When it comes to new prototype design, a lot of people think of it merely as a pre-production sample which often has very limited features and functionalities compared to the actual product to be released to the market. From the designers’ perspective, however, a prototype should be a full-scale working model equipped with the same set of specifications as planned. The key term here is “pre-production” in the sense that a prototype is an unmistakable representative of “soon to be” mass-produced artifacts.
Before any product reaches the market, designers have to be sure that it is both technically feasible (i.e. design via CAD services), for production capabilities, on the manufacturer’s side and financially viable as well. A prototype will help designers and manufacturers manage the following:
Perform a preliminary test of performance and design
The ideas based on which the prototype is built may appear as flawless as they are, but you must remember that everything is still in a theoretical phase until you start creating a physical manifestation of those ideas. Although no one expects to encounter imperfections and weaknesses in the prototype, there is always a possibility that something must be altered to make the end product even better. In other words, a prototype serves not only as a sample but also as a foundation on which further refinements and improvement are made before the product reaches the production line.
Experiment with various materials
Every product from any category is made of raw materials or even a combination of several different materials. A prototype – because it is produced only on a small scale – gives the chance for designers to experiment with various materials and to figure out which materials work best. You may want to use metal materials, and you can build two or more prototypes with different types of metals such as stainless steel and aluminum. In general, each material has its unique characteristics, which may or may not suitable for the product.
Make a definitive description of your product
When you are working with a team, a prototype makes it easier to explain what you are trying to accomplish and how the product will help you to achieve those goals. It can also be the perfect tool to demonstrate features and functionalities.
Promote to manufacturers
Assuming you are not working with a manufacturer from the beginning, your product prototype helps you to build a convincing case on why manufacturers should be interested in collaborating. Bringing a prototype to a marketing presentation also creates the impression of professionalism and seriousness, encouraging others to take you more seriously.
A prototype is often regarded as the point where the design process is reaching the end while production is about to begin. Designers have gone through a lot (as they should) when they arrive at the prototyping stage. The process starts from the moment you conceived of the idea until you are finally able to materialize the concept. You can divide the process into three major steps as follows.
Once you have a full understanding of every aspect of the product – its purposes, how it achieves them, and the way it looks – the real brainstorming begins. You can think of the idea as a broad concept but without any specific information attached. As you dive deeper into your own thoughts, you will find a lot of things missing from the concept. For example, colors, textures, materials, size, and (more importantly) why your product is different from others already in the market. It takes time and work to do proper research and figure out the best approach to transform the idea into reality. You will also need to be sure that your target consumers actually will be interested in buying the product.
As a rule of thumb, the most compelling reason for consumers to make a purchase is that the products solve their long-standing problems or improve their life quality. Take a wristwatch as an example; a wristwatch allows people to tell time anytime, anywhere, but what parts of your wristwatch are compelling enough to make people choose it over the alternatives? What makes your wristwatch unique? Is it the second-hand, the dial, the date position, the movement, or the craftsmanship? The same question applies to all other products such as cars, shoes, smartphones, dishwasher machine, and even toilet paper.
It is called brainstorming because you will come across hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas throughout the sessions. Write the ideas down, preferably in an organized way, so you can backtrack easily if necessary. You need to know why you prefer one idea over another and how you came to that conclusion. That being said, market research is arguably the longest part of the brainstorming because you need to know whether your ideas have been tried before or if someone else already has the patent rights for the product. Once you are sure the product will sell for good reasons and that the product is new or unique move on to the next step.
2. Rudimentary product idea sketch
Based on your notes during the brainstorming sessions, draw a simple sketch of the product to describe its features, design approach, possible materials, functions, and all related details. If the product has a lot of mechanical or electrical components, it is necessary to include information about the parts used and where to get them. For the sake of having detailed descriptions, draw multiple sketches from various angles. A simple sketch is easier and quicker to draw, which means you will also have an easier time making alterations in case you have some new ideas to implement.
Once again, make sure the sketches are neatly organized as these rudimentary drawings are indispensable documentation when you are filing the patent for the product. As a precautionary measure, have a trusted colleague sign the sketchbook to prove that the time and dates are indeed accurate. It can even be strong evidence if, at a later date, you need to defend ownership of intellectual property.
3. Digital 3D prototype design
Simple sketches of your ideas are not enough if you want to get more seriously into developing a prototype. In addition to those rudimentary drawings, make an effort to build a digital prototype. For that prototype, you need a reasonably powered computer and 3D CAD software (i.e. SolidWorks Engineering). Unlike your sketches, which provide a description of your product in two-dimensional images, a digital prototype offers a more realistic perspective of how your product should look and perform.
A digital prototype is more often than not interactive; you can rotate, flip, and manipulate the model in any way you see fit. It allows you to change the color in an instant, zoom in and out, and see how it performs via simulation testing. It is also possible to use a set of data points during the test such as heat, pressure, speed, weather, depth, altitudes, and anything else relevant to actual product usage.
Understand that creating a digital prototype is a crucial process. The physical prototype to be created at a later time is based on the data and imagery visible in the digital format. Every single detail must be correct by your specifications. Unless you have the necessary skills, this task is best left to professionals. Before you hand over the sketches to a designing/prototyping agency, make sure all parties are willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement to protect your intellectual property.
Depending on the complexity of the product, sometimes creating a digital prototype is as far as the product will develop. For example, if the idea or innovation is about the mechanism of a car engine or a building, it is almost impossible to build a full-scale prototype of either for financial and technical reasons. The good thing is that well-crafted 3D renderings should deliver hyper-realistic imagery of the product to the point where physical models are not required for presentation and testing purposes.
4. Physical prototype
Not every product requires a physical prototype, but it would be a great help to your marketing efforts if you can bring a prototype to manufacturers or investors. The prototype helps you explain about the product in a much more understandable way.
One of the most common tools used for prototyping in today’s manufacturing landscape is the 3D printer. Thanks to market competition and technological improvement, prices for the equipment have gone down quite a bit (especially for consumer-grade models). Simple products such as coffee mugs, flip-flops, action figures and everything else with little-to-no moving parts are relatively easy to print. Even a handyman or machinist should be able to help you to create simple prototypes. For more complex products with a lot of mechanical or electrical components, a 3D printer may not be enough.
Turn to online platforms (forums and crowd-funding) to tell the world about your idea and to present your digital prototype. Some online forums offer full protection of intellectual property so that no one steals your idea, while others may not. Before you join and submit anything, make time to read the FAQ along with the Terms and Conditions of the online platform. If you cannot find anything that suggests intellectual property protections, stay away from it. Of course, the safest way is to bring the idea to professional prototype developers or to market it to manufacturers. Always have a valid non-disclosure agreement before you show them the ideas.
No one says that transforming an idea into a new product prototype is going to be an easy process. Due diligence concerning patent rights and market research is necessary in addition to developing the idea itself into a fully working model. Nevertheless, it is not an impossible task to complete even by everyday inventors. You may be able to create a prototype on your own or with the help of a skillful handyman, but if not, there are plenty of custom manufacturers and prototype developers all around the country to help you materialize any concept you have.
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