10 Things to Know When Working with a Freelance Prototype Designer

10 Things to Know When Prototyping with a Freelance CAD Designer

In this day and age, many companies are taking advantage of the opportunity to use rapid prototyping companies and freelance CAD designers because of their availability, cost efficiency, and productivity.

For many companies, it is inefficient to do the work of designing a new product, creating a prototype, and then performing all the necessary subsequent testing in-house. Any company can reach out and acquire the services of any number of freelance designers, rapid prototyping services, and small-batch manufacturers.

With the variability inherent in a process like this, it is necessary to find the best designers and producers in the market so that you can create the best possible product. Now, as a manufacturer or product designer yourself, you may think that it’s unnecessary to hire an outside designer or company to create a prototype for you, and if that’s your final decision, that’s quite alright. However, there are numerous benefits to using freelance product designers, as well as outsourcing your prototyping to other companies, and some very well-respected companies have seen the benefit to these options as well.

For instance, Fender Musical Instruments has turned to rapid prototype design when working on new product development. Fender, a leader in musical innovation and technology, has worked with musicians like Eric Clapton and John Mayer, designing and selling some of the most recognizable guitars, basses, and amplifiers on the planet. They are well known for creating unique and innovative designs in their instruments, being the company that revolutionized the electric guitar for the general population. Now, they’re using rapid prototyping, freelance design, and 3D printing to come up with their innovative styles and groundbreaking looks.

If freelance design and rapid prototyping are good enough for these companies, it can be a great benefit to yours as well. But before entering into any sort of contract with a company to do this sort of work, it’s best to ensure you know what you’re getting yourself into. Knowing all of your options and being able to ask the right questions going in will help you make educated decisions and create the best part. Here are ten things to know when working with a freelance designer or rapid prototyping company.

1) Rapid prototyping is not just 3D printing

A desktop CNC machine.
Photo by Andrew Plumb. (CC BY 2.0)

There is so much more to rapid prototyping than 3D printing. When you want to create a product, no matter what it is, companies that perform rapid prototyping and small-batch manufacturing can produce anything you want in a matter of several hours. Obviously, 3D printing is an important prototype tool because of its ease of use and its widespread availability, but there is much more to it.

With the incorporation of CNC machines and lathing techniques, you can create rapid prototypes with any material, from wood and metal to plastic, and now, even in some cases, fabrics. The rapid prototyping process has expanded to include techniques that will print or weave textiles rapidly from raw materials, creating immediate samples of clothing in hours without having to set up the machinery that is necessary for the manufacturing process – which is vast.

But in addition to this wide variety, prototyping companies themselves have small systems to produce some of the integrated products you need, which can be far more complex than a simple shaped part or article of clothing. No, a rapid prototyping company can design integrated circuit boards, create complex machinery, and even produce fixtures and dyes so that you can continue to manufacture your part continuously in the future.

We trap ourselves in a box when we fail to mention the other possibilities rapid prototyping opens up for us because there is a vast array of options available. In fact, some models of GE Jet engines were created through rapid prototyping, which demonstrates the vast complexity that can be created with these processes.

They underwent testing and were installed on demonstration prototypes and succeeded in every way, leading to incredible jet engine performance that is now available on modern airliners. A number of Nike products have been designed using rapid prototyping, and there are even jewelry manufacturers that use rapid prototyping to design and create their products.

2) Consider product consulting, particularly if you already have the means in place to create a prototype

product consulting

If you don’t feel like you need to fully commit to using a rapid prototyping company or a 3D printing company, you may want to reach out for other options. Some companies offer product consulting expertise, which can be immensely valuable.

Product consulting is essentially prototyping and freelance design… without the design. When you need to discuss market analysis and competitive products, maybe perform some benchmark testing or product breakdowns, product consulting can come in handy. These freelance product design experts, many of whom have spent years working on similar products to the ones you need to make, can help you ideate and understand the needs of your customer and how to best achieve your results with your product.

You don’t necessarily always need the designer to come to you with a fully designed blueprint in hand, much less a working model of your product. Sometimes you just want to know the best way to do something or to be able to ask if your initial ideas will even work.

Companies like DEKA and Ideo, who make it seem like four-letter nonsense names are a prerequisite in this industry, specialize in product consulting. In fact, they’re the great minds behind the Segway, the Coca-Cola Freestyle (those machines in restaurants with roughly three hundred thousand different soda options), and the two-tiered shopping carts that have been invading grocery stores for the past few decades.

They take your problem with a product and stick it in a closed room with a dozen brilliant engineers and market researchers, throw in some coffee, and lock the door, opening it a while later to see what comes out. This has, obviously, led to some incredibly marketable and successful ideas, and it could be another avenue for your company to pursue.

3) Virtual prototyping is an option that can be created by many freelance designers


Take it one step further than we just mentioned. What if you want a design but don’t necessarily need a prototype? You can create a virtual prototype. 3D design services can create product design and sketch up concept models for you. Beyond that, however, they can make your product design realistic and lifelike, with the ability to run it through a number of tests. Programs like SolidWorks and Creo have incorporated new functionality that allows you to assign properties to components you have created and use those properties to perform product testing without having to actually manufacture the part.

Obviously, there are considerations when doing this sort of design and testing. You won’t be able to perfectly simulate the real world, as our technology hasn’t arrived at that point yet. Maybe in 20 years, virtual reality and augmented reality will have created a simulation universe where companies can run rigorous testing that perfectly captures the properties of the real world, but currently, there are limitations.

However, this can still give you opportunities to test products in a safe and cost-effective environment, without consuming the time to manufacture it. It also gives you the opportunity to redesign and retest immediately, because everything is virtual.

In the end, this option, especially compared with the product consulting option mentioned above, simply comes down to your company’s needs and its constraints. Be sure to have a frank and open discussion about what you’re looking for in a product design or rapid prototyping contract before you get started. In fact, discussing these options openly with the company or contractors with which you are working may open up a new world of possibilities that we haven’t even addressed here.

4) Interested in small-batch manufacturing? You’re not alone

Outsourcing small-batch manufacturing can keep your initial investment at a minimum.
Photo by Marcin Wichary. (CC BY 2.0)

What’s the next step after creating a prototype? Well, there’s rigorous testing and numerous rounds of trials that need to occur before you can properly market and sell real products. After the preliminary testing is complete and you have a product you want to sell to consumers, you’ll have to get it out there so the customer can test it and run some Beta testing. This will give you an idea of what works and doesn’t work with your product as well as how well it can sell to certain market segments and geographic reasons.

There are many reasons you may not want to produce the products for the Beta testing in your own facility. It’s possible you’re still not certain the product will sell well enough to be worth it. Or, potentially, you may not be ready for the machine requirements it will take to mass produce this item, either because you’re waiting for capital, equipment space, or some other reason.

Whatever the cause, you can choose to create small (relatively speaking) quantities of the product from an outside source, so that you won’t have to worry about the logistics and commitment prior to launching the product. You always want to make sure your product will fly before you commit to buying that new million-dollar machine to produce it.

Small-batch manufacturing is a growing trend that sees small companies partner with large manufacturers so they can produce limited quantities of products, either newly developed goods to test with consumers, or a limited run of a product for some other reason. Whatever the need, small-batch manufacturing is an excellent option.

This way, you can get the product designed, tested, and sent out to consumers for verifying and market analysis without having to make the massive in-house expenditures or committing the extra time to create it yourself. By this point, you will have a full-fledged product that is consumer tested waiting for you to commit to or redesign, without having to lift a finger.

5) Prototyping companies can create a finished, sleek product

Creating high-fidelity prototypes with 3D printing.
Photo by CHIPS.

You may think that prototyping, small-batch manufacturing, and freelance designing can be somewhat crude and rough in their final productions. However, this is no longer the case. With the wealth of technology available to businesses nowadays, companies of any size can create high-fidelity prototypes, which are sleek, elegant products with little investment and time spent.

For a good example of this, I’ll show you a company that has worked backwards when compared with the typical avenue of prototyping businesses. The company Quirky essentially outsources the ideation and product consulting to everyone. Quirky takes submissions of various product ideas – any product ideas.

From products that act as flexible, breathable covers for an AC unit to prevent leaves from clogging them up to a dog water fountain so you don’t have to leave a bowl out, Quirky accepts submissions and decides if they think the product is marketable. If so, it will send it through to a group of designers and mechanical engineer services who come up with the best design and solution for the issue raised. They discuss the product in detail and, after selecting several to work on every month, they create a prototype, and eventually sell it to outside manufacturing companies who sell directly to the consumer.

Of particular interest is their pinnacle of design, their most prominent product – Pivot Power. You may have seen this in Target or Bed Bath & Beyond, the Pivot Power is one of those shockingly simple product ideas that makes you say, “I could have done that myself!” and invariably makes someone else sarcastically respond “but, you didn’t.” It is a power strip with a joint next to each socket, allowing the device to pivot around corners, and even coil into a snakelike shape.

It has branched off into more dynamic and sturdy versions that can even coil around table legs to offer three dimensions of power access. And the product work is impeccable. It is a sleek, appealing product that entices consumers to purchase it. A prototyping company can offer you this sort of finished product – one that is elegant and impactful.

6) Verify certifications and memberships before working with a prototyping company

Verify the legitimacy and carefully read through the details of the contract before engaging the services of a prototyping company.

Another thing to consider when you are working with these companies is to verify everything. As they are outside contractors, you need to ensure that your intellectual property is secure with them and that you will have no qualms about ownership. You also need to verify their credentials to ensure that they can complete the work they are promising you.

Fortunately, resources like Cad Crowd can help you with those very things. All of the contractors who agree to work with Cad Crowd are vetted and verified, ensuring that their credentials are legitimate and they are capable workers. In many cases, the individuals are members of prestigious organizations or employment boards which proves their skill and credibility, giving you an added layer of security and stability.

Additionally, Cad Crowd ensures that your intellectual property is safeguarded for every eventuality because their goal is to protect you as their client. There are numerous stories about people on both sides of the equation getting duped and tricked out of either their intellectual property or their money after a deal went sour.

The university from which I graduated had a story just like this about a student who contributed an architecture assignment for a senior design project in the 1960s about the design of a new football stadium. The next year, a similar design was presented and won an award, eventually leading to sponsorship and construction on a football stadium that stands to this day.

The lead architect and designer on that project was the student’s Civil Engineering professor, to whom he handed the paper. Obviously, stories like this are anecdotal and hard to trace back to their roots, but there are too many of them for them all to be fabrications. It’s best to ensure that you and your intellectual property are safe and secure.

7) A good prototype design company can save you more time than you can imagine

A rapid prototyping technician working on high-fidelity prototypes.
Photo by CHIPS.

How “rapid” is rapid prototyping? How much time can you save? I guess the better question is, how much time do you need? When a rapid prototype takes on your project, and you leave the office, only to return the next morning with a package on your desk filled with a finished project, you’re going to need some ideas to pass the rest of the time allotted to your project. Might I suggest learning a new design software, since you will probably just have learned how useful it can be?

In reality, you likely won’t get a package back that quickly, but it’s probably more because of the speed at which mail delivery occurs than the rapidity of the prototyping process. On average, a 3D printer can produce a part or component in minutes and can create a finished, small scale product in several hours. The typical time to get a completed project back from a rapid prototyping company is several weeks, and that involves receipt of the necessary information, product design, prototyping, and preliminary testing.

At IMTS, the International Manufacturing Trade Show in Chicago in 2014, a company came with a booth set up to show the technological capabilities of rapid prototyping and 3D printing, especially in regard to the automotive industry. To prove their point, they set up a large-scale 3D printer, roughly ten feet by twelve feet, in their booth, and 3D printed every single component of a working car and assembled it by the end of the trade show. After the seven-day trade show ended, the employees at the booth got into the completed car, turned a key, and drove out of the event center. That kind of speed is what your company will gain access to when it works with a rapid prototyping or freelance designing company.

8) Do you need packaging developed? Prototyping can accomplish that as well

A prototype for beverage packaging.

Packaging is probably one of the most underrated aspects of design. In fact, I have met and worked with people who had exclusively studied packaging design and created a successful career out of it. One of those individuals was the highest paid, non-managerial engineer in a company of 120,000 global employees, so it’s safe to say it is a very valuable aspect of design.

One of the other packaging engineers I have encountered worked as a contractor with a small, relatively unknown company at the time, interested in portable drink mixes. As a freelance 3D modeling designer, she helped create a package that acts as a single-serve beverage mix container that can be easily stored and remains shelf-stable. That company, then relatively unknown, was called Crystal Light, and its packaging is what launched their company into becoming a nationally recognized brand. Packaging design is, needless to say, extremely vital for a product.

When you create your product, you will likely need to create some sort of packaging. Who better to work with the packaging than a freelance designer? If you choose, the same freelance designer or design company that created the initial prototype could help create the packaging, as they would have intimate working knowledge with the product and could help you create a package that effectively serves as marketing in addition to a container for the product.

Or, you could choose to go the route of just using a freelance designer for the packaging, so that you can avoid the stress and time-consuming process of designing something that doesn’t seem as value-added as the product itself. Regardless, whatever your choice, a freelance design service can help you come up with effective packaging that meets the needs of your product and company.

9) Ensure your patent is available with the services of a qualified company

08810_2003_001.tif Flying machine patent drawing by W.F. Quinby 10/5/1869
A patent drawing for a Flying Machine.
Photo by the US National Archives.

We have run through the entire process of talking about, designing, making, testing, and packaging your device. But we may have left out one crucial piece of the puzzle. You need a patent, or in many cases, simply a trademark, to ensure that your intellectual property remains safe and you can reap the rewards of your product.

Before selling your product on the marketplace, you need to verify that a patent or trademark for this product is available. If this is a brand-new type of product, you can get a patent that will ensure the intellectual property and design elements remain secure in your name for the duration of the patent.

If it’s simply a novel product idea that doesn’t necessarily require patenting, a trademark can help you avoid legal complications and ensure that your product doesn’t get stolen. However, before you start selling, you need to ensure that you don’t infringe any patents or trademarks yourself, because that can cause you all kinds of legal headaches, and, at the very least, cause you to have to redesign your product. At worst, it could include jail time and hefty legal fees, but neither of these options is desirable for your company.

When you work with a freelance design service, you have the option of finding one that can do deep, intense patent and trademark searches. They can remove all the stress from your shoulders when it comes to clarifying any legal issues. In fact, if you give them the information and let them know beforehand that they need to search for patents and trademarks, they could even create a design that is intended to avoid the patents they have found, or adjust it so that you could patent the design yourself. Either way, a competent, qualified freelance design company can save you much legal headache and can give your business some valuable opportunities for intellectual property going forward.

10) It’s always free to ask. Better yet, get a quote and compare!

Compare the cost of different prototyping services before making a final decision.

Have I sold you enough yet on the value of rapid prototyping with a freelance designer? Because everything I’ve mentioned before should be fairly convincing. However, if it’s not, there’s still another benefit. It’s always free to ask. There is literally no harm if you ask about a company’s services and what they can offer you.

In fact, you can get a quote so that you can compare the cost of their services not only with other similar designers and companies but also with your own in-house methods. Many times, if not all, you will find that freelance designing and rapid prototyping is more cost-efficient methods that will save your company time and money in the long run.

The best way to choose the right designer is to use Cad Crowd to secure a highly qualified individual who can create the best product imaginable and protect your rights and intellectual property. These contractors will be able to design, test, prototype, and manufacture a product that meets all the needs of your large or growing business. Just give them the keys and let them drive a new design because your hands will be off the steering wheel with such a dynamic team at your fingertips. You can give them the requirements, discuss with them to see what the market demands and let them create. You may have to supply extra coffee at times, but that seems a small price to pay for the myriad of incredible services these freelancers can offer you.

Whether you need to simply talk with a rapid prototyping company to do some product consulting because you’re not sure exactly what you want out of your product yet, you want to create a virtual product design to run through a litany of imaginative tests, or you want a full-fledged product sitting on your desk next week, find a qualified 3D designer and prototyping expert.

You can get quotes and compare, like a shopping list for the product of your company’s future, and, more often than not, you’ll find the best option is outside of your company’s walls. Hopefully, next time you want to create a new product, you will step out of your comfort zone and, using the advice laid out here, find a freelancer who can make your dreams come true with a brand new product designed and tested, just for you.