Building a prototype is an important step in the product development process. But what is a prototype and why are they so important? We answer that and many more questions about prototyping in this guide. If you already have a prototype and are looking to improve upon your design, check out our post on the 4 ways to improve your prototypes.
In this guide we'll cover:
A prototype is an early-stage model that allows you to test look, feel, function, and durability before heading to manufacturing. It takes the ideas in your head and turns them into a physical object you can move and hold. A prototype can be anything from a simple rapid prototyped 3D printed model to a complete machined “looks like–works like” model that allows you to de-risk your product. They allow you to test to see if your design concept works and, if not, make any necessary changes before developing your product further. Most importantly, prototyping ensures that your product not only looks good and feels good in the consumer's hands, but it works!
Most projects will have several different prototypes built as the product evolves. As you go through developing your product you may go through several iterations of prototypes. It is rare that you only make one. In fact, when you get to the point where you are ready to move onto the new product introduction process right before manufacturing, you absolutely want to have a few hundred prototypes on hand. These are used to test everything from the assembly process, to packaging, to biocompatibility.
There so many reasons why building a prototype is so important, that it would take an entire article just to cover them all. Here are just a few main reasons why prototypes are important.
- Cost - Trust us when we say you do not want to get all the way to manufacturing without ever building a prototype. We can guarantee that you would get to production and would end up with a product that does not work, forcing you to go all the way back to the drawing board. When tooling can cost you thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars, you do not want to find out late in the game that your design might look great on paper but does not function the way it is supposed to once assembled. It's much better to spend the money early on and make several iterations of prototypes to test out the product than to get to manufacturing and be left with nothing.
- Gain Funding - Since we just spoke about cost, it's a good time to talk about funding. Most startups and inventors fund their product development with venture capital and angel funding. But how can you get that funding without showing investors what they are investing in? You could go in with pretty drawings, but any investor is going to want to see a tangible product before investing tens of thousands to millions of dollars. Additionally, as you get further along in the development process, production prototypes can be used as demo and sales units to peak interest and sell units before it even hits the market.
- Consumer Feedback - Consumer feedback and voice of customer are two very important methods of gaining insight into what other people think of your design. You could develop a flawlessly working product, but if your customer base does not like the way it looks or feels, it's not going to sell. It's not uncommon to develop prototypes that conceptually appear to be the right dimensions, but once put together it's soon realized that the product is slightly too big for the user's hands. Prototypes put the product in the customer's hands so they can give you their honest opinion about what you can change or improve. It's much better to make those product design tweaks on inexpensive prototypes than it is to remake production tools.
- Testing - So much testing is done during product development. Practically every aspect of the product is tested against what was laid out in the product development specification. Additionally, there is packaging testing, assembly process testing, testing lot builds, biocompatibility, and sterility testing. All of these tests need to be performed on a physical product and that's where prototypes come in. Since prototypes are lower cost than production units, performing all these tests doesn't break the bank. It also means that if you need to make any tweaks to the design, you can do so before you commit to expensive machined tools.
This is an example of a prototype. It has the same general shape and size as the finished product but it cannot perform any functions. It may not even have any ergonomic features incorporated into the design. Those aspects will come at a later stage during the industrial design portion of product development. In this case, this prototype could be used to show what the dimensions of the product will be, or it could be just one component of the working product. Since this prototype is the outer shell of the product, you could in fact add in all the internal components. At that point, you would have a functioning prototype.
In some cases, very early on in concept development, we may make very simple prototypes called breadboards. Breadboards test proof of concept and are generally put together using simple parts you can find in any hardware store. The function of a breadboard is to test whether your idea will work on a rudimentary scale. Breadboard prototypes may not even look anything like the finished product, as is the case with the image on the right. This is because they may just test one aspect of the product and do not all of the features of the finished design to do so. It is the most inexpensive way to determine if you should continue on developing your idea, take a different direction, or scrap it entirely and go back to the drawing board.
There are three main types of prototypes: alpha, beta, and final a.k.a. production.
- Alpha prototypes- these are your most basic type of prototype. They are usually non-functioning, inexpensive, and fast to produce. Most alpha prototypes are created using simple 3D printing methods to test out size and shape. Alpha prototypes can include simple breadboard models used to test proof of concept.
- Beta prototypes- these can be machined or printed using refined additive manufacturing techniques. They are usually functional and are used to debug and troubleshoot design flaws. Beta prototypes can also be used to gain consumer feedback and investor funding.
- Production prototypes- these are fully functional, painted, "looks like, works like" models. They resemble exactly what the customer will have in their hands as a finished product. These types of prototypes are usually the last step before heading to manufacturing.
There are many ways to make a product prototype, including cobbling together items found in your own home.
We utilize a bunch of different prototyping techniques when building your prototypes. The ones we choose generally depends on what stage of the process you are in and what the prototype needs to do. If the purpose of the prototype is to look the part, we generally 3D print a rough model using our FDM machine. If for instance, the prototype is going to be used for testing, we would want it to incorporate as much of the finished materials as possible. Therefore we may build it using several methods including SLS, CNC machining, and even off the shelf components.
Rapid prototyping is the process of making three-dimensional physical objects from a digital file, most often by laying down many layers of material in succession. This process is also known as additive manufacturing. See our rapid prototyping FAQ for more information on the different types of rapid prototyping and to find out which one would be best for your project needs.
You can absolutely try and make your own prototype, and many people who come to us already have a prototype they have made themselves. However, just because you have a basic prototype, does not mean that you are ready for manufacturing. The outside design is one thing, but the functionality, tolerances, and manufacturability are all things that need to be developed before you can produce a finished product. Homemade prototypes can only take you so far before you will need to involve a professional product development company to finalize your working prototype.
Prototyping costs can vary greatly from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on what method is used to create your prototype, as well as its complexity, materials selected, and the documentation required. For most projects, you will also need several iterations of your prototype ranging from an early alpha stage prototype to a fully functional production prototype. The most basic of prototypes can be made from items found in your own home or local hardware store. However, if you want a prototype that gains attention and investor dollars, then you will need to invest in a professionally produced prototype made using various machining and rapid prototyping techniques.
About Synectic Product Development: Synectic Product Development is an ISO 13485 certified, full-scale product development company. Vertically integrated within the Mack Group, our capabilities allow us to take your design from concept all the way to production. With over 40 years of experience in design, prototyping, and manufacturing, we strive for ingenuity, cost-effectiveness, and aesthetics in our designs. Learn more about our prototyping services and see how we can help your next project.