Once you have identified your product specification and brainstormed concepts for how your idea aligns with those product specifications, it is time to make a prototype. Prototypes are a great way to showcase your ideas. Uses for prototypes include everything from testing concepts and design refinement to garnering attention from investors. We go over more about the different types of prototypes and their use in our prototype guide. If you think you are ready to make a prototype, check out this quick step-by-step process used for our prototype builds.
1. Sketch out your concept
The absolute first step is to write down your concepts in the form of a sketch. You do not need to be an industrial designer to sketch out your idea. Many first draft sketches are rough geometric drawings that get your point across. Rudimentary sketches help set the stage for building a physical prototype and focus your thoughts. They also can be a guide for proportions and dimensions. You may find that when sketching your concepts, they do not fit with what you originally pictured. That is ok and is primarily the reason that we recommend you put your ideas on paper. Sometimes you will find a necessary change or a solution to a previously unsolvable design problem.
If you plan on patenting your idea, which we strongly recommend, the patent office will require sketches of what you want to patent. It does not have to be the final design, only the concepts behind the design. These drawings are necessary to prove that what you are patenting is yours and have been known to hold up in court during patent disputes.
Sketches also keep your ideas organized. We recommend having an organizational system for all your drawings. Whether you use a numbering system such as Drawing A v.2.0 or a date-based system, it does not matter, so long as the drawings are organized and consistent. You will probably have dozens if not hundreds of sketches by the time you get to production, so keeping organized is crucial for staying on track. When sketching out concepts, we generally come up with 2 to 3 solid ideas before moving on to modeling.
2. Create a virtual model
After sketching down your concepts and deciding which one best adheres to your product specification, your next step is to create a virtual model. Virtual modeling uses Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software to translate your 2-D sketch into a 3-D rendering. CAD has the advantage of giving you a photorealistic view of your prototype to see how it physically looks when complete. If you are unfamiliar with CAD software, you can find many simple courses and tutorials online.
Additionally, you could outsource this part of the prototype development process. Synectic has dozens of years of experience with CAD modeling and would be happy to CAD your sketches. Costs will vary depending on complexity and the number of designs you need to render. Contact us for a prototype development quote if you are interested.
3. Make your physical prototype
In the industry, there are two common ways to make a prototype. The first is additive manufacturing, also known as rapid prototyping or 3D printing. Essentially, using various methods, you build up (add) material into a physical part. For tips on refining your design for 3d printing, check out our how to design for 3d printing article.
Another method of prototyping is subtractive manufacturing. As you may have guessed, this process is the opposite of additive manufacturing. In this process, the material is removed (subtracted) from a larger piece to produce parts. This process uses various machining methods, and we go over these methods in this what is machining article.
Both prototyping methods require solid CAD models to create a product as close as possible to the design requirements you outlined. Tolerances, assembly order, and materials are all design requirements that any prototyping house will need before they start making your parts. Yes, you can use modified off-the-shelf components for early prototypes, but these cannot be mass-produced. You will eventually need to formalize your design and create production-ready prototypes with professionally produced parts. It is better to get this formal process started early during prototype design as part production lead times can take weeks, if not months.
4. Test and refine your design
Prototyping is not production. Just because you have a physical model does not mean you have a working product. You could have the best design on paper, but it does not translate well into a physical prototype, or it could be a great prototype, but it would cost you ten times your budget to mass produce as a finished product. Therefore, product development is an iterative process. We often get customers who want us to CAD model and prototype their design, which we happily do, but then get upset when the prototype does not work as they imagined. Maybe your materials are not strong enough to handle the torques created by your design. Maybe the components make the product too bulky to hold comfortably. Maybe your design needs further refinement, or you over-designed your product, as it now no longer adheres to the product specification. Testing and design refinement address all of these problems.
If you are unsure what kinds of tests you need to perform, here are nine prototype testing methods that will get you started. When setting up your tests, keep in mind, you cannot perform all tests using one prototype. We recommend producing at least one hundred prototypes for testing. Each time you refine your design, you will need to build another version of your prototype and test them again. The more testing you do, the better. In the end, it saves time and money by preventing a costly and sometimes business-ending recall.
We cannot stress enough how critical prototyping is in the product development process. The cycle of “refine, prototype, test” is repeated several times to components and the whole design before manufacturing. If you do not have a solid working production prototype before you finalize tooling and start the new product introduction process, your product may not work. Product failure could lead to you being out hundreds of thousands of dollars in tooling, setup, and production costs. Worst case scenario would be if your product ended up in the hands of a customer and they seriously injured themselves due to a design flaw. No business owner wants to face a lawsuit or a recall after a product launch. Proper prototyping and testing prevent these things from happening. If you are unsure how to start making a prototype or are stuck on a particular problem with your prototype design, contact us, and we will help get your project moving