Why physical models will always be necessary in an age of digital transformation

For thousands of years, models have been the tools through which we visualise how a ‘final product’ will eventually look. They have helped shape our understanding of what a final design should be and given us tangible scale precedents to work from. The world, however, has changed remarkably in the last few decades.

The advent of powerful digital solutions has shifted the foundations of the design world, to the extent that modern designers are expected to be almost as adept at Adobe Photoshop and coding as they are at drawing, conceptualising and traditional model building.

But even in an age of virtual reality, reliable 3D printing and rendering, there is still a place for traditional models. Indeed, modern technologies can even be used to supplement traditional processes and even with 3D printing now within reach of even home users, there are limits to that technology and physical modelling remains a thriving industry to this day.

So why will physical models always be necessary, even as we descend further and further down the digital rabbit hole?

One of a twin

In digital modelling, there are two methods to consider: Simulation is an exact replication or model of the finished design whilst a digital twin is more flexible. The digital twin could be seen as a proxy for a physical model, as it doesn’t need to exactly replicate the final structure, but exists to provide context.

A digital twin, however, can only be viewed virtually as part of a digital system unless the CAD file is ‘physically exported’ using a 3D printer. This makes it much easier to share the model but you can’t touch it. Speaking of which.

Using your hands

For thousands of years we have been used to using our hands to gain a more accurate understanding of size and shape when it comes to modelling and that’s not something that can just be erased by a few decades of nifty technology.

While virtual reality has indeed made the concept of ‘using your hands’ in a digital space more tangible, being able to touch and feel the intricacies and details of a real model can have its benefits. This is particularly true in the case of custom ship modelling, where there are thousands of subtle pieces and processes to take into account.


Many designers have argued that digital can be too abstract in certain situations because you can essentially do anything with it. You could design a model in virtual space that would never work in real life thanks to the laws of science and whilst this is incredible it can lead to designers going beyond physical limitations.

It could be argued that the same is true of sketching, of course, but 3D printing and rendering offers the ability to physically test whether or not a digital model will work in physical space. For scale modelling, physical models are still the best option and the fact that digital models can be printed as 3D models effectively bring together the best of both worlds.

Spacial awareness

The perception of scale is still not something we have naturally been able to master entirely in digital space (though we are certainly close). One study on the differences in spatial understanding between physical and virtual models offered respondents the chance to examine the physical and virtual versions of the same model. They were asked to evaluate them objectively, explaining at the end of the experiment which model they thought conveyed size and scale better.

The response was that the physical model allowed for faster and more accurate comparisons of height and scale. It’s still unclear exactly why this is, of course, but it does underline that there is definitely still a desire for physical models, even in an age of digital transformation.

Of course, many will always prefer digital methods over physical methods as it’s faster and more flexible. And they certainly have a point. But there will also always be those amongst us who understand that traditional model building methods have been around for thousands of years and are not going anywhere anytime soon.