protoTYPING: How to use a smartphone when prototyping

protoTYPING: How to use a smartphone when prototyping

Five ways your smartphone can help you build your next prototype

If it were not for the advent of the phone, I would have never made it to the senior prom. I was an introverted kid and there was no way that I was going to ask Robyn face?to face. Not a chance.

Robyn was a future architect whom I played the clarinet with in the school band, and far better at the clarinet than I was. We had plenty of awkward conversations about things like the arrangement of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” that we played at football half times or what size reeds we used, but I was still way too nervous to ask her face to face.

In 1998, the only other communication tool was the landline telephone, and that was how I was going to get my prom date. One small problem. I didn’t know her number and was too chicken to ask. Fortunately, I found out her parents’ name from one of her friends and was able to pull the right number from the phone book. One night, after giving myself a pep-talk, I snuck the cordless phone upstairs into my room and made the call. I remember nothing of the conversation besides being extremely nervous and being excited to be off the phone with a “yes.”

Prom night.

A phone was extremely useful in getting me a date to the prom and they can be of great importance on your next prototype. Fortunately, the current generation of smartphones is a good bit more powerful than the cordless phone at my parents’ house and they can be immensely useful in helping to bring your next product to market.

Here are 5 ways your smartphone can help your prototyping efforts.

Taking Notes

Every inventor should have a notebook to record their ideas and prototypes. Before the recent patent changes from first-to-invent to first-to-file, it was crucial to have hard copies of patentable inventions that were signed and dated. This is less important now, and taking notes on your smartphone is a great way to record ideas when the moment strikes. Typed notes, photos and videos are all great ways to record the details of your prototypes with your phone. Just make sure to push them to the cloud or back them up on another computer for safe keeping, but do not publish proprietary info to social media or public sites.

Measurement Tool

Smartphones provide some interesting ways to take measurements from your prototypes. Angle finder apps use the accelerometer inside the phone to measure the angle of whatever it is held against. The stopwatch app is also useful for prototyping as it can time events or help keep track of cure times for molds.

Besides the sensors inside the phone, there are add-on sensors that can be used to make measurements. One of our favorites is the Flir ONE thermal imaging camera. It plugs into a phone and takes photos that show the temperature of the objects in the frame.

FLIR ONE thermal imager

FLIR ONE thermal imager


Smartphones are even capable of running computer-aided design (CAD) programs. While the processor inside the phone is not quite fast enough to run a CAD program on its own, it can leverage cloud computing for the backend computations while the phone is the viewing portal and user input device. Onshape is a powerful cloud-based CAD software that was originally developed for computers. However, they have just released an app-based version that is one of the most fully featured CAD programs available for smart phones. If Onshape is beyond your capabilities, there are other app-based CAD programs like AutoCAD 360 that allow you to create dimensioned 2D drawings that can be shared and exported for making prototype parts.

OnShape CAD app

OnShape CAD app

3D Scanning

Sometimes it is helpful to have a 3D scan of a part or a prototype to replicate with a 3D printer, and your phone can help you do the scanning. There are number of apps that use the phone’s internal camera to generate a file like Scann3D and Autodesk ReCap360. These take a burst of photos to create a CAD file of the object being scanned. There are also third party scanning devices that interface with the phone that offer better accuracy. The $399 3D Systems iSense attaches to iPhones and iPads and boasts 1mm resolution at a scanning distance of .5 meter.

iSense 3D scanner by 3D Systems

iSense 3D scanner by 3D Systems


For as much computing power and fancy apps that our phones can run, they cannot do everything. Sometimes you just need a screwdriver. The solution, of course, is to get a phone case that has a tool kit built into it. The TSA-approved IN1 multi-tool phone case has eight tools housed inside its polycarbonate shell including both Phillips and flat head screwdrivers and a pair of scissors.

IN1 multi-tool utility case

IN1 multi-tool utility case

Maybe there really is nothing your smartphone cannot do.

Also published on Medium.

2 Comments protoTYPING: How to use a smartphone when prototyping

  1. Ralph M

    Wow Jeremy- great post! Might I add that FLIR camera was over 9 grand just a few years ago… now it’s a cell phone commodity for 250 bucks.

    3D printing tip: Use your FLIR imagery (like the awesome FLIR ONE above) to see where the hot/cold spots are in your printer and materials. This way you can alter your setup or hardware to get more consistent results with the materials you are printing with.

  2. Derrick James

    Didn’t know that you could do thermal imaging and 3D scanning with your phone. Thanks for the info Jeremy.

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