The last decade has seen huge improvements in rapid prototyping, particularly 3D printing. costs have also reduced massively, not just on the material side but the machines themselves and are now affordable to the point that they can be brought in house.
I am a huge supporter of 3-D printing and the benefits it brings to the design process in quickly evaluating form and function, but with this comes a few issues that all designers and more importantly students of design should be aware of. My particular concern is around the loss of hand making model skills that have been in steady decline as the popularity of 3D printing increases.
A good designer explores their ideas not only through sketches, but also in 3D sketch models. These low fidelity constructions are often crude in their appearance, made from cardboard, blue foam and any other bits of scrap material that may be to hand. Nonetheless they can quickly give an indication as to whether an idea will work or not or how it could be improved. This visual thinking and exploration should form the backbone of any conceptual design phase and our experience tells us that the more this is done in the early stages of the project, the better the final product will be, particularly when considering user experience.
Over the past few months our designers have cut, glued, sewn, stuck and fabricated hundreds of models as part of our development process. We use these models with our clients and test our ideas out on real users. We learn a lot very quickly And each model is as an improvement on its predecessor. When it comes to the detail design phase of the project, we have already discovered and resolved problems that would be expensive to fix later on.
3-D printing requires 3-D models and this can often mean spending hours in front of a computer, building a virtual prototype, feature by feature. Too often we see and hear of projects that have gone straight into 3-D without going through the discovery phase that we just talked about. Products like this are often lacking in the rewarding consumer experience that designers aim to achieve. It also bypasses a part of the design process that can be so much fun.
Our conclusion is that there is a time for 3-D printing printing and a time to be loose. Good designers have both skill sets and know when the appropriate time is to use them.