Hardware startups go through dozens or even hundreds of design changes before a product hits a shelf. Making those changes on a screen rather than to foamcore or some other approximation simplifies the process. Digital 3D modelling tools are more powerful than ever and they are also more accessible.

Computer-assisted-design programs such as Autodesk Inc.’s Inventor and Dassault Systèmes’s SolidWorks have evolved into “complete ‘inovation platforms’” that allow for product testing and market launches, as DEMAND explains  in the case study Connected by design.

“Simulation functions in particular provide significant cost and time benefits to startups, which operate on small budgets. Tools like Fusion 360—Autodesk’s latest modelling package—and SolidWorks contain embedded simulation logic that allows users to test and modify their products’ safety and stability,” Lina Zeldovich writes.

The simulation software allows designers to test how products may withstand real-world handling, including things like stress, thermal and vibration testing.

According to the article, “The team at Loowatt, a U.K.-based start-up that has developed a toilet that converts waste into biogas, used the simulation feature in Fusion 360 when devising a particularly tricky ratchet.

‘We’ve used this tool quite a bit to see how different geometries flex [when positioned together],’ explains Chris Holden who builds Loowatt’s inner gears and various other parts.”

Digital 3D modeling tools do not have to cost a lot, either. Blender offers open source software with mixed reviews. And Autodesk offers its industry-standard  3D modelling tools to students and hobbyists for free. It also offers software to start-ups working for social good. The company gives away software and consultation services at events such as ASME’s iShow in India, Kenya and the United States, and the company awards software to select start-ups through its Entrepreneur Impact Program.

Jake Layes, Global lead of Autodesk’s Cleantech Partner Program (now called Entrepreneur Impact Program), wrote an interesting rationale for the program in Quartz last year titled You don’t have to be a VC to invest in cleantech, and our world’s future needs investors.

“Our strategy behind the program was simple: we saw too many startups and entrepreneurs creating cleantech solutions without access to the right tools to turn those solutions and ideas into products. Oftentimes, I would visit a small, 5-10 person company and find them making prototypes out of cardboard, faxing a photo off to their manufacturer, and then hoping they got something back that resembled their design.

“Using digital prototypes, cleantech pioneers can design, visualize, and simulate groundbreaking ideas. This allows them to test multiple concepts and reduce costly errors, getting to market faster. Providing entrepreneurs with access to 3D digital modeling tools was the most direct way for us, as a company, to invest in a better world.”

Novices can learn to use these tools through online tutorials. You can find videos, free and paid courses at YouTube, Lynda, Autodesk, Blender and other sites. And of course if you still prefer the real world to a screen, you can see Ryan Vinyard’s low-tech prototyping tips in the E4C Webinar Prototyping on a Budget.

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