Everything You Need to Know About Prototypes

different types of prototypes

After settling on a product design, the next step in the product development process is prototype development. This is where you take your drawings and models and transform them into physical objects to test form and function. Before you begin developing your prototypes, here are a few things you should know

What is a prototype?

A prototype is an early-stage model that allows you to test the look, feel, function, and durability before manufacturing. A prototype can be anything from a simple 3D printed model, testing proof of concept, to a machined “looks like–works like” unit that allows you to de-risk your product. They allow you to test design concepts and make any necessary changes before developing your product further. Most importantly, prototyping ensures that your product looks good, feels good, and works as intended.

As you go through prototype development, you will make several iterations of prototypes. When you get to the point where you are ready to move onto the new product introduction phase before manufacturing, you will need to have a few hundred prototypes on hand. These units test everything from the assembly process to packaging to biocompatibility.

Why are prototypes necessary?

There are so many reasons why prototypes are a necessary part of product development, but here are our top four:

Prototypes allow you to reduce costs before manufacturing. If you did not test out everything from part fabrication to assembly process on prototypes, you would get to production with a product that does not work, forcing you to go 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 does not function the way it is supposed to once assembled. It is 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

Most startups and inventors fund their projects through venture capital and investors. To gain the trust of those investing in your product, you need to show what you are selling. You could go in with sketches, but an investor wants to see a tangible product before investing tens of thousands to millions of dollars. 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 your product hits the market.

Consumer feedback

Consumer feedback is an important method 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 how it looks or feels, it may not sell. It is not uncommon to develop prototypes that conceptually appear to be the correct dimensions, but once assembled, you realize that the product is slightly too big to use. 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 is cheaper and faster to make product design tweaks during prototype development than to make tooling changes.

Prototyping involves a lot of testing against the requirements set in the product development specification. Additionally, there is packaging testing, assembly process testing, testing lot builds, biocompatibility, and sterility testing. All of these tests require the physical product to perform the test. If you are developing a medical device, you will need at least a hundred units for all the necessary testing to pass FDA inspection. Since prototypes are lower cost than production units, performing testing as early as possible will allow you to make design tweaks without ruining your budget. For more information on prototype testing read our article on 9 different prototyping testing methods.

What is a breadboard prototype?

A breadboard tests proof of concept; whether your idea will work on a rudimentary scale. Breadboard prototypes, often made out of simple parts found at any hardware store, may not look like the finished product. Because they only test one aspect of the product, breadboards are the most inexpensive way to determine if you should continue developing your idea, take a different direction, or scrap it entirely and go back to the drawing board.

What are the different types of prototypes?

There are three main types of prototypes: alpha, beta, and final or production.

Alpha prototypes

Alpha prototypes are your most basic type of prototype. 3D printing is the most common method used, as they are usually non-functioning, inexpensive, and fast to produce. Alpha prototypes can include simple breadboard models used to test proof of concept.

Beta prototypes

Beta prototypes are either machined or printed, usually functional, and used for debugging and troubleshooting design flaws. Beta prototypes can also demo the product to gain consumer feedback and investor funding.

Production prototypes

These are fully functional, “looks like, works like” models that resemble what the customer will have as a finished product. These prototypes are used for testing during new product introduction before heading to manufacturing.

There are many ways to make a product prototype, including cobbling together items found in your home. At Synectic, we utilize several different prototyping techniques when building your prototypes. The ones we choose generally depend on what stage of the process you are in and what the prototype needs to do. If the purpose of the prototype is to get a rough idea, we generally 3D print the part using various 3D printing methods. If the prototype is for testing, we try to incorporate as many of the finished materials and production methods as possible. Therefore we may build it using several methods such as SLS, CNC machining, and even off-the-shelf components. 

Can I make my own prototype?

You can try and make your prototype without using an outside company, 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 you are ready for manufacturing. The outside design is one thing, but the functionality, tolerances, and manufacturability are all things that need developing before you can produce a finished product. Homemade prototypes can only take you so far before you need to involve a professional product development company to finalize your working prototype. If you are set on making your own prototypes see our article on how to make a prototype in 4 easy steps.

How much does a prototype cost?

Prototyping costs can vary from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on the prototyping method, complexity, materials, and documentation requirements. For most projects, you will also need several iterations of your prototype before you freeze your design. You can make a basic prototype from items from your household or a local hardware store to save costs. However, if you want a prototype that gains attention and investor dollars, you will need to invest in a professionally produced prototype from an experienced prototype development company.

Once you have thoroughly developed and tested your prototypes, you can move on to new product introduction, where your design, assembly process, and testing protocols are refined for manufacturing. If you need help developing your prototypes or would like expert prototyping advice, contact us and we would be happy to help.

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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 to production. With over 40 years of experience in design, development, and manufacturing, we strive for ingenuity, cost-effectiveness, and aesthetics in our designs.  Learn more about our prototype development services and see how we can help your next project.