What are some creative approaches to making physical prototypes?

Since almost all HW products involve some kind of casing / enclosure / industrial design, aside from many 3D prints (which may be expensive), what are some creative ways people have hacked together iterations of their physical prototypes? Cardboard? Foam? Lego?

It’s not what I’d call creative, but standard casings which you find from Newark or other such suppliers already help a lot to develop prototypes that look like final products. Chances are the packaging will be more bulky than required, and it certainly won’t be nicely designed, but at least it will keep the wires from poking out and remain on the cheap.

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Well I’d say there’s as many creative options out there as there are tinkerers :slight_smile: We’ve seen many versions and also do all imaginable kind of rough prototypes ourselves to explore design directions. When we did the Narrative Clip industrial design we did many clay and paper models initially just for size and shape exercise. Paper or cardboard actually seems to help our designers in a surprising variety of projects, from small cameras to kitchen sinks :slight_smile: Paper can also be cut in sections and made three dimensional by many layers. I’ve seen quite a few “rough but functional” casings for electronics made in this method by the help of a laser cutter (in wood or plastic) as well. This could be cheaper and more flexible for mounting than the cheapest rapid prototypes you’d get hold of.

Speaking of which, we do mostly tend to 3D print… we have a good old Replicator in the office, and the Stockholm Makerspace around the corner (they usually help us out much quicker and less expensive than other rapid prototype services, so look for a maker space near you!). One level more expensive you’ll find shapeways.com (which is still comparably very cheap, versatile and fast for what you get), and even one step higher is professional prototype makers for making full-finish model 3D prints. Those are a lot more expensive but usually look smashing. My absolute favorite prints are SLA.

Per Brickstad
Founder, Industrial Designer @ PeoplePeople

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On a related note, what is the next step after 3D printing, before large run injection molding?

For instance, I’ve printed 10 enclosures at $30 each, people like the product, and now I want to make 100 enclosures as the next step in a soft launch. The traditional molds I was looking at cost upwards of $4K and are guaranteed to produce something like 10k units. Is there an intermediary step?

Has anyone had experience with this “soft tooling” molds? Are they much cheaper? Who makes them? Are there any other options?

100 pieces is a really, really tough order, you’re really between the prototype and the series, and there is no real best answer.

Silicone molding will give you the same quality as injection molding, but the molds usually withstand around 30 moldings, not 100 - although some suppliers may surprise you. There is one more thing you might want to consider: CNC machining. 3D printing is the new hype, but it’s not scalable at all. Many suppliers have CNC machines with two tables, which means that the material for the second part can be installed by the operator while the first one is being machined, thus slashing costs. If your part is not too complicated, it might be worth it for 100 pieces. However it can only work if the part can be entirely machined without moving the material on the table.

Do keep in mind that if that this first batch leads to a larger order, any money invested in any other technique than injection molding will be lost. In my experience, you don’t need a hundred prototypes to validate your product, neither on the technical nor on the business sides. Can’t you test your assumptions with a smaller batch?

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