A beginner's guide to designing and building a physical product

A fantastic beginner guide to the process of launching a physical product. We outline the entire process and important rules you cannot overlook.
9 minute read
Daniel Carey @dancarey
Technical Co-pilot
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Always dreamed of launching a physical product? It's easier than you thnk

So you've been thinking about a useful gizmo for some time now. Ideas have tumbled about in your head and you've finally pulled all the pieces together into a cogent concept. You are now at the stage where you can fluently describe all of its functionality – the what and how of said Gizmo.

Now to finesse the design, make a prototype to validate your ideas and maybe even to seek backing to take it into production. World domination beckons!

Let’s explore the steps to launching a working physical product. 

In the beginning...

Ideas start in our head and inner vision. Sometimes it’s a lightbulb moment or it could be growing frustration with a frequently encountered problem, or perhaps simply thinking “I could make a better tool than that.”

Physical products encompass a very wide field, from fashions to even  space travel, so let’s narrow it down to small products to simiplify our illustrations.

Let’s exclude electronics because that’s a specialist field. Here we are looking at items fabricated from plastic, metal, glass or similar materials. Something with relatively small dimensions and not too complex. Think mechanical engineering at most. Items that anybody can understand and appreciate how they work. Like a kitchen gadget or a toy, for example. 

So we are at the very beginning. We have an idea and want to convert it into a working physical reality. What’s the best way to go about it?

Preliminary ideas on paper

Before we delve into the design process, we must have a pretty clear idea of the items characteristics and functions. The clearer our vision, the more likely we are to succeed.

So we would start with good old fashioned paper and pencil (and eraser) or the electronic equivalent.

We are at the brainstorming stage, so anything goes. It’s important not to restrict our thinking right now, within reason.  What is important is to identify what the product will do and not necessarily how it will do it. That comes later. For now, we want to list its functions and relate those to how they provide a solution to the problem it is going to crack.

If it were a better can opener, we might want it to be very easy to use, require little dexterity to operate, perhaps be suitable for people suffering from arthritis in their hands, be lightweight or fixed to the wall, and so on.

Prioritizing the product’s features

The MoSCoW categorization method is a very simple and excellent technique for prioritizing any list of things. We assign one code letter to each item as follows:

  • M = Must have. Essential points. The product would not meet its purpose without these

  • S = Should have.  Important aspects that should be included if at all possible

  • C = Could have. These would add value or appeal but are not really important

  • W = Would like to have. Bells and whistles that add personality or appeal personally to us

Features can be demoted or de-scoped as necessary.

This approach ensures we focus on the most critical aspects of the product and not get distracted or fritter away resources on non-essentials.

The #1 Golden Rule: Spend time on design and planning

It takes just a moment to erase or change part of a design on paper. It can cost a great deal of money to change it after it's in production. Product recalls, for example, can be scarily expensive.

We mention those two extremes to hammer home the principle that time spent on checking the design saves money down the line. Impatience can be costly and waste precious resources. Paper testing a product, running it by potential users for comment, and thoroughly validating the concept first as far as possible is just common sense.

Validating the concept

We deliberately skipped over essential tasks when considering a product that is intended to be marketed. Activities such as market research, for example. However, it is useful to know some of the principles that major corporations like Amazon deploy to help avoid duds.

Amazon adopts a “Working Backwards” approach. It consists of 4 short documents:

  • A press release that describes what the product does and what problems it solves

  • List of FAQs that might be asked by readers of that press release

  • The user experience described; what they see and feel when using it

  • Instruction sheet that a user might need to use the product

This just highlights how much emphasis they place on justifying the concept before investing any resources. It’s certainly worth considering if Amazon insists on it and it forces you to think things through thoroughly and realistically.

Sketching a rough design

Anybody is capable of producing decent sketches that convey the important aspects of a proposed product. Practice does make perfect and artistic capability is not necessary to produce a rough picture that can be improved on fairly quickly.

Notes and annotations help to clarify aspects. The purpose is to communicate the core concept. It also helps when walking someone through the rough design to find defects even at this very early stage.

CAD: Computer-Aided Design

CAD is excellent for designing computer models from concepts and early sketches. In fact, the output from a CAD design can be used as input for a 3D printer and can even control machines in an assembly line. Typically it’s used to build a prototype but a prototype can be made from anything and CAD is not a mandatory step in the design and build process.

With a little practice one can develop an adequate level of CAD proficiency fairly quickly; certainly enough to draft simple models that are a level above and beyond sketches on paper.

Here is a good CAD software package for beginners and it’s free to use: TinkerCAD

3D Rendering

The next best thing to actually handling a physical prototype is a well-rendered 3D computer model. We can see good detail of form, appearance, materials and color. We can rotate it to view it from different angles. The level of photorealism can be astonishing.

Adding animation or building a background and context gives life to the product and shows just how it would look and behave in real life in typical surroundings. It can highlight its technical features and interactions or show up areas for improvement. It’s easy to create several variations to see the effect of using different materials, textures or colors.

The render can show the internal workings too and can animate any functions in the product.

Architectural applications are now taking it one step further and developing virtual reality vistas to showcase new designs. That’s not something we need for product visualization but tells you about the power of the technology that is now coming on-stream.

3D rendering is also a faster path to creating a presentation compared with building a prototype and then photographing it. It can reduce development time and costs too, compared with multiple iterations of prototyping.

Creating 3D rendered images is a skill akin to graphic design and is best left to professionals. We might consider outsourcing it to a specialist service before building a prototype. That would make sense if a prototype would be expensive because the 3D model could highlight design deficiencies. As we said earlier, design is cheaper to fix before it gets to the physical stage.

The 3D artist can work from CAD plans, sketches, images, or from a model or a prototype along with a short description of the product. The greater the level of detail provided, the quicker a satisfactory image can be produced. Too little detail probably means many changes and iterations. It’s a balance between time spent refining the initial sketches or models and the cost of changing the 3D render until it’s satisfactory.

Making a prototype

Prototypes are used to identify design faults, test concepts and eventually show the world (or investors). No product is right first time and it may take several trips back to the drawing board and multiple design-prototype iterations to get it right.

We are not aiming for perfection at this stage, merely enough form and functionality to test it. There will almost certainly be defects and the next and subsequent prototypes will get better and better.

There are many ways to build a model for proof of concept. Some products lend themselves to modelling with basic arts and crafts materials like card, glue and duct tape. Or it can start with an existing product, disassembling it and building in enhancements with a rough and ready approach. 

3D printing is excellent for relatively small items but requires a 3D design to feed into the printer. You can hire expert help for any approach you choose because not all of us are blessed with model construction skills!

For relatively simple products, a manufacturer may be happy to create a prototype for you from sketches and dimensions.

3D Printing: A quick introduction

Did you know that a complete human leg, including its ball and socket joints, has been created using 3D printing without needing any assembly? That’s just amazing and that example alone illustrates the power and utility value of the technology.

Big industrial 3D printers can now replace assembly lines to produce components and complete products. That’s at the top end of the scale but entry-level models can do amazing things and are perfect for producing prototypes.

You can buy a new 3D printer for under $300. 3D print technology is flying along at a very rapid pace so don’t be tempted to buy second-hand if you can afford new.

The downside, as with any new tool, is the learning curve. It’s not difficult or overly complex but there are so many options to choose from that you risk being bamboozled. There are several techniques and a wide range of raw material types from plastic to metal. 

The important thing is to jump in and get a feel for 3D modelling and printing. The results will be well worth your time invested. It will take time and practice to become proficient and confident so doesn’t expect perfect results at the start.

Beginners can start here

YouTube has many tutorials that provide a fast and excellent appreciation of the basics. Search for topics such as “3D printing for beginners.” Look also at product reviews. Most enthusiasts on YouTube are genuine and dedicated, and do give impartial and worthwhile advice. We especially like themes such as “10 things I wish I knew about 3D printing before I started.”

Useful articles about getting started here, here and here.

Using a 3D printing service

Tap into an existing skillbase and advanced print technology by using a service rather than taking the DIY approach.  It may get you to your goals faster if you can afford it. Some people don’t have the time available to dedicate to learning the skills themselves.

Fast option: Hire a 3D designer

If you don’t know how to design something in 3D or don’t want to invest time in learning, you can hire a designer to do the 3D modeling for you. Start here for 3D Modeling, 3D Design, 3D Printing.

Engineering drawings

Almost all technical plans are done on a computer nowadays, so technical drawing is not really drawing in the conventional artistic sense.  Using 2D CAD software, or a tool such as SoildWorks, anybody can run up reasonable plans. 

For relatively complex products, when you get close to being ready to go into production then it makes sense to engage professional services to review the design from an engineering and manufacturing perspective. That’s not the case for simpler products.

It’s likely that earlier 3D models either act as technical drawings too or can quickly be converted into more technical plans with a little help.

Manufacturing

When we are confident that the design is good to go, it’s time to look for a production facility. Frequently the starting point for a search is in Asia, using Alibaba.com as a search tool.

We are looking for suppliers who manufacture products similar to ours. It’s not always straightforward because some are merely agents and not manufacturers. This is a very good article with sound advice by someone who has been there and done that: the basics of finding a reliable supplier on Alibaba..

Being prepared with some basic facts is important to save time. Factors such as a specification, knowing what materials you want, how many you want produced, maximum budget and so on.

Manufacturing quality is often the critical difference between success and failure. Getting samples may not always be easy, depending on the complexity of the product, but it’s the only way to be sure of what you will receive.

However, if you have followed the process outlined above, you should have excellent 3D models and plans. These make it more likely that you will be successful in getting your product manufactured well too.

Learn from the experience of others

There are many good physical product designers who pass along a great deal of valuable and extremely useful information and tips. This is gold dust for beginners and even one tip can inspire actions and approaches that we might never have thought of by ourselves.

Here are two excellent websites to begin with: A scrappy guide and design essentials.

PS

If you need inspiration for a project, see 12 Horribly Designed Everyday Products That Need To Be Reinvented!

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