3-D Printers, Bah! Why Designers Should Build Prototypes By Hand

Four reasons why you should skip the pricey 3-D printer and stick to the foam core.

"Does your design studio have a 3-D printer in the office?"

It’s a frequent question from clients—and understandably so. In just a few short years, 3-D printing has revolutionized the way that products are made. 3-D printers have been used to create everything from prototypes to a replica Aston Martin DB5 that was blown up during the filming of the most recent 007 movie. And, as 3-D printing technology continues to evolve at a dizzying pace, it is becoming increasingly faster, more useful, and cost-effective.

With all of that in mind, the answer to the question often surprises clients:

"Nope. We don’t need one. Most of our initial prototypes are hand-built."

Prototypes serve two essential functions: They turn design ideas into something tangible that clients can touch and hold and they help clients and designers work as a team to refine those ideas cooperatively. To make the best client impression and get the most from client feedback, competent designers use the best tools available to give physical form to their ideas. And the best tools often happen to be our hands.

Here’s why hands-on models still beat digital models.

kod via Shutterstock


CAD tools serve as a mediator between a mental image and reality. When working digitally, a designer first imagines a form and then figures out how to create it working within the logic and limitations of his or her CAD program. The process forces the designer to toggle back and forth between right brain and left brain. By comparison, making models by hand throws the restrictions of computer-think out the window, freeing the designer to work intuitively—shaping, examining, and refining form immediately in physical space.

Soulcake (the design studio where I work) recently designed a series of products that allude to the mid-century design language of Eames, Saarinen, and the like. The aesthetic requirements of the project called for convex and concave surfaces that flowed seamlessly and naturally into one other with just the right amount of surface tension—without weird kinks or transitions.

Using hand-built foam, wood, and clay models, we resolved the shape of the products in a natural, intuitive way. Before building the forms in CAD, we needed to first be able to see and understand them. Eliminating computer mediation, we achieved a better understanding of refined forms (and provided the client with higher-quality first renditions) than we could have if we were relying solely on digital modeling and 3-D prints.

Petr Malyshev via Shutterstock


In the picture up top, I am working on a complex surface for a hiking stick handle. This surface provides a good example of how a complex, ergonomically driven form can be refined quickly using hands-on techniques. We experienced and corrected the design on the fly, fitting it to a variety of hands. The immediate tactile feedback of clay allowed us to resolve complex ergonomic issues while incorporating our intended aesthetics. Good luck doing that with 3-D printed parts.

Kostenko Maxim via Shutterstock


As 3-D printing technology speeds up, the gap between how long it takes to create a hand-built model and a 3-D printed model is closing. But this doesn't touch on the time that the rest of the iterative process requires. 3-D printing is relatively static—once forms are printed, they are permanent. What you create in CAD is exactly what you get. By comparison, if a hand-built model doesn't look or feel quite right, a designer can quickly adjust that part of the model without going through the entire 3-D model/3-D print loop. Hand-built models still save time and money.

Thirteen via Shutterstock

The Right Tool for the Job

Soulcake recently had clients send us a prototype that they printed in-house on an FDM 3-D printer. The model was created to illustrate how surfaces would look and feel on a hand-held product that we had helped them design. Unfortunately, the clients' FDM printer created a model that looked like a rough topographical map—ill-suited for high-resolution surface transitions.

Had the model been intended to test the product's strength, FDM would have been an excellent choice. However, the model’s intended purpose did not match the characteristics of the 3-D printed part. Our clients created an unsuitable model simply because they had an FDM printer on hand. They had unwittingly stuffed their prototype into the limitations of the technology on hand.

Every project has different requirements for prototypes. The different types of prototyping technology available to designers (SLA, FDM, SLS, etc.) all have distinct finish and material properties—making some processes more suitable than others in specific applications. When a designer arrives at a phase in a project where 3-D printed parts are necessary, working with a dedicated prototyping firm ensures that the 3-D printed parts created for that particular project best fit that project’s goals. 

Jordanhill School via Flickr


Don’t be mistaken: I’m not bashing 3-D printing. It is a remarkable, rapidly evolving design tool. Our studio works in CAD on a daily basis and frequently uses rapid-prototyping as part of our design process. But in certain applications, using iterative CAD and 3-D printed parts can take considerably longer and cost incrementally more than doing things by hand.

What's more, CAD can’t match the intense satisfaction that one derives from creating a model by hand. Building a good foam core mockup or dragging a finishing steel across a lump of clay is infinitely more satisfying than working with binary data and printing a big chunk plastic. Hand-built models provide an intimate experience that connects a designer to his work, letting him feel his way to better designs in a way that isn’t matched by CAD.

So next time you’re thinking about jumping into CAD and printing out a mockup, stop and ask yourself if it’s something you can do with your hands. The results of the process often speak for themselves.

[Top photo: Jaewoo Kim]

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  • Great article. You describe many good points. But, I don't see a conflict I see the ability to extend the imagination using both ways as a process. I like working up thumbnail sketches of structure on paper the same way I use the wacom stylus in a sketching app on my workstation. There are 3d modeling apps with the power to be used to sculpt and refine. It is a smart way to release the creative juices to problem solving in analogue then extend into digital as ways of further testing. It is feasible to apply clay to a 3d printed prototype as well then scan it for further scaling or testing. I don't see the conflict only the possibilities. I think the only limitations are not being able to imagine something on paper before firing up the software. That is the only place I see limitations for a designer.

  • Vito Piraino

    It's the evolution of the arts, don't want to comparate with the "perspective revolution", but it's still one step forward.

  • I feel this article misses the point completely. You should be noting how both methods (Hand Crafting and 3D design/printing) works hand in hand, instead of it being a competition. 3D Printing and designing is simply another tool. It is not here to replace hand crafters. Crafters can hand craft an object, then it gets scanned into a 3D model where further modifications could be made (if necessary). In this way, a hand crafted model can now be easily reproduced in a variety of sizes, rather than needing to craft another one of a smaller, or larger size.

    There's a function for both methods, and neither one is really "Better" than the other. It's simply a matter of what is better, or more practical, for certain projects (or parts of) relative to cost, time, and other resources.

    And this article speaks specifically about CAD. But CAD isn't the only 3D software that is used for 3D design, so the restrictions that CAD has really doesn't mean anything in the world of 3D printing.

  • Sachin Mistry

    There was a teacher during school that said that "with all the advances in 3d milling, nothing will replace the clay model. Just like how pencils have erasers, clay allows for quickly fixing mistakes." Its a very forgiving, tangible medium as opposed to CAD. CAD is very necessary tool to get an idea closer to production, but a real, physical model acts as a good guide to establish the right proportion and feel.

    I've learned how to understand 3D form and craftsmanship through clay modeling and I hope that this tradition will still continue.


  • tim.smithers

    Dear Paul,

    I like this post a lot. I've been looking for, and sort of hoping for your kind of comment.

    I do believe that the quality and kind of knowing you get from doing depends upon how you do it. And that the knowing and understanding we get from doing is as important as any other kind.

    I used to tell people I saw using CAD to design with, they shouldn't CAD it before they've first drawn (sketched) it by hand. Mostly I got told to go away and get with it.

    3D Printing I see as a (natural) extension of CAD into the physical world. So I keep wanting to say to people I see prototyping designs with 3D printing, you should 3D print after you've first made it by hand.

    Thanks for your post!