On our platform we see a lot of visual prototypes being printed.

With a visual prototype I mean a prototype that resembles the actual product in look, feel, material, and dimensions. A visual prototype captures the size and appearance, but not the functionality, of the intended design.

These visual prototypes are of course printed with the goal to learn something from them by conducting research. My question to you is what do you mainly use visual prototypes for? In other words, what are common research questions you are trying to answer through visual prototyping?

Example research question:

How are the product aesthetics perceived compared to similar competitive products?

1. Are the mechanical clearances and tolerances in accordance with design specifications. (Does it work like you want it to)

2. Is it as useful as you though it would be?

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not sure why anyone would bother with a visual prototype… with current 3d printing materials just about any working prototype is now possible… perhaps not durable but still working/functional… I’d feel shortchanged if you presented me with a prototype that I can only look at when I know I can get close to a fully working model elsewhere.

Good suggestions, especially that first questions is well formulated

Interesting. I guess when it’s easy to turn a visual prototype into a functional one it makes sense to skip visual prototyping. However, especially with more complex products, this is not always the case. Or do you disagree with this?

Key reasons why our customers choose visual prototypes:

Aesthetic review in 3D

Market research

Communicating design in 3D between various departments (non design orientated)

Test ergonomics

Review shape/form/size

Pack-shot photography and marketing visuals

Packaging fit


Thanks for your input, some use cases I did not think off

Cost effectiveness: Is this design cost effective?

Does this design have the same look – durability, style, ergonomics, etc – while reducing the overall product cost vs the competition.

Feature Location: Are the various features of the product in logical and accessible positions on the design? Does the design improve on competitors designs?

Demonstration, presentation, feedback rounds: What does the rest of the team think of the design? What do select beta testers/product testers think of the design?

This actually relates to finishes and colors specifically. Many initial visual prototypes find that color or reflectiveness (matte vs gloss) and texture will all play a bigger role in an end product than they thought.

Square Peg - Round Hole: Would the design be aesthetically/ergonomically/functionally better if there were rounded corners or square corners, triangle holes or star holes? Etc.

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When you are planning to make a run of 10,000 to 100,000 pieces of a complex product with many parts you don’t turn to additive manufacturing in its current state. You definitely don’t want to spend $100,000+ to setup custom molds for parts, styrofoam packaging printed currogated packaging etc without getting prototypes made, measured and tested. This is where visual prototyping vs final product creation becomes a critical step. Spending a few hundred to a few thousand dollars is not a big deal when your final product run will cost hundreds of thousands to millions. Our last production run was for an ATM, which was designed 3d printed to analyze the design, fit the packaging (currogated) cut the foam (EPS) for packaging and place all parts inside a steel chassis.

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In our experience a visual model usually relates to one of the following:

1. Shape/Form Model; that is unfinished and left in raw material state. I.e: directly from the printer/cnc machine/foam model.

2. Presentation Model; that is highly finished and replicates the aesthetic of the finished production item, but is not necessarily functional or demonstrates the intended material properties.

We use an Objet 24 high resolution printer. With this we can create simple unfinished shape/form models, and if required can paint/finish these to high quality presentation model standard. This is often not the case with a lower cost FDM style hobby machine, yes you can create shape/form models, but they are difficult or nonviable to turn into high quality presentation models.

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“visual prototype I mean a prototype that resembles…”
For my work I focus on two types of prototypes, functional & mock-up. If it’s not functional then material and orientation/print strategy isn’t as important but either way DIMENSIONAL ACCURACY is a MUST. A mock-up is necessary for making sure parts fit together correctly, move as intended, look as expected, etc, before going to the next step. I’m not sure where what you call a “visual prototype” fits into this equation unless it is just something to show investors. I very much believe that form should follow function. After it works, you make it look good.
I often deal with designers that are so caught up in the look of an “enclosure” before they even know what is going inside. This almost always results in wasted time/effort/resources.

I print over 30 materials on custom built FDM machines. With minimum effort in the “finishing” stage my clients have gotten prototypes that look like they came off the shelf in an Apple store. Not all FDMs are created equal and the quality of their output is very much dependent on the operator.

That is interesting, would love to see some photos. I appreciate this is a rapidly changing technology. We benched marked a range of machines from £12-20k in 2011 and even the commercially available FDM machines didn’t offer us a part that could be easily finished. Support removal was easier, but sanding and filling to remove the stepped finishing and then painting to a high finish required much more work and still didn’t quite hit the mark. But certainly kudos to you for developing your own machines and creating such good models from them.

I don’t post pictures of my equipment because there are some novel features I hope to patent in the near future and I don’t post picture of my client’s projects due to confidentiality. However, I would say that most of the quality issues you’re talking about have more to do with what I would call “print strategy” than the equipment. Orientation, support structure, and customization of the gcode(like decreasing the layer height for parts of the print with steep angles) are usually the difference between my work and other FDMs. Unfortunately, you cannot buy equipment that does this thinking for you but the ability to print any material that melts is what allows real functioning prototypes, which is absolutely worth the extra work in my opinion.

It would be cool to see some of your own sample parts. It sounds impressive the level of print strategy you put in, not to mention the machine construction itself. In reference to my previous comment, for us, the ‘off the shelf’ commercial FDM solutions just didn’t give us what we were looking for, with a plug-n-play approach.