Prototyping – the why, the when and the how

14th December 2020

Why is Prototyping important and which kind do you need?

When considering a new product, prototyping is a key part of the process


Introduction to Prototyping

Benefits of Prototyping

Types of Prototyping

Next Steps in Prototyping

Introduction to Prototyping

A quick web search for the meaning of ‘prototype’ will tell you that it is the ‘first or preliminary’ version of a device or product from which other forms are developed. The reality is a little more complicated, with lots of different types of prototypes that are created at different stages on the product development journey, and for different reasons. That statement is even more relevant when we discuss custom electronic products and IoT Product development, where we consider additional functionality such as the ability for there the air (OTA) firmware updates, or the environmental requirements for many IoT Products. 

So when navigating the road to a complete product, which prototype do you need and when? We explore prototyping options and considerations for each kind here. But first, let’s look more generally at why prototypes are an important and beneficial element of product design. 

Benefits of a prototype

1. Test and refine the design

One of the biggest benefits of prototyping is that it allows you to test whether a product will actually work. In terms of both functionality and form, does it answer the requirements you’ve set for it in order to fill a particular market need? Often ideas work perfectly in theory, but actually building out a physical version of your product can highlight gaps in your thinking or even a way your original idea could be improved. If you are creating a prototype yourself, this process is also useful for identifying skills gaps within your team based on the requirements of the product. With a completely new product or design where there are a lot of unknowns, a prototype can provide invaluable data around the later stages in the process – such as manufacturing readiness.

2. Choose/refine the materials

Creating a prototype really puts your idea to the test for whether it works at scale. Generally when people are developing a product for commercial reasons, they’re eventually looking to manufacture for domestic or international retail. And you may have preconceived preferences for casing materials, or the look and feel of the finished article. Certain types of prototype can quickly uncover whether your material choice is feasible for your product. For example if there are functionality requirements that restrict design decisions, such as a product needing to be heatproof at high temperatures, or have certain tensile strength properties, prototyping can establish which materials will work best. 

Budget also becomes a consideration here, a prototype can give you an early indication of the materials cost for a product, allowing teams to forecast procurement and manufacturing costs on a wider scale in comparison to your projected retail revenue. Additionally, if the product is intended for international markets, you would consider at the prototyping stage the casing and safety certification requirements for each market and what adjustments need to be made. 

3. Get others on board with your idea 

Often we get clients that are looking for a visual prototype or a proof of concept in order to win investment from partners or sign off from a stakeholder group. A physical version (working or not) can be a powerful visual tool in this process.

Beyond just convincing a board of directors or an investor however, prototypes can help take your wider team on the journey. Involving your marketing team at the prototyping stage can initiate early insights to drive positioning and USPs that become the basis for launch strategy. Bringing in a legal team can help with defining key IP around the product and how best to protect it across domestic and international markets. And certainly, getting as many reviewers on a product early in the process can help point out any potential pitfalls or key considerations. 

The key takeaway here is that prototypes should serve a predefined goal at each stage. Whether that is testing the electronic functionality of a product or getting feedback from focus groups on a visual prototype, teams should aim to gather new learnings and insights with each iteration.

Types of Prototype

In the new product development process, there are usually 4 distinct kinds of prototype at different stages of the process. We list them below and the purpose they serve. However it is useful to note that you may require several iterations of a prototype at a particular stage to ensure your design is functioning correctly. For example with a POC (Proof of Concept Prototype), you have the opportunity to uncover the minimum specifications for your product at a stage where it is far less costly to make amendments, so you may have a couple of versions to get this right before moving on. 

At LX we are able to create all kinds of prototypes and help you right from the start of the project. However you can also approach a design service provider like us when you already have a proof of concept or even a working prototype, it very much depends on your individual requirements and the existing skill sets within your organisation.

1. Proof of concept Prototype

Proof of concept prototypes, as the name suggests, are there to prove that the idea or concept works in reality. As mentioned above, this is a key time for identifying possible risks or areas that need development from the original idea. Occasionally these types of prototype may be used for convincing investors/boards but usually they are more restricted to a core team and simply test the feasibility of the original concept. As such many of the elements in a POC prototype are not bespoke and use ‘off the shelf’ materials, for example using existing PCBs which is where the prototype for a custom electronic product often starts. Generally team will want to move onto custom electronics development early in the process, but development kits can serve a purpose here to get a POC quickly and to budget.

The proof of concept prototype generally doesn’t look like the (intended) finished product – this is about functionality rather than finish.

2. Visual Prototypes

Visual Prototypes look more like the finished article and depending on your requirements, should at least look as though they function as a finished article. That being said, visual prototypes often do not have working parts at all, or very limited functionality as this kind is more about the show. It is usually a visual prototype that clients shop around to their board of directors, potential business partners or investors to secure funding or bring them on the journey. 

However it is not just about showing others, this stage of the prototyping process can also be key for making decisions around industrial design and casing/form materials. Working these out at the POC or visual prototype stage can help avoid costly changes down the track. Processes used here may include anything from foam or clay moulding through to CNC Machining, stereolithography or selective laser sintering 3D printing, dependent on the level of finished required and the materials used for the final product. 

3. Working Prototypes

Working Prototypes and Production prototypes may sometimes be used interchangeably, but if designs are evolving, a working prototype is a full embodiment of the finished product that allows for a little flexibility. It should look and act as a completely finished product but may not be engineered for mass scale production.

Often working prototypes are used for marketing purposes such as trade shows and with consumer testing groups but the final product that gets manufactured ends up being a different colour or perhaps uses a slightly different casing material. Based on the feedback of these testing environments and other data sources, final adjustments are made before manufacture. 

4. Production Prototypes

This is the prototype iteration that undergoes the manufacturing readiness testing. There are usually a number of different versions of a production or commercial prototype and they are all about testing the design and function as much as possible. Here you may have a final review of the design after initial focus group testing and make refinements.

There is also a stage for compliance testing and prototypes here may go through a short manufacturing run to check readiness for production at scale. If you have a product that requires specific certification in order to retail to your target market (medical devices for example), this is where that process takes place. Essentially production prototypes are your last opportunity to really stress test your design before you invest in materials, manufacturing and other supply chain and go-to-market costs. 

Next steps in Prototyping

We hope this article has impressed on you that with any new product project, prototyping is one of the most important and valuable processes you can undertake. You may have the resources within your team to get to a certain stage with prototyping but often when you start to get into the stage of customised elements, particularly for electronic products and IoT devices it is a good idea to bring in an expert team or at the very least, a consultant.

Your prototypes are your trial runs, and ultimately determine how successful your finished product is in the market. For help developing prototypes or advice on your project, book a call with us to discuss your requirements.

Muhammad AwaisPrototyping – the why, the when and the how

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