We Can Do So Much Better Than Napkin Sketch Concept Design

Whether it’s to arrive at that “voila” moment or to support the countless design iterations leading up to the big reveal, don’t underestimate the significance of the concept stage of product design as a way to arrive at the optimal product.

For many years, that’s what the napkin sketch was for.


But after decades, maybe even centuries, of tried and true use, there’s finally a potent technology replacement for random paper sketches and 2D drawings.

How CAD software tools and 3D printers replaced the bar napkin

New 3D concept modeling tools coupled with cheaper, more accessible 3D printers can support a 3D digital workflow that is a fully optimized idea generation engine. By taking advantage of this dynamic duo, engineering groups gain the freedom and flexibility to explore more ideas and design iterations as part of their overall processes.

Even better, they can share these evolving ideas with a wide variety of non-engineers as part of a highly collaborative workflow that pushes product design to the next level.

Think about it. The napkin sketch stuck around because for so long, the only possible digital tool replacement has been 3D CAD, which historically has not been well suited to riffing on design ideas or creating freeform sketches.


Parametric-based CAD tools are highly structured, and operating within the constraints of a history tree definitely puts the kibosh on freeform creativity. There’s also the question of what to do and how to manage all of those possible concept variants, especially when it comes time for design reviews.

The result has typically resulted in a lot of manual handoffs and time-consuming administration work—time that could be better spent designing, not navigating discombobulated workflows.

3D CAD software gets creative

Thankfully, many of these constraints are no longer the case with current day CAD. Most of the major CAD tools have direct modeling capabilities that are far more conducive for design exploration—like the freeform modeling tool in the following video:

Even better, many major CAD platforms now enjoy extensions specifically targeted at streamlining the concept design process. Consider PTC Creo Design Exploration Extension (DEX), for example. The dedicated tool lets engineering teams simultaneously develop alternative ideas and store all design information in the original file so every option can be evaluated easily before making decisions and without overwriting the original design.

The software uses the concept of “checkpoints” to allow designers to move back and forth between design branches, eliminating the need to manage multiple versions and without having to completely recreate things from scratch.

The 3D printer makes ideas real

If tools like direct modelers and PTC Creo DEX can positively impact the concept design stage so too can the new crop of low-cost 3D printers. Many, now priced in the sub $1,500 range, function much closer to turnkey office-style printers, requiring barely a lick of specialized expertise to get up and running.

As a result, teams can now efficiently and pretty cost effectively pump out a reasonable physical prototype that collaborators can touch and play with in order to provide feedback. In some cases, that can be a real advantage over 3D CAD models, which are not always easily understood by non-engineers or non-CAD users.


What’s more, a 3D printer parked in a department, or in some cases, on an engineer’s desktop, encourages much more widespread use of 3D printing as part of the concept workflow. And that means design more alternatives can be weeded out.

What better way to encourage creativity than a workflow that allows for a gem of an idea to be easily modeled and output into a physical form so it can be evaluated?

IoT wins with sophisticated tools, too

This kind of streamlined concept workflow will make all the difference in the world of the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart, connected products. IoT adds layers of complexity onto already complex design processes, and engineering groups can’t afford to address them late in the cycle without serious financial or time-to-market ramifications.

Being able to quickly and painlessly create concepts, refine them with more detailed modeling, and physically output the work-in-progress helps teams conquer IoT-specific challenges, like figuring out the right placement of sensors, for example, or understanding exactly where to integrate communications modules.

Thanks to technology advances, concept design doesn’t have to be an outlier or relegated to napkin scribble. Integrating concept design as part of the mainstream engineering workflow will go a long way in ensuring product success.

Quick Links

Resource center

PTC University
Training options

Find a class