Digital touch

Rapid protyping is revolutionising product design, but not necessarily at the expense of traditional craft skills. Trish Lorenz talks to designers from different ends of the spectrum about their approach

Rapid prototyping is becoming more popular as a design tool. And as designers enjoy access to a technology that enables them to prototype their ideas cheaply and quickly, machine-made models are increasingly replacing hand-tooled versions.

The impact of this on the design process is under debate. Although rapid prototyping undoubtedly has value, some argue that its introduction spells the end of more emotive, craft-led styling as product design moves ever closer to becoming a fully digital technique.

Two industries in the vanguard of this process are consumer goods and car manufacturers. For both, investing in design is the lifeblood of commercial success. So it’s here that the advantages and drawbacks of technology can be most readily assessed. What, then, do designers in these industries make of rapid prototyping compared to traditional, hand-milled modelling? Is it a genuine aid to the design process, or does it merely imply a loss of craftsmanship?


Electrolux global design director for floorcare products Thomas Johansson is evangelical about rapid prototyping. Design at Electrolux, he says, ‘is increasingly a digital process’.

‘We take sketches and ideas into the computer very quickly,’ Johansson says. ‘The important thing for us is to start working on a volume model quickly, and rapid prototyping technology allows us to do that early on in the design process.’

The technology allows Johansson’s team to create models of varying quality, enabling designers to view and adjust their concepts using three-dimensional prototypes throughout the design process. Early versions are rough volume models that allow designers to assess and alter proportions; design models are more refined (with colour schemes and details such as switches) to enable designers to check and modify aesthetics; surface-verification models offer a precise confirmation of the design, and the final master is indistinguishable from the end product.

The benefits of this approach are two-fold, says Johansson. From a business perspective the technology delivers ‘accuracy and speed, which is crucial in our industry’. Because designers, prototypers, engineers and marketing departments all have access to the design and, from the very beginning of the process, are working ‘from exactly the same geometry’, teams are able to deliver products to market more quickly, he says.

Johansson believes working in this way also improves the design process. ‘Rapid prototyping gives you freedom,’ he says. ‘You can prototype a model, check whether you like the design and redo it if necessary. Reworking hand-made models was a lot of effort; today it’s much less of an issue. It enables us to focus on working with ideas and designing, rather than spending so much time on modelmaking.’

Yet Electrolux still has a modelling studio and Johansson concedes there are times when hand-made clay models are useful. ‘A hand-made model is faster if you want a quick check on basic geometry,’ he says. But it is the tactile benefits of working by hand that make it most valuable.

‘Hand-made models are very important for examples of products that you hold, such as handles,’ says Johansson. ‘It is very difficult to judge on a computer how something will feel in the hand – its weight, softness, warmth. Sometimes you need that touch and feel element, and you need to hold it while you are working on the design.’ ‹


Jaguar Advanced Design chief designer Julian Thomson works on the Jaguar cars we’ll be driving beyond 2010. Sean O’Malley is the design studio modelling manager for Jaguar and sister marque Land Rover. Both of them are convinced that while rapid prototyping plays an important role in car design, it will never fully supersede the clay model sculpted by hand.

‘It’s an issue that has bugged the car industry for years,’ says Thomson. ‘Why do we keep making clay models, when we can we do it all on a computer?’ The answer, he says, lies in the design language of the brand. Thomson believes digital design suits ‘a more rational, logical, design statement’, whereas working with clay models gives cars ‘a sculptural and emotional quality’. So, while some manufacturers now do the vast majority of their design digitally, at Jaguar, Thomson says, ‘we put a great deal of emphasis on clay models’.

‘The Jaguar design language is all about being a beautiful, well-proportioned car and you need to be able to sculpt by hand, see it and walk around it to be able to deliver that,’ says Thomson.

He suggests designs such as the Audi TT and Citroen C2 exemplify a purely digital approach. Jaguar, he says, will always ‘hand attend’ to the entire model and ‘always build in a significant amount of time to craft in clay and get it perfect’.

Jaguar relies on rapid prototyping for ‘the more detailed elements, the more practical side of things’, says O’Malley; items like wing mirrors, door handles and air vents. ‘It’s very good for interiors,’ O’Malley adds, ‘which previously took ages to clay model.’

But for the design of the exterior body, a clay model is created using a five-axis cutting machine and is then sculpted by hand until designers are happy with the result. This is partly due to cost – rapid prototyping is still expensive – but primarily comes down to design preference.

And Thomson believes hand-finished models are here to stay. ‘Five years ago it was the Holy Grail to get designers away from clay. It seemed so crude in comparison to digital technology,’ he says. ‘But now people have realised that despite the best visualisation software available, you can’t replicate the benefits of seeing, touching and living with a full-size model.’

O’Malley concurs, though he points out that while in the past as many as ten clay models may have been required, digital advances have now brought this down to around three. And, he says, as rapid prototyping becomes cheaper, ‘bigger and bigger parts’ are being modelled in this way.

As younger designers who have grown up with digital technology and who conceptualise quite happily in virtual worlds come through the ranks, O’Malley believes the need for clay models will reduce further. ‘There will always be a need for clay models,’ he says, ‘but I think we’ll see more and more digital iterations.’ l

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