Introduction: Prototyping a Marketable Product Using Blender 3D Open Source Animation Software
This is a project I've been working on is called the U.S.C.Etch (pronounced you-sketch) which is short for Universal Surface Compound Etcher, and is a tool designed to etch on any surface using chemical free, micro abrasive etchant. It's based on an instructable for a glass etching tool, that I'd created some time ago. When I first created the instructable, I was simply trying to create a cost effective version of a different tool, but as I progressed, I saw that there was serious room for improvement in the design, to give it more control and functionality as well as aesthetics. I also wanted to make it modular, in that it could be upgraded or repaired without any mechanical skill. This meant designing it with external parts that could be removed or replaced without the use of special tools or technical knowledge. Finally, It needed to be comfortable, incorporating a pistol shape for rough work, and pen shaped for fine detail, allowing for a greater range of movement. I had a lot of work ahead of me, so with that, I set to prototyping.
When you're prototyping a potential marketable product, it can be difficult if you don't have the facilities or resources to create your finished design. You may have a vision in your mind, but the reality is that a real world application of your design may not be feasible, especially if your working prototype doesn't bear a resemblance to your envisioned product. You need a way to test form and function and to ensure that parts will fit where you want them to fit without having to shoehorn them into place because of bad planning, ruining the overall form and severely altering your imagined design.
Step 1: Tools and Supplies
This is a side by side physical/virtual build where function is created in the workshop and form is created on the computer screen. This allows for real world testing and application, of your design, while ensuring that overall design spec. conforms to your predetermined vision of your project.
- Blender 3D Open Source Animation Software - You can download Blender for free from here; Blender 3D
- Workshop - You need a location to prototype
- External Learning Resources - I'll cover that in the next step
- Parts for your prototype
- Printer/paper - Hardcopy of your 3d design for workshop reference
Step 2: Planning Your Prototype
Step 1, as always is knowing what you want to build. Traditionally, before I start a project I've always drawn it out in Windows Paint. Yes...I DO use windows paint, but for the reason that its relatively simple to use and and can give you a quick hardcopy of the design in your mind.
An update to that, is to use Autodesk Sketchbook, which is available in the Google Play Store and the App Store. This is a huge advantage since you can edit your design on the fly, and upload it to the cloud, accessing it from any device. It's particularly useful in that it doesn't tie you down to one computer, allowing you to work on it anywhere you may be, while affording you the ability to show anyone your project on the fly.
This is the third prototype I've created, and easily the most complex. As a process, I tend to gather parts, needed or not, into huge bins for potential use. Essentially, by the time construction happens I've picked multiples of each projected piece. I.E. If I need a hose, I'll get 6 different hoses. If I need valve, I'll grab six of those. etc. Parts I can't find, or purchase locally I'll build, but plan for their commercially manufactured part in the final design.
Step 3: Learning How to Use Blender
The learning curve, for a new piece of software can be pretty steep, especially when you're learning to manipulate objects in a 3D environment. Initially, I was overwhelmed trying to learn as much as I could about Blender's workings and was near quitting until I had a bit of a revelation. I realized that I didn't need to understand all of Blender, only the parts that I would need to create my project.
Each part and piece became a different tutorial. If I needed a chrome bottle, I'd research Youtube for a blender project that created a chrome bottle. If I needed a hose, I'd find a video on creating hoses. If I wanted a rotating camera, there was a video for that as well. Breaking down my project like this meant that the only thing I truly had to commit to memory were the keys needed to navigate the 3D world. Everything else could be researched on the fly and applied as necessary.
Here's a link to one Youtube user named tutor4u that created some of the most useful tutorials for me. His realistic chain video taught me the process of chroming, and the ice video came in handy when I was trying to create transparent hoses. Interestingly, the creation of the hose itself is based on the handle of his coffee mug tutorial that uses a curve path to create a rough shape then change its geometry to the preferred shape.
Step 4: Cycles Render VS. Blender Render
This is a matter of personal preference, but it's essential that you decide which you're going to use prior to starting your Blender project. As a matter of opinion, I'd suggest using cycles render as much of the tutorials I've recommended, thus far, rely on that render option. Likewise, many of the free textures and models I've come across use cycles render and so it presented a more logical choice for my project.
Here's a link that will explain in greater detail the differences between the two; http://blender.stackexchange.com/questions/5820/how-is-cycles-different-from-blender-internal
Whatever render option you choose, you will need to stick to it throughout your project so I'd suggest exploring what you would like your final prototype model to look like, and go from there.
Step 5: Models and Textures
There are plenty of videos, online, that will teach you how to create your own textures using Blender's resources and/or photographs of your choosing. As mentioned before, the texture for the hoses in my etching tool model were based on the ice tutorial created by tutor4u's Youtube channel. This can be a time consuming process, however it does add some individuality to your project.
Luckily, there are plenty of resources, available, that offer free 3D Models that you can use in your project, or textures that you can use to skin it. One of the most useful sites I've found is called 3D Cadnav, and hosts hundreds of models and textures that you can download for free.
Step 6: Details, Details, Details
Though it's the outward appearance that most will see, it's important, in your 3D model that you detail all of the workings, and not just the exterior textured image. Parts that are internal to your prototype are especially important as you'll need to see how they fit into your finished design, and not end up surprised, later on should you have made a mistake in planning.
As you can see in the image, I've blocked some of the more important parts (the mixing chamber) of my project from view by texturing over them. That's because it is an extremely unique design that I don't want to display openly just yet, or at least until the final prototype is built. However, you'll notice that many of the internals are in place, with a few left to be created. In the final model, all of the internals will be visible in the wireframe for a detailed construction of the prototype.
Inevitably, this will leave less room for error in the final build.
Step 7: Final Thoughts
Through the process of physical/virtual prototyping there's the advantage of having a working model of your project, with a virtual representation of its final form The advantage being that design issues are dealt with before the final prototype is produced and not surprising you down the line, potentially jeopardizing your project.
As mentioned in the beginning, this is an ongoing project with the inevitable goal of creating kickstarter campaign to elicit funds to further my work. Unlike many campaigns, it isn't simply a virtual (and often impractical) idea that attains funding, but ends up disappearing into the woodwork, never to be seen again, which seems to be a real issue these days.
Having a working/virtual prototype tells potential investors that you have an idea, you've developed it fully, but have also ironed out all of the details ensuring a seamless progression into production, leaving nothing to chance.
As usual, I hope you've enjoyed the instructable. Thanks for following.