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Models and Prototypes 101

Product design is an iterative process. Models are a critical part of that process.

They allow designers and engineers to interact with a concept in a tangible way, identifying flaws and opportunities for improvement throughout the development journey.

Models come at all stages of fidelity – from a three-dimensional object made of paper to a fully operational prototype. Our Shop produces models at all stages of development to help keep the process moving. We’ve created everything from models that fit in the palm of your hand to two-story plywood sets for user testing.

Here are a few types of models that we make and use most frequently:

Sketch Model

This is a 3D version of a hand sketch. Sketch models are typically made out of paper, cardboard, foam core or pink foam using simple tools such as an X-ACTO knife, straight edge and a hot-melt glue gun.

Form Study Model

Form study models show size, shape, proportion, spatial relationships and surface contours. They are particularly useful in early assessment of initial aesthetic considerations of multiple concepts. These models can be hand sculpted or machined out of urethane foam, RenShape and clay.

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Sketch models are made of simple materials like cardboard, paper, tape and glue to get a sense of what an idea might look like in three dimensions.
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A form study model is typically made from foam and shows size, shape and contours of a design concept.
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This proof of principle model for a condiment dispenser was focused on the mechanics and used to find functional faults in the design.
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Anesthesiologists interacted with this user experience model to provide valuable insight for development of the Spacelabs Arkon anesthesia system.
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This visual model has a high degree of design fidelity but is not a functional prototype.
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This prototype had the full functionality of what became the Diversey ZipClean robot.

User Experience Model

A user experience model invites active human interaction and is primarily used to support user-focused research. This type of model allows early assessment of how a potential user interacts with various elements, motions and actions of a concept that define the use scenario and overall user experience. Materials typically include plywood, RenShape, rapid prototype (RP) parts and Computer Numerical Control (CNC)-machined components.

Visual Model

A visual model is used to convey the desired aesthetic design intent. Generally non-functional, they demonstrate the appearance of materials, finishes, colors, textures, graphics and lighting. Extensive use of RP parts and CNC machining is common in the making of a visual model. Materials typically include RenShape, plywood, plastics and metals.

Proof of Principle Model (POP)

A Proof of principle model is intended to demonstrate the intended mechanical function and operation of a given concept. These models are considered part of the design experimentation and learning process and may not work exactly as intended or anticipated. They are often used to identify which design options will not work or where further development and testing is necessary. Aesthetics treatments are not addressed with a POP. RP parts, CNC machining, manual fabrication and a range of materials are used to create these models.


A prototype is the most involved, complex and complete form of a 3D artifact that’s created as part of the development process. A prototype attempts to simulate the final design, aesthetics, materials and functionality of the intended design. While substitutions are typically made for production-intent materials and processes, a prototype is an accurate representation of the final product. Depending on the project requirements and degree of refinements, multiple iterations are common. Prototypes can include the use of RP processes, CNC machining, manual fabrication and vendor-specific services or components.

Depending on the type and complexity of a project, we may use several types of models throughout the development process. Click on the slideshow below to see examples from our Shop.

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