Introducing design students to Rapid Prototyping

In late 2017 Birkenhead High School Academy, GDST, contacted our Liverpool lab to discuss how we might be able to work together providing some manufacturing experience to its A-level design students, through some kind of design and manufacture challenge.

This would take the form of a simple day to day usable product concept, which the students would see through from brainstorm, to cardboard or other initial prototype, in to computer-aided-design software, and eventually digitally manufactured in the lab as a typical minimum viable product, an MVP - a prototype which is feature complete sufficiently that its functionality and design can be evaluated and iteratively improved upon - a critical part of the modern design and rapid prototype cycle. It was highlighted that this would be of great benefit to the students, as it is an incredibly empowering feeling to experience a near production quality item that you have designed yourself. This is still something I love to this day, despite being around digital manufacture since late 2010, the novelty has yet to wear off!

After an initial meeting with the tutor, Daniel, and a tour around the lab to show the equipment and software we have available for digital manufacture, some ideas were thrown around for a product that performs a simple task, it must not contain any moving parts in its operation, and the product should be such that the design can be interpreted in many ways - in that, we wanted something that would offer a large degree of design freedom - in the four prototypes that we eventually made - we very much achieved that, with four distinctly different approaches. The product chosen was a desktop mobile phone holder, a simple device that can be styled in many ways, and almost made as simple or complex as desired, in the end the inspiration for this came from a phone holder design I had in the lab, which I had previously made and used to illustrate the rapid prototyping process. With the product challenge set, Daniel returned to the school to explain our ideas to the students.

Design one - Cactus

The Cactus design was the first to be translated in to a 3D model from which we could print, requiring a little design interpretation around the stand and the “arms” that held the phone, it made sense to extend the base of the flower pot to act as a ledge to hold the phone, and use the upright of the cactus “arm” as guides to stop the phone falling off the side. I then designed a small hinge to allow the Cactus to be folded up when not in use.

Design Two - Elephoney

The elephant is a great interpretation of the design challenge, using the trunk to hold the phone upright and in position. The original drawing was traced out into the design software, and then extruded into a 3D shape with a little refinement to ensure the trunk prescribes a clean and smooth arc. To give a more premium finish to the Elephant, laser cut perspex sides will be attached with small 3D printed caps, which will be bonded in to place.

Design three - Kolin

Colin was the name loosely thrown around for this particular take on the challenge, an exclusively 3D printed design like the Cactus, but in the name of stylisation, the C was substituted for a K. It was agreed with the designer that the arms and head should be a different colour to the body, and so they were printed separately as part of a second assembly that bonds to the back of the main body using conventional Cyanoacrylate super glue, 3D printed plastics tend to respond well to this assembly approach as the natural grain of the material due to the printing process encourages a strong bond between parts.

Design four - Mouth

The mouth is unique among the four designs, in that it is majority laser cut where the others are majority 3D printed. With more time the teeth could be fully modelled and 3D printed, then bonded on, but for the sake of this exercise, and given time constraints (particularly with the students needing to consider a production approach) the teeth have been flattened and simplified as part of the laser cut perspex. The construction is to be layered, with a 3D printed spacer to create clearance for the phone, and the stand design from the cactus repurposed in a new colour to support the holder on a desk.

Time to make

Production took a few days, and a little revision here and there, but I’m happy with the results, all four prototypes have come out well, and should be an interesting and empowering experience for the students - to truly be able to pick up the physical manifestation of a design you imagined is very powerful, I only hope this serves to inspire further design and perhaps an interesting in digital additive manufacture technologies.

With the prototypes made, its time to arrange another visit for the students, and see what they make of their handy work, and begin the process of iterative analysis to see what they could do differently, or better - with that in mind, welcome to the Rapid Prototype cycle, its been great fun to make these four designs. 

Keep an eye out for the second part of the blog!

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