The Industrial Design Process Part 4: Taking 2D Concept Designs into the 3D World

This article is a continuation of a series on the Industrial Design Process. Part one: Defining a Product and Setting Up the Designer’s Day. Part two: Concept Design, Ideation and the Creative Day. Part three: Turning Early Concepts into Refined Solutions. How do 2D sketches and illustrations turn into the tangible reality of something you can interact with and hold in your hands? There are still many stages for a design to go through before it ends up on the retail shelf. After a two-dimensional idea has been explored and resolved, the next fundamental stage in the process is the use of CAD. In this article, you'll learn the differing uses of 3D in the design process, and look at how the role of the designer and CAD modeler comes into play as they work through the stages of getting a sketch into a form that can be used to generate a finished product.

Adding the Z!

Turning a sketch into 3D is a fairly simple process; all you have to do is add the third dimension. Doing it really well and maintaining the designer’s intent, however, is an entirely different proposition. At this point in the process, you now have a solid design foundation to base all CAD modeling upon. You have detailed drawings and illustrations that depict several angles of the chosen design, along with specific details and technical features being noted and explored by the design team; as discussed in the article ‘The Industrial Design Process Part 3: Turning Concept Designs into Refined Solutions’.

CAD Modeler or Designer

The differentiation between designer and CAD modeler varies depending on the size of the organization or studio undertaking the design in question. In some cases a designer may take their designs to the CAD stage by themselves. In other cases a specific CAD modeler may be employed to take on this part of the process. This can vary depending on work load, skill set or even the specifics of an individual design. In any case, the designer will remain plugged into any decisions and deliberations.

The CAD Modeler

A CAD modeler can come from many backgrounds. They're often design graduates who had a particular taste for 3D and go on to specialize in it as a career. They can be traditional sculptors, clay/hard surface modelers or, in some cases, engineers. Maintaining design integrity is often the most important skill required. A CAD modeler is often asked to demonstrate some 2D concept capability, in addition to their core skills, before they're employed to make sure they're capable of following the design language into 3D.

Keeping the Curves

Factories often have a habit of taking the most direct route to a 3D solution, which metaphorically and actually tends to be a straight line. Straight lines rarely exist in good design. So before the designs are handed off to the factory, the CAD modeler and the designer work in tandem to get as close in 3D to the original 2D design as possible. Since there are a multitude of software packages available to the 3D modeler let's break them down so you can understand the best application for the job.

Fluid and Flowing

Rhino and Alias are somewhat similar in nature and give the ability to create fluid nonlinear geometry. They're generally the tools of choice for most studios, as they allow designers to stay true to their sketches before applying engineering constraints. Rhino is very affordable, with Alias at the higher end of a studio budget but possessing more capabilities. Both sets of models will often need rebuilding by an engineer or factory team to get to a ‘toolable’ state. Of course, the more experienced the modeler or designer, the less change required.

Tight and Constrained

Freeform, SolidWorks and Pro-E allow for a high level of engineering from the very first stages of modeling and is often used by factories to create final CAD for tools. To this end, the more technical studios prefer their designers to work within these software environments to reduce lead time to production. This can, however, result in some loss of the aesthetic as constraints within the software make it more difficult to create flowing geometry.


The final set of modeling options are applicable to designs that are of a far more organic nature. Organic surfacing is difficult in most of the above software (with the exception of Freeform). ZBrush can also be used in the product development industry, particularly for dolls and action figure sculpts. However, despite being able create great organic designs and allow for 3D printed prototypes, the data is not viable for tooling. Again, models have to be rebuilt in software such as SolidWorks. MODO is also emerging as a mainstay in many studios as it's a great crossover between organic and mechanical modeling for varying designs.

The Modeling Process

To begin with, the designer and the modeler will sit down together and run through the final illustrated design document to highlight the salient features of the design. Turnaround/elevation drawings and specific features required will be discussed, and any questions the modeler has can be further sketched and defined. Depending on time, the complexity of the design or even the process a company has in place, the modeler and designer will take the CAD through several different stages to get to the final 3D.

Sketch CAD

The first kickoff point can often be a set of elevation drawings in 2D CAD created by the designer or, for the non-CAD proficient designer, a set of Adobe Illustrator elevation drawings. These .AI drawings can be imported into 3D and used to begin a model.

Once the .AI or 2D illustrations and drawings are into the 3D software package and arranged in the specific views, a sketch model is produced. Relevant internal components will also be arranged in space to make sure they’ll fit inside the design. This model is a first pass of very basic surfaces to make sure internals can be housed and to get an idea of how forms and surfaces might interact with one another. Objects may overlap and intersect, with the main purpose to get a volume to look at.

This stage may also be a set of curves moved into the correct three-dimensional positions, known as a wireframe with no surfaces being built. This is a ‘quick and dirty’ process, much like a first rough pencil sketch, which can feed back into more illustrations from the designer if they’re not happy with certain aspects of the form.

Mockup CAD for Prototype

In product development there’s often a desire to get something physical from the process as early as possible. There may be investors to placate, mechanisms to test or just curiosities to fulfill. A very early prototype is often used in these cases.

Using the forms established in the sketch model, a shelled model is created. The model lacks nearly all of the details and design of the final product, but serves as a shell to place mechanical components within and will take the form of a relatively cheap 3D print. Problems can be identified at this early stage, such as space constraints, assembly issues, battery door locations, visibility of sensors, rotation restrictions, and will also give an early look at potential manufacturing issues later down the line. This particular model will be very rough and may even be held together with a few screws or even tape!

The Project Manager (PM) will also become more involved at this stage and can track down more information to improve the CAD such as motor specs or possible restrictions from factory or quality control departments. At this stage the PM will also take over the play spec doc/brief in conjunction with starting conversations with the factory on the early CAD.

Refined Prototype

Once the rough prototype has been explored, feedback will be taken and fed back into the CAD process. The model will have evolved into something that looks a lot more like the designer’s intent along with improved mechanical constraints. Considerations for how the product will be assembled will come into play, with accurate parting lines being added, along with the addition of draft angles to allow parts to come out of the mold, and internal structures being added to support components and facilitate assembly.

Once again, this prototype will be printed, however, this time it’ll be assembled in a more professional manner and can take a bit more wear and tear as it’s used and tested. Internals will have been refined and aspects of use or play can now be tested properly. This stage can spin off a lot of new ideas for play and interaction and is an important part of the process as it brings life to what was just a flat idea on the screen.

The PM will continue to feed into the design, highlighting production issues or material constraints as well as updating the factory with new CAD or providing duplicates of the prototype.

Refined CAD

Once the prototype has been thoroughly tested and any issues identified, the CAD is refined further with new ideas being encompassed into the model. Relocation of components or internals will be assessed and practical considerations will be implemented, such as finger traps, battery access, part assembly and interaction sensors or buttons.

Further down the line, the factory will take over the CAD and truly engineer the design for most of the above points. The factory will also identify areas to strengthen in order to avoid failure during use and drop testing, consider production issues, such as the number of parts, and assess the production technique in order to minimize costs.

Hand Sample

At this stage a one-off ‘hand sample’ of CAD will likely be made. This is a high-quality model of the design. It can be a functional piece with internals or just a shell with paint added.

It can also be used to further generate sales interest, as well as give the designer a final chance to make any major alterations before being handed off to the factory for engineering development. The modeler, designer and PM will all continue to monitor the developing design at the factory to ensure changes and alterations are kept in line with design intent.


The final task to be undertaken on the non-factory CAD is to create renderings of the design. There are samples at this stage that can be shown to select buyers, but they’re few and far between and relatively expensive to create in numbers so illustrations are still a necessity. Renderings are now used to populate and update marketing documents and sales material, along with illustrations for packaging. Sales boards are discussed in the previous article on the Industrial Design Process mentioned above.

Advertising Animations

In particularly complicated products or ones with very deep interaction or play, the CAD model can also be used to create an animation to further demonstrate the product in various user scenarios and further support sales efforts long before fully functioning samples of the product are produced.


You’ve now covered all of the stages the design goes through in a company’s internal CAD department, taking 2D illustrations through sketch models and rough prototypes to a refined model that can be handed off to the factory and used to create low run samples. In the next article you’ll look at what the factory does with the CAD and the interactions between the design team, PM and factory, along with the creation of the instruction manual and sales & marketing material.