What is a concept model?
by Duncan Geddes
In architecture and product design, a concept model is intended to provide an initial physical representation of a project. This allows the designer and stakeholders to understand how a product’s development is progressing and can inform adjustments to the design based on real-world interaction with the concept model. Creating early models can also help to secure stakeholder buy-in and determine suitable materials to use for the final product.
How to use a concept model
While multiple prototypes and revised designs will be created during the product development process, the first physical version will typically be the concept model. This provides an initial opportunity to assess and refine the product’s form and shape based on tactile experience.
While architectural concept models will be made to scale, products can be made as full-size replicas. Read more about prototyping in the article What is prototyping?
In many cases, the opportunity to interact with a concept model will help to quickly identify practical and ergonomic refinements that could otherwise have been missed on 2D diagrams. Identifying and making these changes at an early stage of the process will help to reduce production costs.
As the concept model can be produced in a short production run with affordable materials, it is a faster and relatively inexpensive. It also ensures that the design and materials for the final product can be adjusted without having to stop and re-start production.
It is not just about the product itself. Concept models can also be used to begin the process of developing packaging that is suitable for both display and protection during transportation – and the design of any bespoke protective foam inserts that may be required.
For more advice, read our comprehensive guide to creating your first prototype, including the essential parts of the process.
How to create a concept model
Concept models can be made from a wide range of materials including cardboard, woods, plastics and foam. In many cases a combination will be used depending on the complexity and detail required.
Detailed models can be created using CAM/CAD machines and quickly turn computer-based designs into physical prototypes. Over the years, computer-aided design technology has continued to develop, making computer numerical control (CNC) rapid prototyping one of the fastest ways to produce a concept model.
Find out more about the pros and cons with this guide to rapid prototyping.
Making a concept model from foam
Due to its affordability, versatility and simplicity to manipulate, foam is an ideal material to use when building a range of prototypes and concept models. Below are some of the most common types of foam used for this purpose:
Types of foam
Engineered foam is often made from polystyrene, flexible polyurethane or polyethylene and is named due to the material’s ability to be easily shaped or moulded using CAD/CAM and CNC. The versatility of the material means that colours, densities and complicated shapes can all be produced with a short lead-in and affordably.
EVA foam (Ethylene-vinyl acetate) is a modern material that provides versatility in projects that would otherwise have required rubber, polyurethane or PVC foam. With a closed cell structure, EVA foam has fast recovery and long-term resilience allowing it to maintain its shape. These properties have made it a go-to option for the creation of props and costumes.
Easy to work and shape, EVA foam can be provided in blocks, tiles or sheets.
High density foam
If a more robust material is required, high density foam sheets can be a great option. Not only can the sheets be worked with simple tools, but they can also be lasered and cut into more complicated bespoke shapes.
Often used for mounting artwork, foamboard typically consists of paper or cardboard sandwiching a foam core. This makes the material sturdy and durable for working with a simple tool like a scalpel or craft knife.
While PVA foam is more commonly used for medical, cosmetic and cleaning uses, the durability, range of colours and pore sizes make it ideal for a diverse range of projects. PVA foam is also chemical and UV resistant.
The first type of tools you will require are for product design. Read about the nine product design tools to help develop your first prototype.
For those not taking a CAD/CAM route, the foams mentioned above can all be shaped and worked easily with standard tools that would be used for craft or DIY projects using similar density materials – saws, scalpel, craft knives, heated cutting tools and laser cutters.