Idea to Product Prototype in 4 Hours

Hyper-accelerated prototyping using 100% free tools

It was 9:00 and I had a problem: my headphones didn’t have anywhere to sit

My desk is getting crowded, try as I might to keep things off of it. Life happens. I built some speakers and now I use those more often than my headphones anyway, so I needed somewhere to just keep them.

Maybe you’re an entrepreneur, this ‘find a need, fill a need’ process will be familiar to you too. It’s a perfect chance to do some prototyping and fortunately it’s never been easier to physically construct intricate things.

Ideally, they’d be a wall mount. You’ll see in that photo that there’s an IKEA bookshelf to my desk right and there’s a perfect wall space for hanging something.

The first step of design is very similar to the first step of buying something off the shelf: simply identifying needs and priorities.

  1. I wanted it to be wall-mounted so it didn’t take up desk space.
  2. I wanted something that had a width to it, the problem with most available wall mounts is they’re essentially hooks and all the weight of the phones hangs with the pressure in the middle of the plastic band — that’s no good over time. So I wanted something the pads could actually sit on.
  3. Ideally, of course, it would be stylish / match the room.
  4. Since I was on Amazon at the time I wanted to keep it relatively cheap.

Nothing on Amazon was quite what I wanted. Most of them are basically those 3M bathroom towel hooks rebranded for headphones. I liked the idea of non-invasive securing though. I was happy to use a nail or screw into the bookshelf or whatever, but those adhesive strips are good to 4 lbs. which is perfect.

So. Let’s design it myself. It’s a bit after 9 now.

This is the results of like, 15 minutes in Blender. That’s right, Blender. Not Solidworks, not any fancy industrial design specialized CAD package. I like Blender because it’s a) awesome and b) free and c) more like sketching.

Solidworks is really accurate and powerful but not nearly as fast as just clicking around and dragging shapes and vertex points. Blender is more like virtual clay to sculpt ideas in rapidly. As it turns out, I didn’t need anything more accurate or parametric than this model anyway.

It’s not pretty, it’s not to any sort of scale. I didn’t enter a single number for CAD dimensioning. I knew roughly how wide I needed the wing span to be because I had my headphones in hand, but we’ll get to that in a second.

Let’s go over the design a bit. I knew I wanted a big arc and I knew I wanted a tall flat area on the back. That way I could drill through it or use a 3M strip — the only real requirement there is a big enough surface area to adhere on.

That sort of scalloping texture is actually a byproduct of smoothing too few verticies on the front. You can fix it easily but the accident actually prompted a thought: what if it had a texture to hold the phones on? Like a sort of grip in the surface itself. Not a bad thought, so I left it.

Oh, and by this point I was thinking about manufacturing and wanted something wooden and made of spines like those dinosaur models you put together as a kid. So, laser cutting this would be really cool. I sent a text to my local laser guy asking if they had any free machine time that day.

Here’s the secret sauce: 123D Make.

It’s an Autodesk product, and part of their free suite of stuff that includes the pretty-okay-for-beginners Fusion 360.

Literally, all it does is slice stuff up. And that’s amazing.

I’ve tried making these things before in Solidworks. Manually making slots and figuring out angles and making things work — it’s laborious and difficult and stupid. We can automate that, and 123D Make has. It’s brilliant. And free!

Exported from Blender into a generic 3D format. I don’t remember off the top of my head, but probably .STL or .OBJ

Remember, at this point it still doesn’t have any sort of scale, so that’s what we need to do on import in 123D Make. I knew the total width I wanted and the program adjusted it proportionately to that. Then you can slice it up and lay it out flat on sheets of material that export into vector files the laser can understand. This isn’t really a tutorial on that, but I’m sure it’s intuitive enough and/or there’s Youtube tutorials already out there on this.

So now I have my cutting parts all laid out digitally, I needed some real materials. It was 10:30 am.

Had some 1/8" baltic birch plywood sheet laying around the shop and I shredded it down into 8" x 24" boards on a regular table saw and chop saw respectively (the chop was actually done later — I didn’t realize the laser bed was 24", haha, my boards were way too long originally)

Threw the cutting vectors on a flashdrive, grabbed my wood and headed for the laser company. Now, I recognize that not everyone is an industrial designer who just has contacts in manufacturing companies. But, if you live in a city of any normal size I can almost guarantee you’ll google a local shop that will sell you laser time for relatively cheap. I think this place will sell it for $40/hour to the general public, and you really don’t need an hour to cut a few boards. Lasers are pretty fast machines over thin wood.

Mostly just be prepared: have your pattern(s) and have your material(s). You stick one in the computer and the other in the machine and run it. They’ll generally know what settings to use for a given material, but maybe have some scrap material you can test on too — sometimes it doesn’t cut all the way through or whatever and they can adjust things in different test passes.

Also, if you’re wondering, typical laser files are .DXF, .DWG, .AI and .EPS (the latter two are illustrator files — you can make 2D patterns in that too).

And this is what I came back with around noon.

In the end I made four: I had two designs and two materials (wood and scrap acrylic that they had laying around, it happened to fit my cutting pattern)

By the way, 123D Make also does step by step assembly instructions which are invaluable. It’s surprisingly hard to assemble things just by guessing — I assumed I could just take the pieces and do it, like Lego. Not true.

In the end that scalloping proved too subtle. If there’s any extra traction there it’s very minor. You can see it, but physically sort of useless. Oh well, that’s why we make prototypes: not everything on screen is telling.

So, all four are the same shape in volume (that same Blender model) but the two on the right have a different slicing pattern, all asymmetrical and funky.

Glued together with standard superglue, man’s best friend.

And apparently I didn’t take pictures of this, but I bought some 3M Command Strips (in black). There’s an adhesive on each side, one for the wall and one sticks to the back of my design and then you can stick them together with a sturdy plastic Velcro-like system. Seem strong. They’re rated for 4 lbs each and headphones aren’t that heavy.

With a bit of stain and some branding, I think you’d have a cool little product. Make it out of thin oak or walnut or something instead of plywood? Engrave a logo on there with the laser at the same time? Some nicely designed packaging +a trendy marketing push? You’re rolling.

At the very least it’s a super fast, cheap way to mock up sizing and get prototypes out of the screen and on your desk before you look at other manufacturing methods or applications.

This workflow would work with anything that’s about exterior volume and shape. Those cutout moose heads that are so popular would be perfect for this sort of application, provided you had a big enough laser bed for furniture-sized parts.

Cost wise, that plywood was $17 for a huge sheet, so I’m guessing the amount of wood I used would be in the range of cents rather than dollars . The laser time was probably 30 minutes, so $20. The software was all free and if you assume my time designing is free then that’s basically the whole list. The 3M packet of 4 was ~$6 and some tiny bit of glue.

So that’s ~$7 each, which is way cheaper than anything on Amazon even half as cool as getting to do it yourself and custom.


I want to make more entrepreneur + hardware design type posts so if you have a question, please do comment or email me!