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From Concept to Prototype – Part 1

In this article we showcase the first part of a typical project going from concept to prototype.

 

Concept Phase

The customer brief is singularly the most important document we require from our clients. The brief or product design specification, or product requirements definition (to name three variations of the same thing), defines many things:

  • What the product is: how it used and by which demographic
  • Performance specifications
  • Size, weight, aesthetics
  • Form and function
  • User interfaces and other human factors
  • Cost of manufacturing/selling price
  • Location of manufacturing – domestic or low cost region
  • Timescale requirements
  • Competitor products/predicate markets… amongst many others.

Using the brief as a “set of rules”, the concept phase of any project requires the design team to start using its imagination and creativity to come up with ideas to solve the requirements of the customer design brief.

In this example, Cambridge Design Technology was briefed to provide concepts for a metered dose inhaler (MDI) for asthma and other respiratory patients. The brief was wide and non-specific and to provide a set of simple aesthetic concepts looking at providing something different.

In this case it was worth looking at what was currently available in the marketplace. A theme board was then created. [Note: sometimes, however, working blind, can be an alternative approach so as not to influence one’s train of thought from the outset].

The first stage will be to provide sketches. These start off as pencil sketches in our notebooks, and then get refined into digital images for presentation to the client. Internally, the design team look at the brief, ensure we have kept the proposals in line with the customer specification and distil the designs into tangible concepts. No idea is a bad idea during the concept generation cycle, however, the plethora of sketches need to be assessed to ensure that the presented concepts meet the brief and cohesively address the problems in a presentable manner. The key, in this instance was to keep the concepts fluid and simple in detail.

The client then reviewed the concepts and, through discussion with the design team, a concept was chosen.

 

Developing the Chosen Concept

The next stage is to develop the initial sketch into 3D geometry. The end goal was not to engineer a fully working functional inhaler, but the concept had to display enough resolution to ensure the design could be manufactured beyond concept. (i.e. ensure, broadly, the parts could be moulded). This, in our opinion, is the essence of product design. Creating great looking designs that cannot be made, is not a successful design.      

When we have developed the design to the appropriate level, a quick review with the client confirms we are still on track. We can now start to harness the power of creating 3D geometry. At this point, the 3D geometry can be used to create:

  • 3D prints
  • CNC machined components
  • Screen shots, diagrams and other material for presentations and proposals for the next phases of development
  • Files used for getting preliminary estimates on injection mould tools and other manufacturing costs.
  • Line drawings for patent applications
  • Photorealistic renderings.

We created some first cut renderings, aiding the client to get some firm idea of how the prototype will look. Some clients use this imagery at early stages for pre-marketing exercises, internal documentation, and even in some instances to create material for exhibitions.

Getting Ready for Prototyping

Once the concept has been approved, the design team will be busy checking the design and preparing the information ready for manufacture.

Using the advanced CAD tools, we can look at any interference or clashes and minimum clearances, wall thicknesses, surface quality etc.

Once we are happy that the files are suitable for manufacturing, we then write an STL file. This is a triangulated file which is the universal data format for 3D printing.

It is from this this file that we can begin to get prices for 3D printing. This is where we now bring in our strategic prototyping partner, Prototype Projects. We have a relationship with Prototype Projects spanning nearly three decades. They provide us with premium prototype services from 3D printing to CNC machining and traditional model making and finishing.

From the STL file, Cambridge Design Technology will arrange quotes and manage the process for you. We need to know:

  • What are the prototypes being used for?
  • Will they be manhandled by other parties/general public?
  • What level of finish is required – perfect finished product finish or raw 3D print?
  • How many are required?
  • Are there strength/robustness/electrical insulation/temperature issues? And so on…

All of these questions will determine what processes are used to create your prototype, and to a certain extent, how much they will cost.

Your part could be SLS, SLA, FDM, CNC machined, vacuum cast, RIM moulded, laser cut or thermo-formed, to name a few options. Don’t worry, if you need explanation of any of this, please contact Cambridge Design Technology on 01223 662300 and we will guide you through the maze.

 

To be continued…

In our next article we will get hands-on and spend a day at Prototype Projects detailing the process of getting our MDI to a physical model, setting up the 3D printer and taking the prototype off the machine.

In the meantime if you have concepts or designs that need taking to prototype, contact us and let us help you through the process.

For more information about Cambridge Design Technology and how we can work with you on your next product design project, please call Jon Plumb now on 01223 662300 or email info@cambridge-dt.com

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