What is Prototyping?
Prototyping is the crucial process of evaluating a concept before freezing your design.
Different Types of Prototyping
The term “prototype” can refer to a few different stages of the design validation process. At its most bare, prototyping is sometimes referred to as a “proof of concept” or “alpha stage prototype”. These prototypes are based on function. Sometimes even specific functions of the product, to quite literally “prove a concept”.
Sometimes a prototype is created for specific functions of a product. Doing this can “prove a concept” within that product.
The intent of an alpha prototype is to validate key functional characteristics of a product before moving forward in the design process. Alpha prototypes are generally used internally to an organization and are not used for customer testing.
At the next level, a “functional prototype” or “beta stage prototype” is focused on replicating all of the functionality of the product. Generally, this step will not adhere to the finer details of the product (aesthetics, user interface, etc.). The purpose of this prototype is to display everything that the final product should do. This is particularly useful for select customer validation.
In a similar manner, “aesthetic prototypes” are sometimes useful for certain product development pathways. These prototypes have little to no functionality. Their function is to display the desired aesthetic of the product. These prototypes can be useful for trade shows, pitching to investors, or gaining public support for your product.
At its most exciting level, prototyping is a true mock up of the manufactured design. This prototype:
- Includes both the functionality and the aesthetics of the final design
- Is the best prototype to use for customer feedback
- Is built at the tail end of the development process
- Will be the most expensive level of prototyping
Tooling can be expensive (injection molded plastics, die-cast components, customer circuits boards, etc.). Some alternatives to custom tooling are:
- High-quality 3D printing
- Low-volume urethane molding
- Prototype injection molds
Regardless of the pathway forward, the cost of the prototype will not be indicative of the final unit manufacturing cost.
What's the Prototyping Process?
The prototyping process is a key step in the overall product development process. The prototyping process bridges the gap between design activities and manufacturing activities. The main objective of the prototyping process is to validate your design.
Validation comes in three forms:
- Validating the function of the product
- Validating the market for the product
- Validating your team’s capabilities to a third-party
Most hardware prototypes are analyzed for technical risk during the initial design process. These “alpha prototypes” are commonly boiled down to one specific function of the product to validate the theoretical work done. These prototypes are likely cheap and iterative to improve the finer details of the design.
After the individual functions are solidified, a functional prototype can be developed to test all the functions of the product simultaneously. This prototype is used to validate the integration process of the multiple functions of the product. Significant testing can be conducted either internally or externally to your team. This will provide meaningful feedback on the functionality of the product. There may be several iterations of the functional prototype, as it is quite common that some unanticipated “side effects” may occur during functional testing that were not anticipated during the design process. In addition to these side effects, the functional testing may reveal that some functions of the product are not helpful or not necessary. Conversely, the feedback may be leaning towards adding a new functionality to the product.
Alternatively, it may be helpful to win customer or investor buy-in before proving out the complete functionality of the device. In this case, an aesthetic prototype is developed which is geared toward product marketing and gaining interest in the final product. While this prototype can certainly turn heads and gain excitement, it is important to note that much of this work may be “lost” once the functionality of the product is considered. This may be a necessary sacrifice from a business perspective, but it is important to consider what is and is not represented accurately by this prototype.
Lastly, a complete prototype can be produced to capture the final functionality and aesthetic, to a desired limit. This can be as little as one complete unit that is used internally and externally for product validation, or this can be a mini production run that is sent into the field (low-volume manufacturing). An important factor here is cost. Economies of scale play a significant factor in the unit manufacturing cost. Producing a product in a batch of 1,000 units could be 2-5X cheaper than a single product. This is important to note, as producing a small run of 20-50 units for market validation and customer feedback will likely not produce the same profit (or any profit) as the units that will be manufactured in volume.
One additional value-add of a complete prototype is the ability to get more accurate pricing on your first production run. Prototypes can be used to evaluate assembly time and labor skill level. In addition to this, you can use this prototype to analyze the weight and size of the final product to estimate the cost of logistics revolving around your product, including packaging, shipping, warehousing, tariffs, importing, exporting, distribution, etc.
Why Prototyping is Important
The term “prototype” can refer to a few different stages of the design validation process. Prototyping comes in all different forms ranging from concepts to fully functional designs that are ready for large scale manufacture.
Prototyping allows for inventors and manufacturers alike to create and test a product without wasting a massive amount of capital on an in depth and large-scale manufacturing process. It gives people the chance to see if a product works as it should, is aesthetically pleasing, manufacturable and so on without wasting time and money diving straight in.
Making product prototypes also helps to refine products and allows the creator to make changes before the product is available for sale. These refinements may be in the form of product revisions or in the manufacture of the product itself. Sometimes new techniques may be discovered that aid in the creation and enhancement of the product and the production process itself during prototyping.
When to Begin the Prototyping Process
The prototyping process generally begins slightly after the detailed design of a product is created. The detailed design of a product is carried out in multiple environments from pen/paper to the solid modeling world of Computer Aided Design. The design stems from either a collaborative effort between multiple people, or out of an idea had by an individual.
The prototyping process shouldn’t begin before a fairly concrete idea is settled on. The design and CAD processes have very low costs which means not much will be lost if the idea falls through. If the prototype process begins however, this will incur heavy material, overhead, design, hardware, etc. costs and if the project fails, these costs are essentially a complete waste of capital.
Once a person or company has an idea for a product, they should contact a company like Tresca immediately in order to start the design and push forward quickly into the prototype process. Tresca has timelines and outlines of our design process from plan to product which relies heavily on the prototyping process.
How to Begin the Prototyping Process
The prototyping process comes after a detailed design is created and modeled. The user must clearly identify what will be needed in order to create a model. This includes things like a Bill of Materials, design sketches, hardware requirements and other miscellaneous objects vital to product creation.
Prototypes are meant to represent what will hopefully become the final product. They take time and capital in order to perfect over and over again in order to finally settle on a product that is acceptable.
Prototyping is a true mockup of the manufactured design. This includes both the functionality and the aesthetics of the final design. This is the best prototype to utilize for customer feedback. With that being said, this is also the most expensive level of prototyping. Not only is this prototype built at the tail end of the development process, but for designs with a large amount of tooling costs (injection molded plastics, die-cast components, customer circuits boards, etc.), extra steps need to be taken to avoid incurring those tooling costs before the market is validated via this prototype. Common ways to approach this are high-quality 3D printing, low-volume urethane molding, or prototype injection molds. Regardless of the pathway forward, the cost of the prototype will not be indicative of the final unit manufacturing cost.
Selecting a Prototyping Development Company
Selecting the right prototyping company is vital to the success or failure of your product. It is important to find a prototyping company that has experience across the entire product development process, which starts at concept generation and continues through manufacturing. This is important to prevent getting a “siloed” prototype that does not encourage creativity and adaption, and is not keeping the final goal of manufacturing in mind.
Familiarity with Your Industry
You want a prototyping company that is experienced and knowledgeable about everything that goes on with your industry. Further, you want a prototyping company that is willing to take the time to understand your product and the goals you have for your product. Having a “fresh set of eyes” on a design can be a powerful tool in the design process. Working with a prototyping company that works across many industries allows them to bring a wide view of potential design risks and elegant solutions to achieve your desired functionality.
End-to-End Prototyping Capabilities
You want a prototyping firm that is able to create all of your product, not just some. A good prototyping vendor will have a wide network of suppliers that allow them to produce your prototype with them as the only source. Being able to connect with a wide variety of vendors and service providers adds extreme value to a prototyping service. A “one stop shop” will save you time and money.
Investment in New Prototyping Technology
You want a prototyping firm that is keeping up with the latest and greatest technology. While the days of clay modeling and foam construction are not gone, advances in prototyping technology such as additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) have added tremendous value to prototype companies. 3D printing allows for timely and cost-effective iterations or prototyping, so help make an efficient transition from your first proof of concept prototype, to your fully functional prototype.
You want a prototyping firm that understands that a prototype is not like a custom t-shirt. The prototyping process is a small design process in itself, and prototypes will not commonly work exactly as intended at the first try. You want a prototyping company that understands this implicitly, and is ready to work with you on solving those unforeseen challenges when they happen. While some prototype shops will nickel and dime you for every challenge or iteration, a good prototyping firm understands the variable nature of prototyping, and is ready to work with you and your time to find cost and time-effective solutions to the challenges that you will face.
Working with a company like Tresca Design will aid you in the entire process, from start to finish. Your success is our success, from plan to product.