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Works-like / Looks-like

The role of model making in product design

How do you sell a new design without having something to hold? Sure, elevator pitches are great, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, your clients and customers deserve to touch the real thing... well almost the real thing.

For 50 years now KEK Associates has employed professional model makers to help our clients visualize and market their ideas without the investment in expensive tooling. From proof-of-concept breadboards to models only a discerning eye could differentiate from production parts, model makers help us see the potential in ideas.

What is model making?

In the broadest sense, model making spans quite a few industries. You might be familiar with the popular scale model kits of your favorite cars, planes, ships, and military equipment so many of us grew up with. The hobby form of model making has seen a recent rebirth with the explosion of tabletop gaming and more recently with all of us stuck at home looking for something to do. For the die-hard enthusiasts, model kits can take weeks or months to finish.

It's not so different with product development model making. Our professional model makers start from scratch on every project to deliver exactly what our clients need.

More widely known is the movie prop industry. An object might only be on screen for a couple of seconds, but it can break our immersion in the film if it's not done well. Did that axe the villain was carrying bend in half just like rubber? It likely was. Like movie props, product design model making must be convincing enough to draw us into their worlds, but also be suited to their application.

For movie props, materials are often chosen for the safety of the actors on set, like a rubber axe. Product model materials are determined by the objective of the model, not necessarily its accuracy to reality. See that giant trade show model of that x-ray machine? It's likely foam and plywood underneath that beautiful shell. These materials make the model lighter to ship, easier to repair, and cheaper to build. A professional model maker's ability to turn common hardware-store materials into convincing production parts saves our clients thousands on labor, material cost, tooling, and shipping.

Beyond comparisons to our favorite hobbies and entertainment, professional model making is extraordinarily valuable to the design process itself. Scale and appearance models are great educational tools with a powerful visual impact. After napkin sketches and initial CAD, a high quality model is a gut-check on production realities, ergonomics, and visual appeal of a product.

While flashy product renders are great for early refinement, being able to hold a model is sometimes the first real sense we have of a product. Over our 5 decades of designing products, countless design and engineering problems have been caught early because of a model.

These different checks on the product design are often split into individual models depending on a client's budget, timeline, or project focus. For example, when designing handheld medical products, a designated phase for quick and cheap ergonomic models early in the process is always advised. These physical checks reshape the direction of product development and lead to the perfect solution faster.

After the form of a product is nailed down, models are the perfect canvas for experimentation with color, material, and finish (CMF). Multiple models show graphic and color variations side by side and can be examined in a variety of lighting environments. With multiples shipped out, clients with several offices working on the same project can compare notes in real time.

Especially useful for designs like room-sized medical devices, small scale CMF models can show color variations without the costs of full-scale. Model making remains just as valuable once the design is done. Scale models are visually impactful, educational tools for customers and powerful marketing tools at trade shows.

What are the different types of product development models?

The first step in model making is to determine the goal of the model. Is this model to show how a technology works? Is it to show what a product looks like? Is it to sell a product to investors?

At KEK, the process always starts with an in-depth conversation with the client to make a custom plan for every model. We work within our clients budgets and timelines to determine how to build a model that meets their objectives.

Internally, we classify models within two main categories: works-like and looks-like. Ergonomic models, breadboarded mechanical designs, and unfinished form studies are in the former and CMF studies and scale trade-show models are in the latter.

There is, naturally, a third category too: Works-like + looks-like. Works-like + looks-like models are often what most of us think of as prototypes. For consumer electronics, this means fully functional internal electronics wrapped in a beautifully painted and finished enclosure. Intended as a preview of a manufactured product, works-like + looks-like models can be used to gauge customer interest in a design, raise more funding for further iterations, real-world test a product, or all of the above.

Based on a client's budget and timeline, a wide variety of processes are used to make models. Between CNC machining, urethane casting, 3D printing, and hand finishing, our professional model makers will help pick the process best suited to the project. Quantity isn't a limiting factor either. Our facilities let us make one off prototypes or scale up to small-run production. This flexibility gets the right model to the right price.

Next up we'll take a look at some recent work for our clients and how model making led to a successful product.


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