Prototyping is Flat — How 3D Printing is Evening the Prototyping Industry


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Jeff Johnson

Jeff Johnson

One of my first design projects out of school, more than 20 years ago, was designing the branding and 3D prototype for former fruit drink Fruitopia. Back in those days, 3D prototyping required creating a mold, which was the most expensive part of the 3D printing process. After the Fruitopia molds were created and ready for casting, the company’s legal team uncovered that they actually did not own rights to the intended branding. It ended up being less expensive to purchase the rights than create new castings, but the oversight still cost six figures.

A few years later, I went out on my own and founded Replace, a boutique branding and design firm. Costs for 3D printing remained prohibitive, so my team typically relied on traditional textiles, such as clay or wood composites, to showcase our designs, but occasionally we were limited to digital 3D renderings.

Replace is even 3D printing prototypes for Jonny Pops

Replace is even 3D printing prototypes for Jonny Pops

Many of our clients are in the food and toys industry and rely on prototypes to pitch their products to major retailers, such as Costco. A quality prototype not only legitimizes the presenting company, but also accurately depicts to a retailer how a product will look and feel to consumers. Regardless of how good our digital or wood-composite designs were, we were often outcompeted by bigger firms with the budgets to 3D print prototypes.

When Adobe introduced 3D printing capabilities to Photoshop CC last January, it evened the playing field. Suddenly we were able to compete against big firms, and what might have cost $10,000 before now could be achieved for a couple hundred dollars. My team had been doing 3D work in Adobe Illustrator since 1988 and in Photoshop for more than a decade. Since we used Creative Cloud, the 3D printing features were available as a free update, voiding any costs to learn or purchase new software.

In-house 3D printing gives us iterative control. Had the Fruitopia situation happened today, the cost to-do and re-print the prototypes would have been a couple hundred dollars rather than tens of thousands.

For example, one of my favorite local companies, Quality Bike Products (QBP), a boutique bike design company, is able to compete with major brands such as Trek and Schwinn through 3D jj3printing. QBP has a 3D printer right in the shop, and they constantly iterate and test out new frames. Their ability to design, print, and test in-house, without outsourcing, amasses to huge savings that enable them to go head-to-head with the biggest bike brands.

Unlike QBP, we still outsource our 3D printing process. So much of the conversation about 3D printing focuses on printers, but there are great services out there that keep up-front costs low. Photoshop has built-in support and profiles for most leading printers and print services, with control settings that ensure the mesh is sound before sending to the printers.

3dHowever, for those who want to iterate fully in-house, like QBP, make sure to clear a dedicated space just for 3D printers. 3D printing is a delicate technology, and requires a clean room free from dust or debris.

3D printers, services, and software have opened many doors in the last year. However, the future – especially for design creatives like myself – will be all about color, color, color. 3D printing is at an inflection point today similar to when black and white ink printers emerged in 1984: we’re realizing its potential, but know the future is all about color.

Jeff Johnson is the founder of Design Replace, a boutique design and branding firm in Minneapolis. Johnson has more than 20 years of experience in designing pop icon brands, such as Fruitopia and Miller Time. His work has been featured in Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum; The Minnesota Historical Society, The Walker Art Center, The Minnesota Historical Society, The Walker Art Center, The One Show, Graphis, AIGA, ID Magazine, Communication Arts, and many others.

Let us know your thoughts on how 3D printing is changing the prototyping industry.  Discuss in the 3D Printing and Prototyping forum thread on

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