Smooth shapers

As computer-aided design technology becomes ever more powerful and efficient, threatening the very existence of traditional model-making crafts, Design Week explores how different model-making techniques can be combined to shape a product prototype

From an exploratory block of foam to a fully fledged, bells-and-whistle vacuum cast, models perform a vital role in product development. At the first stage of a concept model or the stage of communicating design options to clients, for example, a physical model can convey a lot.

’If you put a model in someone’s hand it communicates absolutely,’ says Martin Watmough, director of The Bartlett school of architecture’s digital manufacturing facility DMC London.

’Until you hold something in your hand, you’re guessing whether you’re going down the right route,’ agrees Iain McCall, director of 4D Products. ’If you’re not making models and exploring things, you’re setting yourself up to miss something.’

With the advent of computer-aided design software that allows on-screen iterations of a product’s development stages, the traditional approach of craft-based model-making is under threat. For example, as design college Ravensbourne is moving to its new home in London’s Greenwich this summer, it is ditching much of its cumbersome workshop machinery for a combination of CAD and lightweight model-making equipment, with a heavy investment in rapid prototyping technology.

’It’s an opportunity to rejig what we do to fit in with more modern studio design practices,’ says Jake Durrant, senior lecturer at Ravensbourne. ’A lot of the nitty-gritty is done in digital format, but we can produce rapid prototypes overnight and test those; it’s a much more adaptable way of working. But it’s always good to start by picking up a piece of foam and seeing how it feels.’

In many cases, a CAD-based approach to product design is highly effective. GBH went through 15 different CAD model versions in addition to three aluminium mould (with brass insert) prototypes to develop the packaging for Puma’s new mobile phone – which sees the traditional inside pulp tray of the pack act as the exterior. GBH was working with the ’pulp geniuses’ at Pulp Circle in Hong Kong, who required CAD drawings to test the tight tolerances and thickness of the materials.

The main concern was whether the pulp could ’be poetic enough to describe all of the dinky little components that go inside’, says Peter Hale, creative director of GBH. ’We were right on the edge of what the material is capable of; we couldn’t have gone any more detailed or complicated.’

When Echo Brand Design was developing the packaging for Cow & Gate baby formula, CAD enabled the consultancy to make very small changes and iterative tweaks. ’It allowed us to test in these virtual environments how well the pack sealed, so we solved many of the problems before tooling up,’ says Andrew Capper, creative director at Echo Brand Design.

But combining new technology with traditional model-making techniques is still the best approach, reckons Capper. There are positives and negatives whether working in the virtual or the physical world. CAD has come a long way in a short period of time, and it is a quick tool to explore changes through realistic visuals. Twinned with rapid prototyping, a physical prototype can be produced very quickly, allowing designers to explore changes in an effective way.

However, ’often people use [virtual prototyping] as a substitute for design with real substance’, says Capper. ’If the good idea is not there in the first place, no amount of CAD is going to paper over those cracks. CAD should be just another tool used in the product design process.’

Physical model-making in a workshop can offer a great foundation for understanding form and how things are made, and knowing how to make a physical model makes designers better CAD modellers too, Capper believes. ’Model-making is the link between the germ of an idea and getting something that really works in the world. There is no substitute for interacting with something,’ he says.

Watmough agrees, ’This technology, when used appropriately, is incredibly powerful, but is not going to be panacea for quite some time to come.’

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