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Modelling and prototyping

Published: 29 June 2023

Models and prototypes are central to engineers’ stories of failure and success. Here is a quick history of engineering models and prototypes.

Enter Hoover Man

Design engineer James Dyson is best known for his self-named bagless vacuum cleaner. This innovation lays at the heart of a gigantic business empire, producing everything from vacuums to hand dryers and fans. To build his vacuum cleaner it took Sir James no fewer than 5,127 prototypes. He explained, ‘By 2,627, my wife and I were really counting our pennies… By 3,727, she was giving art lessons for some extra cash.’ But he would have it no other way, believing that failure is central to successful innovation – as long as the lessons from failing are learned and re-applied.

Issy Mikake Dyson vacuum cleaner Science Museum Group
Issy Mikake Dyson vacuum cleaner

Models and prototypes are central to engineers’ stories of failure and success. These physical or virtual models record every (often painful) step of the development process. They tell us about how engineers learn from failure every day. Here is a quick history of engineering models and prototypes.

Learning from failure

Learning from failure is a key engineers’ habit of mind: failing helps define the boundaries of what is possible, so that they can be pushed. Failure also need not be disastrous. A ‘failed’ innovation can function perfectly well in itself – it’s just that the failure shows how the next version can be better. American inventor Thomas Edison wrote:

I have not failed 10,000 times–I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.

More recently award-winning engineer Robert Langer experienced a more modest 200 different ways of getting Controlled Drug Delivery ‘to not work’. But when it did, Robert transformed how medicine is delivered in a human body.

Robert Langer cofounded the Moderna company in 2010 to develop and utilise his ideas for controlled drug delivery. In 2015 Moderna tested this, its first ever flu vaccine in people. 

Commemorative vial of Moderna's first in human use of their H10N8 flu vaccine, 2015
Commemorative vial of Moderna's first in human use of their H10N8 flu vaccine, 2015

If engineers are going to change the world they need to scale up gradually, ironing out problems one step at a time: better to fail small than on a global scale. 

Model makers

The history of making models and prototypes stretches back a long way. Italian artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci set the standard by modelling new ideas on paper in the 16th century, filling his notebooks with amazing images of machines of all types. The Science Museum translated some of these designs into three-dimensional models, to explore how they could work in practice.

Leonardo da Vinci model images

Many other historic engineers followed in Leonardo’s footsteps with three-dimensional models and prototypes. Pioneering female inventor Henrietta Vansittart made huge improvements to ship propeller design, for example, based on a series of miniature prototypes. Blanche Thornycroft worked closely with her father John testing models of more efficient ships’ hull designs in a pond at their home, becoming a successful naval architect – she was closely involved in designing Miss England III, which set a water speed record of 119.81mph in 1932.

Model Images

Scaling up

Modelling and prototyping have played a vital role testing new scientific concepts, scaling up to make sense of things otherwise impossible to see. Max Perutz was a molecular biologist, and physically modelled Haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells, winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962 for his discoveries.

In their work on DNA, the building-blocks of all life, Francis Crick, James Watson and Rosalind Franklin built models of DNA’s helical structure. Although most attention has been paid to the large models used for their work in Cambridge, Franklin made regular use of smaller molecular models during her work in London, and they appear in photos of her workbench at Birkbeck College.

Virologist June Almeida even made use of K’nex to build models of nucleic acid too, helping to explain and illustrate something which could only otherwise be seen with a scanning electron microscope. In 1966 June identified the ‘coronavirus’ group of viruses for the first time, named for their crown-like shape.

Here we can see how engineers and scientists have a shared approach to modelling and prototyping.

 

Scaling up Gallery

Shrinking down

At the other end of the scale, engineers often model and prototype to predict in miniature what will happen to something enormous in the real world. Concorde is a classic example. It was proposed as a supersonic passenger aircraft, flying faster than sound. However, the state-of-the-art project began with simple, practical models like these, from about 1960.

Concorde wing shape models

They are crafted from wood, card, glue and tape, and were ‘flown’ in a wind tunnel to explore which shape worked best. Engineer Frank Nutbeen remembered how his team ‘spent all day folding paper planes and scribbling plans to achieve what most people at the time thought would be impossible’. His colleague Alan Perry recalled,

Sometimes we'd even use our [computer] punch cards. We'd fold them up, take them outside at lunchtime if the weather was nice and see who can fly them furthest from the hanger… those simple trials were a great help at the time.

Display model of Concorde, dark blue.
Display model of Concorde, dark blue.

 

Prototypes: Managing complexity

Prototypes and models also help give clear shape to concepts that are just plain difficult, helping engineers easily share and refine ideas which otherwise demand thousands of words and drawings.

James Watt is famously associated with steam, and his ‘experimentalising’ kettle helped him to explore the nature of steam – an invisible gas operating hidden in an engine’s cylinder – long before the modern science of thermodynamics was established.

Prototypes

More recent engineers still find physical prototyping enormously helpful, particularly when dealing with complex systems comprising many interacting parts. Engineer Luke Hares’ work on the advanced Versius surgical robot began with a prototype model built over the course of a weekend from plywood and plastic tubing. 

Andy Hall’s work with GPS-enabled farming systems included a 3D-printed prototype of the ‘Small Tom’ farming robot, among much else. There remains a firm need for modelling and prototyping to help engineers manage increasingly complex projects.

Don’t look back in anger: from failure to the future

Though they are based on failure, successive models and prototypes always look forward, to improved versions and new possibilities. Engineers are always looking to make things the best they can be – and now they are addressing the challenge of climate change.

Klaus Lackner is a professor in Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University. He argues that not only must we stop releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to stop climate change, but we need to remove the excess CO2 already present. He designed a prototype ‘mechanical tree’ which does exactly that.

The idea was first conceived in 1992, and progress was often difficult. But, the design is a thousand times more efficient than a natural tree at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Meeting the new challenges posed by global issues such as climate change will require engineers to continue honing their powers of prototyping.