ProtoTYPING: Everyday Materials to Speed up the Prototyping Process

Depending on the product, it can take many iterations to find the right cocktail of components or chemicals to make an idea concept work. There are plenty of examples of inventor folklore as proof of this. WD-40 lubricant was not perfected until the 40th attempt, and James Dyson famously made 5,127 prototypes of his first bag-less vacuum cleaner. Since we all have a finite amount of time to work on our inventions, one of the keys to successful prototyping is speed. One of the ways to speed up the prototyping process is to use tool and techniques to make prototypes from flat pieces of raw materials. This allows the use of inexpensive materials and fast processing methods to learn as much as possible as fast as possible to narrow in on the best solution. Here are some ways to make great prototypes and from flat stock material.

Flat stock materials need not be exotic or expensive to use for product prototyping. One of the most robust flat stock materials is paper and paper products like card stock and cardboard. Everyone is familiar with how easy paper is to cut, fold and glue and many of us have seen how strong newspaper can be when rolled up and made into bridges, as many have done in a grade school science class. Card stock provides much more stiffness and is still very thin, so this gets used quite a bit in the Edison Nation design shop. We can use our CAD software to layout flat pattern shapes that can be printed on the card stock and folded into 3D shapes. Cardboard is also a good flat material. It is plentiful and free when cut from shipping boxes and has great strength. Combining paper materials with a hot glue gun can help many innovations take shape.tools and techniques to make prototypes from flat pieces of raw material. This allows the use of inexpensive materials and fast processing methods to learn as much as possible as fast as possible in order to narrow in on the best solution. Here are some ways to make great prototypes from flat stock material.

A card stock prototype for a pencil sharpener exhaust for a desk organizer prototype

A card stock prototype for a pencil sharpener exhaust for a desk organizer prototype

Foam core is another flat prototyping material that is similar to paper products and is readily available in retail stores. Foam core is great as it comes in many different thicknesses and it can be carved into 3D shapes. This is especially useful when trying to come up with form models or ergonomic studies for products when 3D printing is too expensive.

A foam core prototype of the Kraftlyn preservation keepsake box

A foam core prototype of the Kraftlyn preservation keepsake box

Paper and foam core rarely have the material properties of a finished product. When we need to use materials that have performance, we need to use special tools to process them. One of the most frequently used tools in the EN engineering shop, which is used to cut flat stock material, is our laser cutter. We use an Epilog Legend 36EXT and it allows us to cut through some plastics, wood, rubber, fabric and paper products, so they are very versatile. When we design prototypes for laser cutting, we usually draw our shape in our SolidWorks CAD software and create tongue and groove features. Then, we cut them out of the desired material, mostly acrylic and ABS plastic. Once they are done, we puzzle them together and lock them into place with super glue or solvent. This allows us to create robust parts, and create prototypes for products that hold water if necessary. This technique can even be used in finished products. Many low cost 3D printers like the Printrbot use this tongue and groove construction on the frames of their machines.

A housing for the Edison Nation conference room blinds that was designed as a series of flat patterns and cut on the laser cutter

A housing for the Edison Nation conference room blinds that was designed as a series of flat patterns and cut on the laser cutter

Another common technique used with the laser cutter is to design pieces that can be lined up and stacked together to make a prototype with more substantial thickness. This technique is commonly used when designing parts with gear trains. Typically, all of the pieces in the stack are given a common set of holes that are cut out in precise locations with the laser, and long screws or bolts are used to clamp them all together. Once they are clamped together, they can then be sanded or filed down to make curved shapes for grips or other features.

A prototype of Brian Smith's Slow Pull Dog Leash from Everyday Edisons, Season 4. Laser cut ABS plastic profiles were bolted together and the hand grip was rounded off with a sander to create a comfort grip

A prototype of Brian Smith’s Slow Pull Dog Leash from Everyday Edisons, Season 4. Laser cut ABS plastic profiles were bolted together and the hand grip was rounded off with a sander to create a comfort grip

Metals are commonly needed to make great prototypes, but this requires more power than most laser cutters. To cut flat parts in metals or thick plastics we use a water jet cutter. The Omax Maxiem 1515 water jet that the EN team uses has 46,000 psi water mixed with a sand-like aggregate to cut through material, and the nozzle is on a gantry motion system that can be driven to cut any shape or logo drawn in CAD. Whereas the laser jet can only cut through ¼” thick plastic, the water jet is powerful enough to cut through up to 12-inch thick steel. This is great for making prototypes that need metals either for strength or ability to take heat! The same tongue and groove design techniques can be used to make metal parts and can be brazed or welded together to make strong parts with 3D geometry without having to machine them out of solid billet. The water jet can also be used to cut wood into precise shapes without having to use a saw.

The water jet can also be used to cut wood into precise shapes without having to use a saw.

The water jet can also be used to cut wood into precise shapes without having to use a saw.

Using flat stock materials is a great way to make many prototypes quickly and find the best solution to the innovation problem in question. Plus, adding photos of prototypes to your product submissions may help you work through design challenges and helps us better understand your idea. Everyday materials and tools, like paper and scissors, are great for early concept work, and there are plenty of specialized tools that make it easy to cut complex 2D shapes out of tougher materials. Even if these tools are outside the price range of the individual inventor, the 3rd party costs for laser or water jet cutting are typically much less per cubic inch than 3D printing or CNC machine services.

 

 


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