3D Printing product prototype

Importance of Prototyping

Prototyping Physical Products

You’ve taken your unique product idea and found a suitable partner to help you design and develop it to take the first steps in the process of bringing your product to life. You have thought about it every day, from every angle, and now it’s time to get something tangible into your hands as a proof of concept. Now what? Well, one aspect of the product development process that often gets overlooked or at least downplayed, is prototyping. There is a common misconception that a prototype is a fixed step in the process, but in reality, there are many different forms of prototyping that all have their benefits at various stages of the product development cycle. The truth is, you really do need to test, test and test some more along the way to ensure that you have identified all the potential pain points with your product. Think of it as insurance for your vision! Having a physical prototype in-hand allows you to target those pain points and focus on coming up with solutions to ensure that your product provides the best user experience possible. At the end of the day, it’s the consumer experience that will make or break your product in the long run. All it takes is a few negative reviews due to a bad experience and your product is finished before it has had time to gain traction. Let’s take a look at some of the various prototype options available and why you need them.

Creation of prototypes to test TAP Wireless Keyboard & Mouse

Form studies and mock-ups

Form studies and mock-ups can be made from virtually anything such as clay, foam, wood, or any other material you have on-hand to get a good sense of over-all size & shape and function. Many ergonomic issues are worked out at this stage as you test early prototypes. It’s a touch/feel type of thing really. If your product needs to interact with another component, part, or product, this is a good way to get hands-on feedback before you are too deep into the development process. This is the most basic form of prototyping with the lowest cost and yet, this stage is very critical. So much can be learned from this stage alone and it often leads to meaningful tweaks and refinements that will result in a better user experience down the road. As a design studio, we create many of these types of mock-ups for virtually everything we work on. Producing this type of mock-up is generally quick and simple. It is a very critical part of the problem-solving process that goes hand in hand with product design. You don’t want to start pulling the trigger on the expensive process of tooling up your product for production without visiting this phase at least once, maybe several times!

Prototype of Oliso Smart Iron

Moving past mock-ups

During the preliminary phase, you have learned so much from the initial mock-ups and you have tweaked your design and gained a whole lot of knowledge and experience in the process. Now your confidence is high and you can move forward with the swagger of an all star athlete! Typically, at this point, there is a bigger focus on moving on from pencil and paper and moving into the world of 3D CAD modelling now that the fundamentals have been addressed. Based on your first mock-ups, you now have some real-world dimensions to work with instead of just guessing or assuming that what is seen on the computer monitor will be ideal once you move into production. Now you are ready to conquer the world and move into production, right? Well, not so fast. With so much still to learn, would it not make more sense to step up your game and get to the next level? Super Mario Brothers was not conquered in one shot, so do you really think your product can be nailed down in one round? Remember how much you learned from the initial mock-ups? Right…so, let’s take another critical look at this and kick things up a notch.

3D Printed Prototypes

3D printing, simply put, is taking your 3D CAD file and saving a format that can be used for the printing process. This round of prototyping most often used once you have some preliminary 3D CAD data to work with. Fancy term huh? Back in the day, it used to be called rapid prototyping but the general population likes terms they can relate to so…3D Printing it is. The standard for this is an STL file. The STL file is imported into the 3D printing software where it is essentially digitally sliced into thin layers. It’s really no different than slicing a tomato. The slices are really thin though. Typically, about the thickness of two human hairs. The 3D printer recreates the digital representation of your part by depositing successive layers of plastic resin, one layer at a time from the bottom up. Kind of like reassembling that tomato, one slice at a time. The advantage of 3D printing is that it is relatively quick, relatively affordable, and there are a number of plastic resins that can be used to best represent your final product. The surface finish is not perfect and will have some tiny lines or ridges kind of like that old vinyl record of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album that you have hiding in your basement along with your VHS tapes. Yes, you can spend the time and money to hand finish a 3D printed model, but it’s generally not worth the effort at this particular stage. It’s best to use the 3D printed model as a tool to learn and test and study. Remember? There is still much more to be learned. Don’t worry, we will get to the shiny looking final prototype soon enough. Once you have spent some time with the 3D printed model and milked it for all it’s worth, take what you have learned and apply it to the 3D CAD model to get your product even closer to that global game-changer you know it can be. In some cases, you may want to make several 3D prints with tweaks and adjustments along the way if needed until you are satisfied with the result. Sometimes only a portion of your product needs to be printed, such as a handle. Best to nail the comfort and fit at this stage, right?

acoustic chamber design of villo speaker

High Fidelity and Functional Prototypes

Now you have even more confidence in your product and so much more knowledge than even that first phase. You have come a long way young grasshopper! You are now ready to become a Jedi Knight and take on the dark side! Easy now…let’s keep a cool head and get things buttoned up. There is still much work to be done before you can change the world with your revolutionary product. Once you have your final 3D CAD files ready along with your fancy photorealistic renderings, you are finally getting a good sense of what things will look like in the end. Now is a good time to think about what type of prototype would be most effective heading down the stretch. If you need to use the final prototype to communicate the essence of your product with a factory, you may be able to get away with something fairly simple. Maybe just a simple functional prototype to allow you to demonstrate a specific mechanical function? If this fits the bill, there may not be a need to have any fancy colours, finishes or exterior appearance. I mean, if it demonstrates what it needs to, why invest in making it look pretty? In fact, many factories will offer support along with some final engineering that allows your product to be produced in their facility. Often, factories will also provide a final prototype for you based on their final internal engineering.

Functional prototype of whipr ski erg attachment

Choosing the right prototyping method

Perhaps you are not heading down that road yet but instead, maybe you are looking to generate some excitement on the internet and perhaps take your product onto Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den? Perhaps you’re gearing up for a Crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter with a slick video demonstration and incredible photography? No problem, this high fidelity style of prototype can be achieved too. To support whipr’s Kickstarter launch in August 2020, we built a high fidelity prototype that was also fully demonstrable. It is typically more expensive than more conventional prototypes because there is a lot of post-processing, finishing, painting, and sometimes plating or electronics integration involved in the process. If you don’t care much about the interior, you can go for an appearance model that looks so real, it will be difficult to tell that it isn’t a production unit. Having only the outside to worry about will keep costs in check while still providing some incredible photography stand-ins. Why spend the time and money creating elements that will never be seen? For soft goods items, it’s simply a matter of having skilled hands doing the stitch & sew operations along with any additional components required to execute an effective sample. Sometimes multiple high definition models may be needed in multiple colours/finish options for marketing purposes to gauge consumer interest. There really are endless options available.

Ultimately, the prototype solution can be tailored specifically to the needs of your product. Perhaps it is an enclosure for an electronics device. Maybe it is soft goods made with fabrics & textiles, or perhaps a hybrid product made with a combination of materials. There really is no standard way of doing things because each product is unique and has its own set of parameters that should be followed based on the product’s physical composition as well as your specific needs & marketing plan. Don’t be intimidated by the prototyping process, it is simply another very useful tool to help get your product off the ground and into the hands of consumers around the globe.


Quiet streets in toronto

COVID-19: Perspective in a Pandemic

Product design comes from the unleashing of creative thinking based on an immediate need. It comes from within but is very much influenced by everything we see, hear, touch and experience. It has been this way since the beginning of time really.

As I sit here writing this, I have a torn ACL, torn MCL, and a fractured tibia. The damage was done over a month ago and there is no option for medical treatment at all. It’s not a medical emergency and in the larger scheme of things with what is happening locally and around the world, it is now seemingly insignificant. Before this COVID-19 outbreak, it would have been a different story and garnered much more attention.

The point is, as humans we focus our energy and effort on the biggest challenge or threat that we face at any given time. In the world of product design, it’s no different. When all is well in the world, we focus on creating products with new innovative features and functionality. Better, stronger, faster….more is better! We create brands with stories and beautiful elaborate packaging that offers a great “unboxing experience” for the consumer. For decades we have been spoiled. We live life in an effort to improve our surroundings and make a better world for our children. In the process, however, we seem to have focussed so much on ourselves. Me, me, me. Bigger homes, nicer cars with fancy new technology and features. More color options, more channels, on-demand. More frequent travel to explore all ends of the earth while still maintaining all the creature comforts we have come to enjoy as spoiled humans. Yep, we have slowly gotten so accustomed to “on-demand” products and services that we have slowly lost touch with the fundamentals of life. In an effort to make life easier and allow us to have more conveniences and more free time, we have actually created a world where we have less time. We are always connected with technology and are burdened with “things”. Rather than freeing ourselves in body and mind to truly live, we have essentially become prisoners of our own making. As a product designer, I can’t help but think about this.

It usually takes a very substantial event to hit home with us and make us re-evaluate life and what it’s really all about. For some, it’s a close call with an illness, maybe the death of a loved one or the loss of a limb. Perhaps a natural disaster. For society as a whole, it can be a world war or a pandemic. Something big….. really big. Bigger than all of us. Something that makes us all change our fundamental thinking and how we approach or lives each day.

Our studio is relatively small. Small enough that we were able to react and respond quickly to the pandemic. We made some quick changes and for over a week now, we have all been working independently off-site in our homes, away from the design studio. It does come with some challenges in communication, but nothing that we cannot adapt to. We had a video conference call as a group on Monday morning to touch base and review the many projects on our plates. It was exciting to see the faces of the team that I have missed seeing in the studio during this time of self-isolation. Yet another reminder that it’s not just about the projects or the products we design. Behind those products is a team of real people. People who see, hear, feel and experience life with friends and loved ones.

In a post-COVID-19 era, I have no doubt that our approach to product design will be modified.

Our thinking will most certainly have more of a global outlook that asks critical questions about the validity of what we are designing. We will be more experienced, more understanding and perhaps more humble in our views. There have been some very eye-opening moments over these past few weeks. Moments where we can all do some self-reflection and look at ways to truly focus on how we can all contribute to a better world, whether through product design or any other endeavour. Going forward, those efforts will surely have more purpose and meaning.

After the dust has settled from the COVID-19 pandemic, the world will be changed. It will surely be a different place with new challenges and renewed focus. I am a firm believer in the notion that through overcoming challenges and difficulty, we gain valuable insight and experience. The type of insight that leads to the creation of more meaningful products. Products that are designed with purpose and meaning. I am personally looking forward to the next chapter and am ready to take it on with renewed energy and an open mind.

Shape industrial designers at the toronto design studio

blow molding water bottles

What is tooling?

What is tooling?

To put it simply, tooling is the backbone of the physical production of a product.  Much like how you could not make muffins without a muffin tin, many consumer products need their own version of a “muffin tin” in order to be mass-produced. For many, this is the non-glamourous side of production but without it, products simply do not exist.  The term “tooling” refers to any number of implements required to produce a product.

Mold of lion head

Injection Mold

This is one of the most common forms of tooling. Most commonly, this will be a block of steel or alloy that is precision machined as a negative of the part being produced.  In it’s simplest form, it is a two part core & cavity the closes up with hydraulic pressure. A hopper filled with plastic pellets is melted and injected into the cavity under high pressure to take the shape of the part being produced within the mold.  Once cooled, the two halves of the mold are separated and the plastic part is ejected from the mold. There is always some post-processing that takes place to remove any bits of plastic from the injection point but essentially, once it is out of the mold, the part is ready for assembly or post-processing which can include painting, chrome plating, or printing with additional elements like a company logo etc. This is how pen caps, food storage containers and your key FOB are produced.

injection molded plastic

Blow Mold

This is another common form of tooling and one that is simpler in construction than an injection mold because it only requires a cavity and no core.  This type of tool is also precision machined from a block of steel or alloy to create a negative of the part being produced. In production, The two halves of the blow mold cavity come together to pinch a curtain of melting plastic, trapping it within mold.  A small injector (essentially a needle) also trapped between the two halves, blasts air into the middle of the curtain of melting plastic, sending it outward against the walls of the mold to take the shape of the final product. Once cool, the mold opens up and the part is ejected with a hollow inside. This is how pop bottles, water jugs and oil bottles are produced.

Tooling for blow molding

Rotational Mold (Roto Mold)

This is somewhat similar to a blow mold in construction but the process is quite different.  With this type of tool, the two cavities come together with a pre-measured quantity of plastic pellets inside the mold. The mold is then heated while being rotated on multiple axis until the plastic with the mold melts and coats the inside of the mold. The process or “cycle time” is much longer than blow molding but it is well suited to producing very large parts and parts that require a thicker wall.  This is how some kayaks are made as well as large water holding tanks, children’s playground sets etc.

 

In its most basic sense, a tool is simply a working or manufacturing aid that is required to make a product or part. They can include dies, gauges, molds, jigs, and cutting equipment. While tools can be used for general purposes (cutting equipment and screwdrivers) in the case of most of our clients, when manufacturers are referring to tooling, it’s generally in a highly specialized sense – as one of the molds mentioned above.

rotomold kayak production

Packaging Design Example

10 Key Tips for Effective Packaging Design

10 Key Tips for Effective Packaging Design

So, you have your game-changing product all dialled-in and ready to sell…now what? Just throw it in a box and you’re good to go right? Well…no, not exactly. Maybe it’s best to step back and ask yourself a few critical questions first to see if you can up your game a bit further and convert a few more sales. Have you considered some of the factors that will affect your packaging decisions? Let’s take a look at a few critical factors that will ultimately affect your product packaging design:

Physical protection

Is your product going to be sold exclusively online? If it is, your packaging may be simpler and cheaper but you will need to protect it during warehousing, shipping & handling. Variables like temperature, time and other environmental influences like dust, mold, insects, microorganisms and UV light can impact packaging. It’s best to make the right decisions on the use of materials from the get-go to avoid any potential issues further down the road. Now that you have a second mortgage on your house to finance your dream product, it’s important to proceed with care and confidence, while so much of your money is invested into your product before you have even sold your first item. Thinking of your packaging as a protective shell for your product is a good approach and only the first of many factors to consider.

Villo Multi-Room Speaker Packaging Design

Drop testing

Physically surrounding and protecting your product is only a part of what packaging should do. What about drop testing? It’s the packaging design equivalent to an automotive crash test. Your package will need to survive a fall from a predetermined height and your precious product inside will also need to survive without physical damage. If your product is a food item, you should consider the shelf life measured against the estimated time your product will be in transit, and in warehousing/distribution before it gets to your customer. All those environmental factors mentioned earlier like temperature and time duration will surely have a huge impact. Ultimately, your packaging solution needs to act as a protective outer shell from manufacturing, through shipping & transport and all the way down the line to the retail environment and into the hands of the consumer and that cashier with butter fingers.

Sustainability

Have you thought about the sustainability of your packaging? Can you even produce a cost-effective packaging solution while looking out for Mother Earth? In a perfect world, we all want to be better stewards of the earth and do our part to reduce any negative impact, but how? You don’t want to be responsible for creating more landfill or be the one responsible for entangling sea turtles in plastic debris. In some instances, you do have options for using recycled packaging materials or at least a percentage of it along with environmentally safe printing dies and materials for any additional product protection while in the box.

The harsh truth is that some times, things are not as environmentally friendly as we might think, particularly if a certain production process has a high scrap rate or increased cycle time associated with it. Some of these processing methods could mean using more energy during production. That can’t be good for the earth either, can it? Is your finished packaging solution easy for consumers to break down and recycle? Is every material clearly labeled to help with this process, or will it simply get trashed out of confusion or frustration and end up floating in the Pacific ocean? Wow…so much to think about, right?

Tamper & Theft proofing

You will also need to consider how to make your package tamper resistant avoid or reduce potential theft. Yes, it’s a problem and it’s often ignored by many. Is your packaging solution so small and efficient in the use of materials that it is now also very vulnerable to theft? Perhaps your product requires a visual indicator to show consumers that your product is safe to use/consume and tamper free. Many food items or medications have safeguards in place to protect products from tampering and to raise consumer confidence & safety.

Not only can some products be removed far too easily from the package itself, but some entire packages can be easily stolen if not carefully designed to safeguard against it. Often a package for a very small item needs more visual presence or bulk intentionally designed into the packaging solution just to reduce or illuminate the possibility of being stolen.

In addition to the exterior packaging, your product might require additional plastic wrapping, a plastic hang tag or a blister pack or a plastic vacuum formed tray, wire fasteners/tie-downs to help secure your product or protect it.

Accessories

Will your product be all alone in that beautiful package? What about any additional elements that need to be considered? Extra parts, accessories, cables, power adaptors, batteries, mounting hardware/fasteners swag or anything else that needs to be accommodated alongside your product? Many additional items require additional special tooling or forming that adds additional cost and also has a potential environmental impact. If these items need to be food grade, your options will be limited in terms of material choices and may be additional regulations to follow depending on what you need to include in the box.

Copy & Translation

Have you considered what kind of written literature needs to be included to help consumers with your product? How about an instruction booklet, warranty card or additional legal copy? All that copy will need to be written and illustrations & icons created, not to mention any certification labels required and it doesn’t stop there. Just when you thought you had so much packaging real estate to work with, you may need to have all of your copy translated and written in other languages too depending on where you are intending to sell your product. Sure, it’s becoming a global market but there are still many differences within various parts of the world. On top of cultural and language challenges, If you want to maximize your product’s potential, you’d best pay attention to the details affecting all the specific regional nuances.

Retail requirements

Not all bricks and mortar stores are alike and in fact, they all have different practices when it comes to displaying and merchandising your product. Will your package hang on a hook or will it stand on its own on a shelf? Perhaps it will be sold on a pallet in a club store or get stacked? Any concerns with weight? Will it be in a PDQ with its own header card and info graphics? Many retailers have specific requirements that need to be followed so it’s best to find out what limitations you may be up against before you get too deep into it. You may only have a limited amount of shelf space to work with so the package size will most certainly be a factor. You’ll want to maximize your shelf presence to make a bigger, bolder impact and connect with your intended consumer.

Cost vs Perceived value

A common objective is often to create the cheapest possible package to help reduce cost but wait…not so fast. Besides theft being a potential issue, think about your product from the eyes of a consumer for a minute. Does your packaging solution accurately match your brand essence and project a high perceived value? Will adding 30 cents to the over-all packaging cost help to elevate that perceived value and translate to more sales? If the answer is yes, then it’s a no-brainer. Give your product the best chance to succeed. Conversely, if your product is intended to be a low cost, high volume consumable item, don’t create a package that makes it seem unapproachable or unaffordable. Either way, the packaging should match the brand and clearly communicate your message.

Unboxing experience

Don’t forget about the unboxing experience as a consumer initially opens your package and reveals your product for the first time. Keep in mind that this is the very first chance you have to make a positive impression. If the unboxing experience is not a positive one, your product already has a tarnish on it regardless of how great it might be. Its best to make the experience pleasurable but don’t make it complicated with unnecessary obstacles or barriers. This is not foreplay, let’s get to the good stuff already…your product!

Prototyping

One of the best methods of ensuring that your product experience is a good one is to prototype your complete package solution so that you can put it through its’ paces. You may even need to do more than one round too because there are so many variables and considerations involved. Make sure you have some real world, hands-on experience with all aspects of your packaging solution before you finalize it and pull the trigger on production. The more time you spend up front addressing potential issues, the less likely you are to encounter that “oops” moment further down the road when you have retail commitments to adhere to.

We haven’t even touched on the graphics & printing requirements of the package yet…that is an entirely different subject with a new set of considerations. These include your branding, product story and all the good stuff that helps consumers to make an emotional connection with your product. Be sure to address the top 10 considerations affecting the physical structure of your packaging before you even start with your graphics.

Make sure you have an experienced, competent and knowledgeable team working for you to help you achieve your goals. That second mortgage and extended line of credit is real. Make sure you give yourself the best chance to succeed and get that great product of yours flying off the shelves!

 

Have more questions about packaging design? Head over to our Packaging Design page to learn more.

 

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