prototyping vs simulations_21

This article is a transcription of the #21 episode of IDology - the industrial design podcast by Mindsailors. You can watch the entire episode on YouTube or listen to the audio version on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.

In this episode, our company’s COO, Voytek Holysz, met with a senior industrial designer, Mikołaj Wiewióra, and a mechanical design engineer, Piotr Dalewski, to talk about differences between industrial design prototyping and simulations, their significance and role.

Voytek Holysz: I remember we’ve had a quite prolonged discussion about the process of designing and the dynamics of the process of designing basically, that’s a different podcast episode. But during that conversation, we also talked about prototyping and simulations, which are responsible for quite a lot of the dynamics during designing. It’s an interesting topic itself. So let’s just talk about it. So starting from the basics, let’s go with prototyping, maybe. What is a prototype and what is prototyping about?

Piotr Dalewski: Well, before we start, I would like to say that we need to be aware that the introductions of new products are great investments for our customers and the main costs of these investments are manufacturing and tooling costs. However, these costs are dependable on design costs. So it’s easy to notice that poor design equals large manufacturing costs, we have to repair them, fix them. In order to avoid excessive introduction costs, we need to develop flawless products. But as I noticed, from my experience, the work of a design engineer is full of questions, sometimes hesitations. And to make our work easier, we prepare prototypes to test our design assumptions.

Voytek: So, I guess, from my perspective, I’m not a designer myself… That sort of sounds something like, more or less might be considered a simulation as well, but it’s not. So when do we prototype? And when do we use simulations?

Mikołaj Wiewióra: I would say, you should always do some kind of prototyping or simulations. It depends on the situation, it depends on the project that you’re working on. But the rule of thumb should be that with each iteration, or with each question that you have, just before attempting to manufacture something, let’s prototype it first. You will be able to answer a lot of questions that already are stated. But sometimes you will have more questions that will be answered during the prototype testing, like you have the prototype, and you can test it, and you will have more information that you wanted to gain.

Voytek: That’s actually sort of a question I wanted to ask. So I assume from the perspective of a client, who ordered the design, a prototype might be something different than it is for you, as a designer? So what is a prototype for you in your process?

Mikołaj: A prototype for a designer is physical evidence of being right or wrong in some kind of understanding.

Voytek: My wife is the physical evidence that I am wrong, always. <laughter>

Piotr: I believe there’s not one particular definition of a prototype but I would like to think that this is a physical object, the device or part of the device that allows us to validate some design assumptions, or even give us more data about something, about the issues we didn’t consider the first time. So while assembling the prototype, we can rethink the assembly process, for example.

Mikołaj: Certainly, of course. I think that prototyping serves clients: it is usually a visual prototype, like how does this thing look physically? On the screen in the presentation, when we show beautiful renderings to the client, there is one thing missing in those slides: It’s scale factor. We usually tend to miss the scale that we see on the screen versus the scale of the physical prototype.

Voytek: You mean like, even when a visual has some scale to it like, I don’t know, there’s a mug next to a product or a car next to a product, it’s still not the same as witnessing it in real, physical life.

Mikołaj: Yes. Having a visual in context, of course helps. But still, it’s not the same as a physical prototype. So, this is the main function of a prototype for clients, usually. However, when we are speaking about so-called functional prototypes, we want them to serve us as a source of crucial information right before we are attempting to DFM or any other process that leads this project to manufacturing. Because we want to know not only about the physical properties of materials, how the assembly goes, if it goes well or wrong. But also, how it feels, for example, to push a button on this prototype. If you have some tactile buttons on it, you have to feel with your fingers, or hear, how it clicks? There are even designers for acoustics for cars, how the doors shut. So it is important to prototype the whole product and its certain features, so that you will have the answer before attempting to manufacture something. That’s, I believe, one of the most important things in prototyping for designers.

Voytek: Well, that’s something actually… As I've mentioned before, I’m not a designer, so I’ve always imagined it like that: It’s sort of like professional science in a way. First, you have a theory, you theorize about it, you write it down, you do the calculations, but still, you have to test it to see if your theory is right. That’s like prototyping for me: you test whether your previous assumptions are provable on the pure basics, it’s like a proof of concept, but the further you go in the process, the more concrete those tests sort of become, but we also need to distinguish them from simulations. So, when are our prototypes the way to go, and when not?

Piotr: Sometimes the designer must face some limits when it comes to technology of prototype manufacturing. Iin the design process, we are not able to mirror the properties of a finished product with the prototype product, but it is crucial to find the most suitable solution, the golden point between them to have an exact prototype to test those conditions, conditions of use or environmental issues. So when the project is too big, or the investment to create the prototype is too large, we’re using simulations to solve our doubts.

Voytek: Can you give me some examples of what sort of product would make sense to a prototype and what sort of product would make more sense to run simulations?

Piotr: We’re using simulations when we are looking for some kind of features, some kind of physical value, like for example, the stress, bending moments or heat transfer or magnetic flux. So these are the calculations that allow us to find some features, some values that we’re going to use in our design that we need to include.

Voytek: Okay, so if I understand correctly, such simulations often go in pair with prototyping, they’re not exclusive that you either run simulations or prototype?

Piotr: Our projects are quite diverse. So, in some cases, we only prototype. In some cases, we only do simulations, but often we use both of them. For example, injection molded parts. These are many housings of our products. And at the first stage, we were doing the prototype just to assess, for example, ergonomics, if it’s comfortable to use some kind of item. So, this is the one case of using the prototype. The second, more advanced prototype, would test the mechanical features. So in that case, we’re going to use precise 3D prints that mirror the properties of injection molded material. So towards the product development, we’re trying to get the most similar prototype to the product we want to finally achieve. But when we design those parts, we can also do some analysis, like stress analysis, if this part will be durable enough, or the other analysis, injection molding analysis. These analyses help us to find the golden point between the design and the process. So we need to include the geometry of the part, that heat transfer and the flow of molten plastic. And when we’re prototyping, there’s one big disadvantage that the prototype might be destroyed during tests. So we can bend the part, and it will break. But for example, if we use the finite element analysis, and with software calculation, we can do a number of simulations and each with a different variant. So for example, we can test the different thickness of the part. Then we can have some conclusions that allow us to choose the best choice for our purpose.

Mikołaj: Okay, maybe right before going deep into simulations, let’s turn back to prototypes, because I think that we forget about some examples on what materials can be used for prototyping. We’ve mentioned injection molded parts, and we’ve mentioned 3D prints. But the world of prototyping doesn’t stop on 3D printing. Even 10 years ago…

Voytek: It doesn’t even start there.

Mikołaj: Yeah. <laughter> It doesn’t even start there. It can be a CAD model so to say it’s Cardboard Aided Design. It can be a simple wooden piece that is carved with a knife or any other hardware tools that you have in your workshop. So that you will find the perfect balance between ergonomics and proportions, maybe. You can even use some foams, like hard foams to even sculpt the part even easier than it was with wood. So there were a lot of iterations of products that required ergonomics, or some basic functionalities made out of foam in our studio, because it’s the simplest way to achieve the goal. We didn’t care about the mass, we didn’t care about the overall style for now, but we did care about ergonomics, we did care about packing the right things inside, like batteries, like PCBs and anything else so that we could establish the form around the things that are inside. This helps a lot, especially in handheld products. But there might be even different things. For example, my beloved automotive industry is using clay. Not because it’s cheap, not because it’s robust because it has a lot of processing to do before you get the result. But this is still one of the fastest ways to have mutual understanding between designer and surface designer of what is going to be achieved during the design process because designers in the automotive industry are a little bit different than us, industrial designers. They do care about that style a lot but they have their teammates that care about ergonomics, they care about regulations. So there are a lot of different specializations in this area and people have to meet around this sculpted car. In our business, this is a little bit different. Of course, we need specialists in different areas. But still, style is just a piece of this design process.

Voytek: You think it’s so different because it sounds like it’s exactly the same but on a different scale? Like a car is basically a ton of products put together.

Mikołaj: A car is a ton of different products, but sometimes details play a role in this area. I think that some lines on a car body might resemble surface finishing in an industrial design product, like you’ve got a pattern on the handle of the device. And you do care a lot about this pattern but not right before establishing the form. This pattern is a detail. Such lines in the car industry are sometimes details but sometimes they are important to make this body rigid. So the play is crucial here. That’s why the automotive industry plays with quite a lot, they do some fine detailing and they turn front and back between 3D model and clay model. In our profession, it’s a little bit different. Once we turn our foam or even clay models into 3D, we tend to stay in 3D. We tend to prototype things by means of 3D printing, by means of CNC machining, because this is more precise for us and allow us to test even more than the clay models because we wouldn’t be able to find out how to assemble things with clay, simply so it’s similar, but I believe it’s a little bit different.

Voytek: Okay.

Piotr: Well, what I would like to add about the prototypes in our industry is that they should be physical objects. We are gaining additional new knowledge to develop the product, I mean, the specialized prototypes we use in the end of the mechanical development process and these prototypes also have to be manufactured. These are low volume production, so the cost of each prototype device is significantly higher than full volume production. But I consider it as an investment. We’re paying for the knowledge to avoid some problems. I like to think about prototyping as an insurance against the unpredicted accidents.

Mikołaj: Okay. It’s a good way of thinking, in my opinion, as well.

Voytek: And that’s also a good segway to get into simulations more because the cost of prototyping is one of the reasons why simulations are used. Right?

Mikołaj: Right. Sometimes it is even more difficult to prototype things when the size grows. Sometimes you need to design, not in our profession, but you have to design a bridge and you have to be sure that this bridge will withstand the force that it is going to withstand during its lifetime. So that’s why simulations and calculations are important. We had some projects with simulations inside of the project, because we thought that it would be easier to find the right proportions of the frame, for example. And the particular cross sections of the beams inside the frame, so that once we turn our project into a prototype, we are far more certain that this frame is going to be the right solution. So we could test different aspects of this prototype, not answering the questions if it withstands the force given. This is one of the reasons for doing simulations.

Piotr: The second reason I came up with is that not only the size is a problem, but also testing of a device, in some cases might cause many problems. For example, we need testing devices like some tensiometers to measure the forces, stress or deflections. So in some cases, it’s easier to calculate it, before we prototype it.

Voytek: Are simulations the same as prototypes in the sense that, I know you guys know how to create prototypes of your designs, but are you also the right people to run those types of simulations? Or is it a different sort of expertise?

Mikołaj: Of course, it’s a different field of expertise. As Piotr mentioned, finite elements method, it’s one of the ways to simulate things a physical world, but finite elements are for measuring forces, for measuring stresses. So for a particular part of simulations in the world, there are others, like light transferring in the light guide. It is another topic. We could simulate how the light guide transfers the light from its source to the end point by using ray tracing, for example. So this is a kind of simulation that we can do, because it requires us to master software that is used for renderings, for example, like KeyShot, so it’s pretty accurate. But if we are going to use the finite element method, of course, we know some basics but this is a completely new level of expertise. Especially, when you need to simulate an assembly. A simple beam is pretty easy. You’ve got no welds, you’ve got no connection points, like with bolts or anything else. But if it comes to a more complex form or system, you should definitely ask an expert to run the simulation. In simulations, there is a thing “what you put, is what you get”, so the good assumptions at the start will give you the right answers after finishing the simulation. If you run the simulation with bad assumptions or with bad prior conditions, you will have some answers because the simulation always runs and it plots some results, but these results may be unusable. That’s why it’s important to have an expert to run this simulation and assess the results whether they are correct or not.

Voytek: I’d like to get back to the question of when we should use physical prototypes and when we should simulate? Or when should we use them both?

Piotr: For this question, I have no exact one answer because everything depends on the project. For some products, we are not able to foresee the whole process, so we’re adjusting ourselves. Sometimes it’s easier to prototype, sometimes we need some extra calculations to validate our work. So basically, during product development, we are tailoring the process to achieve all the questions we need. What is important is that we have to have some kind of strategy for that. So sometimes it’s not efficient to buy the golden sample prototypes, they are pretty exact, but it’s easier to start with some initial calculations, initial simulations, and then we base our designs on the simulations. So there’s, like— I’m sorry to bother you but I don’t have an exact answer for that. <smiles>

Voytek: No problem. <laughter>

Mikołaj: Yeah, but there’s one thing that is common for prototyping as well as simulations. This common thing is the notion of validation. We have to understand something new or learn something new from each iteration of simulation or prototype. Without this simple idea, any prototype or any simulation is a waste of time and waste of money. That’s why it’s important to have, as you said, a strategy for prototyping. The strategy usually evolves during the project, it’s not possible to predict how prototyping or simulation will look during the product development. But we will certainly come to ideas on which parts of the project should be prototyped or which parts might be simulated because it will be more efficient. So the idea of evaluation is to learn something new from each iteration of the prototype. This gives us more information to develop a better product. Once we know the answer for our questions, and once we feel the prototype, we know when to adjust our trajectory of development. There is no easy way to answer your previous question. There is no easy way to say that, “We need, for example, three prototypes to achieve the best product.” Sometimes three prototypes are enough for a simple product, but there are times or products that need several hundreds of prototypes. It rarely happens in this world for now. But I’m pretty sure that big companies that have millions or billions of dollars of budget for developing new products still do this path, like, “What is the best product or the best solution for the problem stated in our company to serve our clients?” Smaller companies, startups usually don’t have this much time and this much money to spend a lot of time on small iterations. So we try to squeeze the iterations to be as little as possible, yet informative, and being purposeful. This is something very important in our design life. You’ve also mentioned the golden sample. I think that we could clarify a little bit about the golden sample. The golden sample is something that resembles a product to its fullest, like, it has the same surface finishing, it has the same weight, it has probably the same materials even so that this serves you as a presentation of your product in a physical world, so that you could place it on the table or put it in a room, because sometimes it’s too big to be placed on the table, to say that, “This is the best what we could achieve, to show you that this product will finally look like that.”

Voytek: It’s like a master copy.

Mikołaj: It’s like a master copy, yes. This is the end result of a lot of different iterations and sometimes simulations, right before you see this golden sample. So we don’t think that prototyping is just putting something beautiful on the table, and simulations but it’s a process of doing something really ugly sometimes, but worth doing because we know something more about it. That’s my answer to this overall problem on how to prototype or simulate, on when to do things together.

Voytek: Okay, you’ve mentioned a few times the cost and time needed to simulate or prototype. So I imagine, what you guys are saying is that it makes perfect sense for both simulations and prototyping to be obligatory in each design process. But still, the more we talk about the cost of both those processes, it sounds like it’s probably not always the case. Because every business is looking for some sort of savings during the design process. So what would you say about the necessity of both those processes in design projects?

Piotr: I consider both simulations and prototyping as tools in the product development process. So these tools are actually the investment to develop the product, and the role of an expert is to choose which tools are the best for our work, for our project. So, if we want to spare some money in a short amount of time, and not spend enough on high quality tools, we cannot expect the high quality results. So in the short term, it might seem like a saving but actually, we’re losing our insurance, our investment, and that might cause very problems or delays or even stop the project.

Voytek: Okay.

Mikołaj: Yes, without prototyping the risk of failing is significantly bigger. You cannot assume, in the physical world especially, that something that you’ve designed in a CAD system or in any other non-physical way, so to say, that the result will be perfect for the first time. It rarely happens, especially when each product is different. If we say that we are manufacturers of glass cups or injection molded cups that when the wall thickness is known for us, it will be probably a little bit easier to predict which design will go well or which design will fail. But, come on, we are not manufacturing cups all the time. So, even if we are prototyping, or running a prototyping series, when you find out that the material that you used all the time is a bit different this time because you’ve ordered the material from a different vendor. And you’ve got different properties of this material and you have to adjust the injection molding process a little bit. This requires prototyping, or finding the perfect or optimal conditions for manufacturing this product within the given material, within given molds, tools, anything else. So that’s another aspect, I think, of the notion of prototyping.

Piotr: Yes, I think one of the roles of the designer is to limit the risk of their designs, we have to be sure and responsible for our designs, for our products. And if we keep that risk, and pass it into the next phase, the manufacturing phase, the cost of eliminating those risks will grow exponentially.

Mikołaj: I’ve got a metaphor, maybe, to summarize this idea. Let’s assume that you are a beginner runner, you’d like to take the risk of running a marathon and finish the marathon in four hours. How certain are you that you will finish this without even running a short distance, without checking your performance, your abilities and your tools that you have? Like shoes, water holders, that you can use. So how certain are you? You can assume that you will finish this marathon because 10 or 20 years ago, you were able to run five kilometers in few minutes or– 

Voytek: In a short period of time.

Mikołaj: In a short period of time. But time has passed, you are a different person. And you have to so-to-say, prototype this process on how to run the marathon without running the marathon.

Voytek: Quite a few people do practice and are very sure that they will finish the marathon and they still don’t. So even when you think you’re prepared, you still need to calculate like you said, there are risks and there’s always something to test.

Mikołaj: Yes, that’s why this metaphor is I think, pretty decent because we minimize the risk. Something wrong can always happen in the area that we didn’t test or we didn’t predict. But the more we prototype, the more we look for solutions and the more experience we have as experts, as a company the risks are also reduced to a minimum level. But still, running the design process is like running a marathon. You have to be prepared, you have to constantly check whether you are on a good path or not. Because you might turn in the wrong path and you will run eventually, but not to the finish point, but to something much different.



Piotr Dalewski is a mechanical design engineer at Mindsailors, places emphasis on manufacturability, design for assembly, and product optimization within the value engineering approach throughout the R&D process.








Mikołaj Wiewióra is a senior industrial designer at Mindsailors. He has extensive experience in leading teams of designers and engineers on all stages of the design process.








Voytek Holysz is the COO of Mindsailors with 16 years of experience in running a business in creative B2B services, marketing, sales and video production.

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