All posts tagged: concept prototype

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

LX's embedded systemHave you ever thought about how truly marvellous all the gadgets we have today are? It’s not just the mp3 players, digital watches, e-book readers etc., but even things like traffic lights, airplane guidance systems and even climate control devices, which, even though we hardly notice them, makes everything more convenient and easy for us to go through our daily routines. And what make all of these things possible are embedded systems.

An embedded system is a computer built for one specific purpose, as opposed to a PC which is built for general purposes and can be used for many things (like watching movies, reading email, surfing the net, etc.) One device can have one or several embedded systems. A great example is a car. A car can have one embedded system to control the anti-locking brakes, another to control the automatic four-wheel drive, one to control the heater and air conditioner, and a multitude of other devices. Embedded systems are great for things that just have one purpose, and it is especially great for tasks which are repetitive and have to be precise (such as the anti-lock braking systems.) Equally, embedded systems are applied to transportation, medical applications and fire safety equipment because they can perform their tasks accurately in real-time without any delay and almost without any need for outside input.

Embedded systems have been around for longer than most people realise. For example, one of the first ones was used in the space shuttle, Apollo Guidance System, in the 60s. These were created to reduce the size and weight of onboard computers for the shuttle craft and one of the first and prime examples of integrated circuit use. Of course, as technology advanced, embedded systems became cheaper and smaller, and thus we’re no longer limited to putting them on million-dollar space shuttle, but even things like microwave ovens, water heaters and dishwashers.

Why an Embedded System?

Perhaps many people may think, instead of using a dozen small computers in one device, why not just put one computer to do all these things? Well, perhaps for things with a lot of embedded systems (such as the car) that may be possible, but what about for simple things, like your coffee machine, oven or a digital watch? Adding an entire computer system wouldn’t make much sense, when all you really need for your embedded system to do is tell time, turn itself on in the morning or make sure it stays a certain temperature. It simply makes much more sense to put in a simple, single-function computer.

When deciding on an embedded system, these are usually the top considerations:

Price – A computer used to be something only governments or big companies could own. Embedded systems make it possible for electronics to be affordable and efficient, so that we can place them in virtually anything and everything (yes, even the kitchen sink.)

Size and Weight – Before integrated circuits, no one could even dream of computers smaller than their living room, much less the palm of their hands. Now, we can have embedded systems in things even smaller than our palms, and they continue to become smaller and lighter.

Productivity – An embedded system does only one thing, and it can do it efficiently. For many repetitive tasks, such as the many mentioned previously, this is enough. It’s simply not a good use of resources to have an entire general purpose computer in something that only does one thing. What about that car example? Well, it’s true you could have one PC to control, but it would not only be expensive, but it would be inefficient. If the computer broke down, then you wouldn’t be able to use your car. With embedded systems, if your car’s temperature control broke down, you could still get to where you needed to go (you’d just need to wear shorts and roll the windows down.)

Embedded systems aren’t perfect, though; for example, you’d need a lot of testing to release certain products out on the market (such as medical and life-saving devices) and because it is embedded deep into the product, you couldn’t update it easily. However, embedded systems have certainly changed the course of human development in the last 20 years, and will most likely do so in the next century.

LX is an award-winning electronics design company based in Sydney, Australia. LX services include full turnkey design, electronics, hardware, software and firmware design. LX specialises in embedded systems and wireless technologies design.

Published by LX Pty Ltd for itself and the LX Group of companies, including LX Design House, LX Solutions and LX Consulting, LX Innovations.

Muhammad AwaisWhat is an Embedded System?

LX's Electronics Prototyping

A prototype is a model that designers use to determine the feasibility of a concept or device and to test the development of the device throughout the research and pre-production phases of the product development. The word is made up of two Greek words meaning roughly something like “first impression.” Prototypes are used in many ways, but are particularly helpful and necessary in electronics development and manufacturing. Electronics prototypes are often assembled manually, which is faster and cheaper than creating an actual stamped PCB board and can be more easily modified, but still allows for circuits to be properly assembled and tested.

Proof-of-Concept Prototype

A proof-of-concept or proof-of-principal prototype is a model that is close enough to the envisioned device to establish sufficient certainty that the idea has the potential to do what is intended, before pursuing the task in earnest. Issues that are identified can be remedied long before the more costly and complex research process begins. This can save time and money that could potentially be wasted if it turned out that the conceptual idea is either impossible or is too difficult to make it worth the time and effort.

Prototype Product Evolution

Demonstration prototypes are the next step in the product evolution. Once designers, engineers and investors are convinced that the product is feasible, the prototype serves as a demonstration tool to sell the idea to others. Usually that refers to investors and others with an interest in the feasibility of the concept. In some cases the prototype is required to file for a patent for the device. Demonstration prototypes are generally more advanced and closer to the fully operational device than the concept prototype, but still not fully functional or formed.

Product Development

Once everyone is satisfied that the product is possible, the next stage of product development begins. In electronics, this often consists of the creation of software and control instructions. The research prototype serves as a test bed for the software and may undergo some hardware changes to ensure compatibility with the software algorithms.  Depending on the device, a research prototype may be used to also help develop appearance and physical designs. Once the research is complete, the final product is built in the form of a functional prototype, which as closely as possible mimics the finished product.

Commercial Production

Once the research necessary to build the device is complete, the final process is the commercial production phase. This is when the device is finally made into the fully functioning product that will be sold to consumers. The first iteration is called an alpha prototype. It will be as close to the intended final product as possible in both form and function and serves to identify any issues that interfere with production. Once complete it will be thoroughly tested and if necessary changes to either the device or production process will be made. The next iteration is the beta prototype, which reflects any changes that were made during the first iteration. Once complete the device is put through more grueling trials and testing. Once again, any identified issues are corrected and when complete the pre-production prototype emerges. This is the final prototype before large scale production begins.

Prototype Process

Prototypes are an important part of the process of creating, building and manufacturing an electronic product. Without utilizing prototypes along the way, the process would suffer frequent setbacks that will consume funds needed for the project. The prototypes evolve as new information comes to light and grows along with the idea. Without a prototype, the only way to know if a device will do what is intended would be to manufacture it, which requires a much larger expenditure of time, effort and money, and the finished product may not work at all.

Prototypes are an essential tool in the development of any electronic device because they take a concept that exists only on paper and in theory and transforms it into something that is tangible and actually performs at least some aspect of the envisioned product. Prototypes are considered so important in the electronics manufacturing field that there are entire companies that specialize in constructing them for other designers, inventors and manufacturers.

LX is an award-winning electronics design company based in Sydney, Australia. LX services include full turnkey design, electronics, hardware, software and firmware design. LX specialises in embedded systems and wireless technologies design.

Published by LX Pty Ltd for itself and the LX Group of companies, including LX Design House, LX Solutions and LX Consulting, LX Innovations.

Muhammad AwaisThe Importance of Electronics Prototyping