME engine, will be to produce a scale replica of DH2’s front mounted Lewis machine gun.