Prototyping is a vital part of the design and implementation process for all successful businesses in manufacturing. The days of blindly producing large batches of an unproven, untested product are long gone. Manufacturers now have obligations from their investors and owners to be as lean as possible when releasing a product to market. All invested parties very closely monitor waste and profits, and a good prototyping program will be vital for hitting targets and reducing costs.
What Is Prototyping and How Is It Achieved in the Industry?
A prototype is the preliminary version of a new product or device. It is used by manufacturers to learn and test the early development of a new product to prove a design or to receive market research from their customer base. The prototyping stage can be undertaken in many different ways.
Traditional Prototyping Methods
The traditional method involves machining and assembling the finished product in a one-off production run. This prototype could be made from metals, woods, plastics, or from whatever material the intended product has been designed with. Manual machining of all the components is the typical way of making one-off items as completed by an experienced operator and assembled by the relevant department.
The other method that is quickly becoming the most common form of prototyping is called rapid prototyping, and it’s commonly known as 3D printing or additive manufacturing. This process works by sending a converted CAD model to a machine which fabricates plastic or metal out of printer nozzles to build up material. This new method completely contrasts traditional manufacturing methods.
The most popular material type for 3D printing is plastic. It is lightweight and much more cost effective than a metal composite printer. The 3D printer works by layering a panel with a dissolvable support material before printing a solid plastic material on top of it. This support material acts as a physical barrier between the plastic and the bed of the machine. This same support material can be used to enable the 3D structure to be built.
- Interested in learning more about the history of 3D printing?
Imagine slicing a solid cube into many different layers approximately 1mm thick. This basic understanding gives you some idea of how an object would be composed in a 3D machine. The nozzle passes back and forth, printing the layers on top of one another to build up the shape.
If you were to imagine that the cube was hollow, as the printer passes over each layer, it would only add plastic on the bottom layers, the outline, and the top layers. The support material would be placed within the middle of the cube, making it temporarily solid.
The cube will then be placed into a washer tank containing a solution consisting of water and a light duty bleach which completely dissolves the support material leaving only the ABS plastic material. You will now have a hollow cube, allowing different designs of all different complexities to be manufactured.
1. Evaluating and Testing the Design
Evaluating and testing a design is the main, and arguably the most important, reason for creating a prototype before committing to mass production. When an idea is first generated on computer-aided design software, it can be visualized in a virtual environment and analyzed theoretically.
CAD is a potent tool for a designer. However, in a CAD program, you cannot always create a reasonable simulation of the environment where the product will be used. Hence, a physical model is almost always needed to test a product in a real-world situation.
Real World Testing
The real-world testing is crucial because it allows developers to try the product as it is intended to be used by the customer. This is their chance to try the product, gain direct feedback on how the product works, and to witness any faults or issues with the design. Developers often find further improvements for the design during testing of the prototype to ensure that the product is as refined as possible before release.
If faults or improvements are found during testing of the first prototype, this would usually result in a design change for the product. The process restarts from here. Another prototype would be made to confirm the new design before achieving a final sign off.
This process can sometimes be repeated multiple times before the sign off is achieved. However, this repetitive procedure is much more cost effective than mass producing and recalling products or releasing them multiple times.
2. Production Costs and Issues
Production costs are heavily linked to the success of a product. If the production costs for a particular product are too high in comparison to the selling price, a developer could quite easily lose money no matter how many units it manages to sell. To reduce the risks, a product will usually go through a DFMA (Design for Manufacture and Assembly) process. This is an all-inclusive way of designing, manufacturing, and assembling a product to ensure that it can be made and that it’s optimized.
Testing the Production Process
Using a prototype to test the production process provides information on the complexity of real-life production. It is easy to create an extravagant design on a computer, but it is not always practical to make in the real world. Limitations with machinery and assembly methods directly impact the manufacturing cost. Running a prototype through the production process before mass production is key to highlight any issues before building up damaging costs.
Involving All Stakeholders
A prototype will also allow other key stakeholders within a business to understand how a product looks and feels. Usually, the people manufacturing a product are not the same people creating the data on the CAD software.
Enabling them to get their hands on the product to begin to program the machining process before running an actual production batch is hugely beneficial. They may highlight issues with certain that aren’t practical. Without being able to make the product first physically, these kinds of details may have been picked up too late.
A prototype is a great way to present your final idea to board members or key members of management. We have all been in situations where our bosses have asked us to show them the hard work that we have been doing, and they expect to see results.
Showing them drawings on pieces of paper or CAD images on a computer is not necessarily an effective way to help practically-minded people to understand your thoughts and ideas. It may be effective to use a physical prototype to allow them to understand what your product design is trying to achieve.
The initial marketing of a product can be the most sensitive and crucial time in a product’s lifespan. Without gaining enough investor or retailer support early on in the lifecycle of a product, it may never actually make it to market. Having a good initial marketing plan is crucial to ensuring a product will have the best opportunity to succeed from the start. Having a prototype to convey your idea and help others visualize it in practice can be the difference between making it to market or not.
In today’s market, many products are sold through distributors or online retailers. Before either one of these partners commits to purchasing a batch of the product, there will almost always be some form of a pitch where the product is showcased.
A prototype can also be used for photography and marketing of a product ready for sale. Printing and website developers often need a large amount of time to be able to publish marketing material including pictures and product specifications.
To ensure that the product is ready for sale as soon as it has been developed, manufacturers often use a prototype. If a design has already been mostly approved or if it doesn’t look noticeably different, a prototype can be used for all of the imaging instead of the genuine item.
4. Customer Feedback
The most important indicators of product success are the number of units sold and the profit made. These numbers both heavily rely on customers willing to go out and buy the product. To ensure that a product is successful, manufacturers will often reach out to potential customers before the release for feedback and observations.
If you want to nail it the first time, you might want some guidance on how to make a prototype for your new product design.
Customer and Public Perception
A manufacturer’s reputation in the public domain can be the difference between making a sale and not making a sale. It is well known throughout an industry that a person will typically tell 10 different people of a bad experience with a product in comparison to only one with a good one. Keeping a good reputation with the customer base is crucial.
When a new product is brought to market that is unique in design or operation, it is often patented or registered as a new design to protect a product from being copied by competitors. This allows more opportunity for sales.
To achieve any of these statuses, a formal request has to be raised with a governing body. This request will typically require a prototype to be presented so that the product can be examined and documented to ensure that it does not violate any other protected designs
A registered design is a status applied for by a company to stop other manufacturers copying the way a product looks. This protection is usually limited to a country of manufacture and only protects the design of the product specifically and not necessarily the product’s function or operation.
A patent is a government licensing agreement that provides protection and excludes others from producing or selling the invention. To be granted a patent for a design, it must be completely new, having never been made previously anywhere in the word.
The major difference between a patent and a registered design is that a patented design is protected in both looks and function. A patent is stronger than a registered design and usually the preferred method of protection. A patent can be very difficult to obtain because of the in-depth checks and examinations that are required. To ensure that a product is approved, it is important that a prototype is used as a supporting item to showcase the complete functionality of the product.
6. Compare and Contrast Multiple Ideas
During the initial design and testing stages, it is not uncommon to have multiple viable ideas at the same time. Although the product can only be made one way, there may not be a clear favorite. A great way of comparing and contrasting competing design ideas is to create prototypes of each version, enabling all of the possible ideas to be used in practice and compared accurately to see which idea best fits the specifications of the product.
This discussion has presented only six reasons why a prototype is necessary for new product design. There are many more reasons that are also worth considering when investing in a prototype for your design.
Product characteristics such as ergonomics and usability cannot be properly and truly tested without the use of a sample. The ability to touch, hold, and manipulate a product cannot be replicated without a physical interaction between the user and the product. It is often said that quality can be felt and seen by the consumer and gauging this customer reaction through a prototype is the perfect way of mastering a product before release.
Whether or not you are certain that your invention is already 100% perfect or if you are concerned about possible flaws hidden within your product, a prototype can make or break the product in the marketplace. A small investment in a prototype can potentially save a lot of money in the long run.
If you’re convinced that you need the assistance of prototype design services, you’re in luck. Cad Crowd can connect you with qualified 3D designers to create your prototype. Or if you’re looking for some other type of service, check out this comprehensive list of our offerings.