Intro to Physical Prototyping

Electronic three dimensional plastic printer during work , 3D printer, 3D printing

The first thing to understand about prototyping is what, exactly, the goal of it is. Prototyping allows you to learn more about an idea or product at relatively low cost. There is a traditional three-step process that design professionals use to do this:

  1. Concept drawing
  2. Visual modeling
  3. Show ready modeling

Every step of this process is meant to learn as much as you can before you move into the next step, which is more time-consuming and more expensive. The harsh reality is that you’re looking for reasons why your product is going to fail. If you can’t find them, you can move on.

You’re only going to hurt yourself if you don’t do your due diligence. So your best strategy lies in being as thorough as possible in the low cost early stages. The purpose of prototyping, really, is risk- and cost-reduction.

In the final stages of product development, you’re looking at production. With tooling costs, distribution, marketing and other costs at play, this is not the time to uncover a catastrophic oversight that sends you back to step one. To be clear, going back to step one at some point is almost inevitable, and you should expect it. But its much better to go back to step one from step two, than from post-production.

There is also another objective with prototyping, and that’s getting approval and feedback from everybody involved before proceeding to the next stage. You might have partners or bosses who need to sign off, an investor who needs help visualizing your idea, engineers to consult about functionality, or customers whose input is crucial to the success of your product.

Here, again, the whole point of every stage of the prototyping process is to provide everybody with information. More specifically, its to identify what won’t work, and how to change it.

The process 

1. Concept drawing

The cheapest way to learn more about what your idea needs is to sketch it out. Paper is cheap and sketching is quick. Keep in mind that the most cost effective way to handle this is to make it only as pretty as it needs to be.

Professionals (ie concept artists) at this stage are not valued for their ability to create beauty, but to communicate information. You’ll find its faster and more effective to quickly do multiple sloppy drawings, and then clean it up after, than to try and get everything right on the first try.

  1. Visual modeling

Once you have concept drawings, you can proceed to creating a rough visual model. Here, again, cost is a huge factor, so cheap materials are used. The objective is not to create a beautiful or functional part, but to create a physical model. This will help you and your team to explore how the object takes up space, its proportions, and its ergonomics. It will also help you get input from your engineers on whether the form is going to be conducive to the product’s desired function.

Popular materials used are styrene, foam, and cardboard. Styrene is a flexible plastic sheet material used to create contoured surfaces. Rigid insulation is an economical material for carving 3D objects. It comes in 4’x8’ sheets and is available at home improvement stores. Standard thickness is 2”, but the boards can be stacked and glued together for larger objects.

Denser, harder foams are also available. The advantage these offer is that they can be filed/sanded for precision, where foam board is better suited for cutting.

Cardboard is lightweight, cheap/free, and easy to cut. It can be used to construct a shell, or it can be layered to create a solid form. A block of glued together sheets can be cut with a bandsaw or carved with a sharp knife, or the layers can be cutout separately and then assembled.

3. Show-ready modeling

To improve your rough visual model, you may need to go back to the concept drawing stage to work out the necessary changes. Anything you can work out via sketching is going to save you time and materials. When you’ve finally gathered all the feedback you can and earned approval from every concerned party, you can move on to finalizing your prototype. Now, with confidence that you’ve worked out all the kinks and your product is going to serve its purpose, you spend time on details and precise dimensions.

The goal is to take everything you’re learned from being able to touch/hold/feel your visual model, and create a (non-functional) physical model that is an adequate representation of how the finished product will look. Factors like color and weight may or may not be important for your product. Don’t waste time on them if they aren’t.

Two common forms of high-end visual modeling are 3D-printed or CADD. Modern 3D printers can use a relatively cheap filament to whip up a non-functional model. CADD renderings offer a digital 3D representation where the visual details (like color and texture) can be more easily altered.

Who to hire?

To accelerate the whole affair and get to market faster, you can hire a design firm. This will free up your time, but cost you money. If you have the option of not rushing your idea, you can work on it yourself and get help only as needed.

Drawing and rough modeling are relatively inexpensive steps that you can do yourself as you have time. A professional will be more efficient and create better models, but you can just do what’s within your capabilities, and get help where you need it. Freelance/specialists are available for concept drawing, rough modeling, 3D printing and CADD.

Wide view image of businessman hand building stairway of wooden blocks over blue background in a conceptual image of strategy and promotion.

Wide view image of businessman hand building stairway of wooden blocks over blue background in a conceptual image of strategy and promotion.

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