The role of models in product design and development processes

Models play an essential role in the design and development process of products. There is even a saying: "A picture is worth a thousand words, but a model is worth a thousand pictures," and it's true! Models help validate or invalidate initial ideas, facilitate usability testing and other functional assessments, assess ergonomics and human factors, and evaluate the product's aesthetics at a 1:1 scale. In this post, we will delve into the role of models in the design and development process of products, exploring the different types of models and their functions at various stages of product development to ensure the best product design.

There are numerous types of models used in the product development process. Their roles vary depending on the stage of development and the purpose they are intended to serve. These roles can include concept development, proof-of-concept, pre-production validation, and marketing. At every stage our goal is always to design innovative products that meet the highest standards, and models and prototypes help us do exactly that.

In our studio, we distinguish models by two main classifications:

Classification 1: The material and manufacturing technology of the model.

Classification 2: The role of the model in the development process. The roles of models can include concept development, ergonomics testing, feasibility testing (strength, mechanical function), aesthetic evaluation, and more.

The material and technology used to create the model primarily determine the model’s fidelity relative to the final product it represents, the level of detail that can be achieved, and the actions that can be performed with the model (mainly in terms of strength).

On the other hand, the role of the model is typically related to the stage of development the product is in and the specific purpose it is intended to serve. In the early stages of a project, we usually create concept development models and feasibility or proof-of-concept models. As the project progresses, we develop ergonomic and usability models, and during the design-for-manufacturing stage, we create validation models to ensure the product is approved for production.

In this post, we will focus on the second classification: the different roles of models throughout the development process. We will share the various types of models we use in the studio during product development, why each type of model is suitable for its purpose, and the production costs of different models.

We will detail the various types of models in the order they are typically used in the development process, starting with concept development models and progressing to marketing models that look and function like the final product.

1 — Concept Development Models

Cardboard concept models for an adjustment joint
Concept models for an adjustment joint

Models, much like sketches, storyboards, and flowcharts, are tools for idea development. Concept development models are sort of three-dimensional sketches that we often create in the early stages of a project. The goal of these models is to think with our hands and allow the models to counter our thoughts. It’s like playing ping pong. We give the ping, and the model returns the pong. In this way, a dialogue develops between us and the model and this dialogue moves the project forward and is essential to design product solutions.

Concepts models from MDF, foam and cardboard for an android TV project
Concept development models for Flipper project

Cost: Material expenses for concept development models are generally minimal. These models are typically constructed using basic materials like paper, cardboard, or basic 3D prints. The primary expense of these models arises from the labor involved in the design process at this stage.

Where the models are made: Concept development models are created in-house at the studio.

When are concept models used: Concept development models are typically produced during the early stages of a project, especially in the concept development phase. However, they may also be required at later stages, for instance, as part of a design of a specific part in a larger assembly (as illustrated below), or during an advanced iteration of the design that necessitates further concept development.

A cardboard model of a wheel cover
Concept model for a wheel cover for the UpNRIde standing wheelchair projects

2 — Models for Evaluation of Proportions and Aesthetics

Cardboard model for a plywood chair
Cardboard model for a plywood chair

For us, there is no substitute for experiencing an object in reality. There are several reasons for this phenomenon, one being that scale can be deceiving when working in CAD. At times, a detail may appear prominent when zoomed in on the computer, but in reality, it might be so small that it’s barely noticeable. Conversely, an object can appear excessively large in reality compared to how it is perceived on the computer. This is why it is crucial for us to use 1:1 models that allow us to evaluate an object’s proportions in real life.

For small products that require examination at a 1:1 scale, we typically utilize 3D printings which are made in-house within our studio. This method is convenient, fast, and accurate.

Rough 3D printed models for evaluating morphological concepts for the Dride Zero project
3D printed models for evaluating morphological concepts for the Dride Zero project

For larger objects, we really enjoy making models out of cardboard and carton because they are quick to work with and allow us to create large-scale models. Corrugated cardboard, in particular, is a constructive material that can support its own weight in all dimensions, making it especially fun to build with. Additionally, it is an inexpensive material that is available in large formats, making it perfect for large models.

1:1 carton model for the chassis of UpNRide wheelchair
Final design of the UpNRide wheelchair

Over the years, we developed methods for working with various types of cardboard which allow us to achieve almost any shape. We always have a huge stack of cardboard in the studio 📦😉. Cardboard models are great for proportion and aesthetic models, volume testing, and simulating different spaces. For example, we used a 1:1 scale model of an operational room to consider the constraints it imposes on operating a product placed within it.

1:1 cardboard model of a signage system for a lookout point
Final design of the the lookout point sinage

Cost: Similar to concept development models, the cost of raw materials for rough models used to evaluate proportions and aesthetics is generally minimal. The primary expenses are typically associated with the design work and the production time invested in creating the models.

Where the models are made: Usually these sorts of models are created in-house at the studio.

When are concept models used: These models are primarily utilized in the early phases of a project, specifically for concept development and detailed design. Depending on the project, however, their use can extend into later stages of development, particularly in the design of larger items, such as those the approximate size of a chair or bigger.

1:1 cardboard model of a sink collection we designed for Ortega
Final design of one of the sinks

3 — Feasibility models

3d prints model integrated with electronic parts
Feasibility model for an IOT project

The primary purpose of feasibility models, also known as proof of concept models, is to demonstrate the viability of a product’s technical concept. These models showcase the essential technological principles needed for the product’s effective operation and facilitate the validation of the project’s core assumptions during product design.

Feasibility model for an IOT product for a baby seat

Cost: Proof of concept models are typically created using relatively simple and inexpensive manufacturing technologies, focusing primarily on validating feasibility rather than aesthetic or functional qualities. This approach allows for relatively inexpensive production. However, these models often require the input of multiple professionals from different fields including design, mechanics, and electronics, which can raise the development costs depending on the project’s requirements.

When are concept models used: Proof of concept models are usually made in-house in our studio, integrating with the client’s electronic components. Typically, the studio is also responsible for managing this phase and coordinating the integration between the various professionals involved in the project.

3d printed model integrated with plywood for a feasibility model of a release mechanism
Feasibility model for a release mechanism

When are concept models used: Proof of concept models are typically created in the relatively early stages of the design process, as they form the technological foundation for subsequent development phases. However, in complex technological projects, there may be several rounds of design and development processes, at the end of which a new proof of concept model is created to demonstrate the work accomplished in that phase.

Welded plastic film in various shapes filled with water
Feasibility models for a packaging design for a toiletry product

4 — Ergonomic models

Ergonomic model for a product designed for one-handed operation and held by a man
Ergonomic model for a product designed for one-handed operation

An ergonomic model is designed to evaluate the physical interaction between the user and the product. An ergonomic model can investigate a range of aspects concerning the product’s interface and how it meets the user’s physiological constraints. This includes checking grip comfort, evaluating any restrictions the product imposes (such as those affecting the field of vision or movement), assessing weight, and examining usability under challenging conditions (such as in darkness, wet conditions, or while wearing gloves or other gear). It can also test the product’s suitability for prolonged use. Ergonomic models are typically developed for usage testing, whether conducted in-house (with the studio team also serving as test subjects) or through systematic user trials with external participants. A product designer relies on these ergonomic models to ensure the final product meets all the ergonomic requirements.

An ergonomic testing model for a 20 kg product. Weights are integrated into the model to mimic the true weight of the product for accurate testing
A model designed to test the ergonomics of a heavy product (20 kg). To perform the test, we incorporated weights into the model to simulate the product’s actual weight
After simulating the weight, we tested handle options for the product to evaluate its operation along with the weight

Cost: Ergonomic models are primarily used for ergonomic assessments and are not required to evaluate other product features like aesthetics. Consequently, these models do not need to be visually appealing and can be constructed from any material suitable for conducting experiments. As a result, ergonomic models are relatively inexpensive to produce.

An ergonomic model for the wheelchair seat of the UpNRide project
An ergonomic model for the wheelchair seat of the UpNRide project

Where the models are made: Ergonomic models are usually produced in our studio and can be made of a variety of materials and technologies including 3D printing, wood, metal, soft materials, or any other material required for the construction of the model that will allow us to perform the functions we want to test.

Ergonomic models for a manually operated medical device

When are ergonomic models used: In our studio, ergonomic models are integrated throughout the entire design process, from the concept development (and sometimes even earlier) to the design for manufacturing. The relatively low time and budget required to create these models, compared to their significant contribution to advancing the project and drawing important conclusions at critical stages, make them an essential tool in product development.

5 — Pre-production validation models

Pre-production validation models are essential in the product development process, particularly for plastic injection molding. The primary purpose of these models is to test the integration of all the product components, in order to identify potential failure points in the design and prevent them before committing to production tools and reducing costly revisions.

Cost: Pre-production validation models are typically manufactured by expert model builders using advanced 3D printing technologies. These models are often produced from materials with good mechanical properties, enabling the testing of functional details such as snaps and screws. These models usually retain the natural finish of the print and are not painted, which keeps their costs lower than ‘look like work like’ models. Depending on the product size, the cost of such models is generally around a few thousand shekels.

Where the models are made: Validation models are typically produced using 3D printing technologies that offer strong mechanical properties, such as SLS of nylon. Such printers are costly and are usually available only in professional modeling facilities domestically or abroad. For parts requiring mechanical properties unachievable through 3D printing, we might consider CNC manufacturing, for which will usually use Chinese manufactures. Alternatively, for simpler parts, models can be printed using FDM 3D printing technology. In such cases, we produce the prints in-house at our studio.

When are pre-production validation models used: Pre-production validation models are typically made during the design for manufacturing stage of a project, a point in development that requires reviewing design details in high resolution. Often, multiple iterations of these models are necessary.

6 — Scaled models

A scale model is a smaller version of a product designed to a specific scale. There is no fixed standard for scaling down, and the chosen scale depends on various factors including: the cost of producing the model (as larger models are more expensive), the minimal size required to display important details in the model (extremely delicate details may become indistinct or not prominent enough at smaller scales), and the intended purpose of the model (for example, a scale model is not suitable for user testing). Common scales for models are 1:2 and 1:4, while furniture models are typically at a scale of 1:6.

Cost: Often, a scale model will mimic the final materiality of the product, meaning it requires high-quality finishes and painting. Consequently, such a model is typically expensive to produce, with costs potentially reaching thousands of shekels, depending on the product’s size and complexity.

Where the models are made: These models are usually made by professional model builders domestically or abroad.

When are scaled models used: Scale models are often made for marketing purposes. The primary reason for creating a scaled-down model is usually to represent relatively large objects, where producing a full-sized model would be too expensive. Additionally, when dealing with exceptionally large products on an industrial scale, transporting full-sized models (for example to a trade show) can be overly complex. Therefore, a scaled-down version is necessary.

Summary: Role of Models in Product Design

Studio Kuchik Amitai has extensive experience in designing models and prototypes of all types, materials, and sizes. The studio has broad relationships with model makers both domestically and internationally and offers comprehensive in-house modeling services, including 3D printing and working with soft materials. If you need to create a prototype model, you are welcome to contact us, and we would be happy to assist 😃