What is prototyping and why is it so important?

Duncan Geddes

by Duncan Geddes

What is prototyping?

The prototyping process is intended to provide physical sample versions of a new product, allowing for testing and improvement to ensure that the final design and construction is optimal in terms of materials, cost and performance.

Early prototypes will often be very simple, demonstrating initial dimensions or design. Through testing and assessment, revisions can be made until the product is in a position where it can go into production.

The prototyping process is vital for testing concepts and is commonly used to identify ways to develop and improve on the original design. While some issues can be resolved on paper at the initial concept stage, the ability to experience the product physically can quickly provide indicators of issues and highlight aspects that require refinement.

How are prototypes developed?

Depending on your needs and requirements there are a range of prototyping techniques available. However, as technology continues to advance, computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) have become an increasingly essential part of the design and development process.

CAD is the first stage, a software for designing parts for 3D printing. The finished CAD drawings are extremely useful as a clear visualisation of the proposed design and construction of a product. CAD files can also function as a blueprint for the CAM process. Here, automated machine tools can create a physical version of the product. While 3D printing is relatively new, the CAD/CAM process has been in use for decades. As the level of detail improved over time, the process has become widely used across industries including medical, aeronautical and automotive. As integration with other technologies continues to advance capabilities, innovation in the manufacturing process will continue to appear over the coming years.

Find out more about Technical Foam Services’ product design process.

Rapid Prototyping

While the concept of prototyping offers a fast and affordable way to test products before manufacturing begins, rapid prototyping is making this process even more efficient and affordable.

It is not the only method available, but 3D printers have become widely adopted for this process. Depending on the materials, there are two main types of 3D printing: Compressive moulds soft material so that it sets into the desired shape, while Subtractive carves the required design out of a block of material. Both methods are highly effective, but Subtractive printing can generally provide a smoother finish, higher levels of detail and more structural integrity.

The key benefit of rapid prototyping is in the name – it is one of the fastest ways to produce a physical model. However this method is best used for early prototypes as the speed of printing means that the level of detail may not be sufficient for the final version.

More on the different types of rapid prototyping methods can be found in the article What is rapid prototyping?

Benefits of prototyping

Selection of materials

Prototyping can help to inform the type of materials used and, in doing so, determine the most effective manufacturing method for bringing the product to market.

Carefully assessing the materials used can make it simpler to identify efficiencies in the construction process and manufacturing which could help to reduce costs and increase profitability per unit. For example, if it was felt that the thickness of a casing could be reduced without negatively impacting the product, it would save money on construction materials and reduce the weight of the overall product.

Packaging

Packaging plays a huge part in marketing a new product, so prototyping is an excellent opportunity to test different styles and designs for both protecting and marketing products.

Designs on paper could look impressive, but a physical product will demonstrate if the packaging secures the product sufficiently, or if protective foam inserts are required.

User experience

Prototyping can help companies to better understand the user experience for their new products. While the concept of a product can be developed on paper, handling a physical product will help to identify ergonomic issues and make the final product more user-friendly. If it is handheld or portable, is it light enough? Is it durable enough? People are very tactile and how a product feels can have a large impact on their initial impressions.

Innovation

Ultimately, prototyping is about sharing ideas and encouraging innovation to make products the best that they can be. In most cases prototypes will be rejected, but that is their purpose as a stage in the development process. Identifying learnings at an early stage provides an affordable way to perfect the final design and get things right before the production stage begins.

Preparing to create your first prototype? Find out more about the process with the articles Nine product design tools to help develop your first prototype and How to create your first product prototype.

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