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Making Product Models by Hand in the Age of 3D Printing

November 26, 2014 | By: Blessing       Cutting Edge
Why Handmade Design Work
Tops 3D Printing

Will the 3D printer take over design shops and craftsmanship?


With a smart tech and a smarter designer, any home based operation can go to town with one 3D printer and cutting edge design and manufacturing shops can make a faster turnaround on development and production schedules. 

The technology is evolving at a hyper-drive pace such that engineers and DIY techs can configure a 3D printer from scratch as seen in Open Source Ecology website like some high school science project and get it to do professional quality prototyping and model building.


Eirik Newth - Flickr                                                                                    CC 2.0

3D printers are some of the most powerful and versatile design AND production tools ever made.  Even production cars are now designed faster using 3D printers.  House fabrication in China and the U.S. is done by 3D printing equipment.  A possible moon base is planned to be built faster with lunar sand using a 3D printer.

Almost like a portable factory in a tabletop rig. You can make ANYTHING with it, from food sculpture to microcircuit boards and toy molds.  3D printers are getting faster, more versatile and the cost of making one is NOT exclusive to any electronics brand.

Inspite of the 3D Printer becoming the do-it-all equivalent of the Food Processor when it came into being, many smart designers still advocate designing by hand and making prototypes by hand.

Why Design Stuff by Hand in this Age?

To use equipment such as a 3D printer, you need to know CAD design and software to some extent as well as CGI design. Thinking within these design parameters restricts your creative options.  If you wean yourself to design with ONLY these parameters in mind, you lose vital design skills if the technology conks out on you and you lose people in line for designs if you cannot deliver just because the 3D printer shorted out.  You don't want to be that digital painter sitting it out in the office because his Mac conked out, waiting for a replacement.  You need to know how to draw and paint by hand too.

A product model or prototype serves as a physical mold for a future mass produced investment so you want clients and designers to be on the same page so they produce the best results from a design collaboration. Competent designers often choose hand built stuff over a 3D printer for some of the most subtle and practical reasons that most may not readily notice from 3D printer made prototypes.

Why hands-on models still beats 3D printing...


Look and Feel


Digital design for 3D objects limit one's perspective to the limitations of the CAD or CGI app interface—from illustration to framing as a morph then detailing the object.

A hand-made object allows the designer to intuitively touch and feel around the form of his design for flaws—like an experienced shoemaker working on a new design for footwear...is it too tight, too slack, uncomfortable or a nice fit, things you cannot sense immediately off a computer screen even given previous product specs defining previous product designs.





Using various materials from wood, to foam core to leather, designers can configure the shape of the products in a natural and intuitive way.  Before setting up the design parameters in CAD, designers need to identify understand what they are making to make the best possible design without constraints.


On the Fly Iterations

One client who asked a friend to design soles for his a new brand of outdoor sandals asked us to look at sandals and shoes in a different light, and we looked at his previous designs ( very well made from more than 20 years of experience fabricating shoes).. Given those dynamics, as we felt through the sample designs and ideas tossed at us, we made several complex designs on paper based off our tactile and visual hands-on observation of how good sandals were made.


Shoe Cobbler from Jim Abel on Wiki    Creative Commons  CC BY-SA 3.0


Any corrections were immediately given for certain design tweaks that might have looked good but do not work, (like one outsole design working better as the insole of the sandal ). And the sandals are out now in the market as some of the most comfortable and sweet looking outdoor footwear.

Real Cost and Turnaround Efficiency

While 3D printing makes prototype modeling a breeze, the design iteration is limited by your initial input into the CAD program and that first model is rather static compared to hand-made models which can be fixed with even the simplest stop gap tweaks.

Additional design changes become more costly on the fly for 3D printing because you do not have a tactile experience with product designs until you print out a sample, toss it out if does not work, make adjustments then make another print out to check if the adjustments work better.

Hand built models still save time and money as tweaks and adjustments can be easily made to a configured prototype made of wood, leather or clay by just shaving off some more of the wood, stitching some more leather on or putting on more clay onto the model and see immediately by feel if it works.

Material Limitations

Some product designs require work with particular materials especially if testing for certain characteristics that the product should exhibit such as flexibility or comfort, most 3D printers work better for rigid product models so if designing using a 3D printer, take into consideration what kind of model you are testing for given the limitations of the technology and the material avaialble for creating prototypes. Every project has particular design requirements that one might overlook if he is limited by what can be done only through a 3D printer.


from  Strvct  on Wiki                                 Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

For rapid prototyping projects with set designs, 3D printers provide one of the most cost effective options for all design intensive project. Making a factory the size of a table top device capable of churning out almost any design input is one technological marvel that will surely be the next amazing tool for this century. But not for all design applications.

Most dedicated designers are more than happy rigging something by hand inspite of the many adjustments needed to finalize the piece. Craftsmen feel more accomplished stitching together that final piece of leather or rubbing finishing sandpaper over a clay model than just waiting for some machine to finish carving a chunk of plastic. Working with any design by hand is an intimate connection that helps us make better and more satisfying projects at the end of the day.

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