Foamcore and foam – exploring form

This is the third post in my prototyping and manufacturing series.

Once the technology (sort of) works, you are ready to move on to experimenting with form.  You need two resources:

  1. An industrial designer who understands human factors and ergonomics
  2. A way to make a lot of physical mockups quickly to narrow your choices, before you do any packaging engineering.

I’ll state my bias right away. I believe that all but the most utilitarian products deserve to be mocked up physically before detailed part design begins.  This is because physical products interact with end users and with their physical environment. You simply cannot get a good sense of how it will feel and look until you have seen it and handled it in the flesh.  This is particularly true for hand held products.  Foamcore and foam are unbeatable for this quest, in that they are super cheap, and facilitates super fast turnaround.

Oh, you can argue you get even better turnaround if you own your own 3D printer.  But you first have to CAD it up and then wait for it to print.  You simply aren’t going to win on elapsed time per prototype.  If you are even mildly trained in working with foamcore and foam, you can do many more iterations of rough form prototypes than if you used 3D printing (for which there is a time… after foamcore and foam).

For the Zeemote example, we started with foamcore.  Foamcore is a great invention.  It costs only $3 or $4 for a 2′ x 3′ sheet.  Anyone with a steel ruler and a sharp blade on an Xacto knife can cut it into any shape.  You can make 30 hand held prototypes in a matter of hours for under $10.

Handheld models made from a $3 sheet of foamcore in less than 2 hours
Handheld models made from a $3 sheet of foamcore in less than 2 hours
Testing a foamcore model in the hand
Testing a foamcore model

Foamcore is particularly good at mocking up sheet metal housing for large industrial machines, which are too big to mock up using foam. It holds up a lot better than any kind of corrugated cardboard, and it provides instant feedback on the volume it will occupy.  This example doesn’t show the power of foamcore in that type of application, but imagine designing a new desktop waterjet cutter – foamcore would be the fastest way to mock up the housing and get a handle on whether the desktop footprint would fly.

At some point, however, foamcore’s 2D aspect starts to limit its utility.  If you have a 3D object with organic forms, you will need something more volumetric to continue the form exploration.  Before 3D printing, foam is the traditional way industrial designers used to experiment with form. A skilled modeller can create almost anything from yellow foam using specialized tools.  Anyone else can take any other kind of foam and start cutting, hot wiring and sanding it down to help you get a handle on your options.

Foam models
Foam models
Foam model of hand held product
Testing a foam model

The use of foamcore and foam is old school – it is how everyone used to design 20 years ago, when there are no cost effective digital alternatives.  There is a level of craftsmanship in sculpting a piece of clay that is very satisfying.  However, the flip side of handcrafting foam models with a subtractive process (cutting and sanding from a blank) is that there is no good way to replicate anything or tweak anything to make anything bigger. Also, foam is great for quick hacks but adding details can get exponentially slower.  This is where CAID (computer aided industrial design) and CAD (computer aided design), coupled with additive processes like 3D printing or SLA/SLS processes come in.  That is the topic for the next post.


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