Building a hardware product prototype is a critical element in any product design lifecycle. Prototypes provide early market feedback as to whether a product has the potential to lead a market segment, gives you early insight into necessary design changes, and helps teams minimize risk at every stage of the product development lifecycle.
Done right, prototyping helps remove design risks and leads to successful product outcomes.
Here are the 6 types of prototypes every successful physical product design goes through:
1) Concept Sketch Prototype:
This is where product concepts meet their first real test. You are moving the product idea from your mind to paper - or computer. This can start with simple 2D Sketches or evolve into basic geometry 3D computational modeling.
Purpose: To provide quick visual solutions of possible ideas that can be shared with others for feedback.
At Design 1st, every project starts with some form of concept sketching. The output is shared with the team and reviewed to both eliminate and conceive of new solutions.
Here are several concept sketching examples of recent projects.
2) Bench Models Prototype:
After a concept direction is chosen, a bench model prototype is built. This prototyping method can take many forms including virtual test models, foam mockups and custom built mechanisms. What variations you choose depends on what you need to test.
Purpose: To get an answer as quickly as possible prior to design implementation.
Depending on the project, we create a variety of bench model prototypes to test ergonomic form features, de-risk complex mechanisms, evaluate technology and get immediate user feedback. The inputs received are extremely valuable and can help accelerate product development and validate design direction.
3) Fully Functional Rapid Prototype:
This type of prototype is where the final production solution begins to take form. All proposed design features are prototyped including structural components, electronics integration and basic user interface. The result is a physical model that matches the size, function and interaction of the final production.
Purpose: To test and verify the fully-functioning physical product.
At Design 1st, we use a variety of rapid prototyping methods to create full functional models. These include 3D Printing, SLA and CNC Machining for physical models and open-source platform and OTS (off the shelf) evaluation board configurations.
It is important to note that although the physical device functionality is seen as production intent, the actual operation technique may differ due to convenience or relevance to test outcome.
4) Visual Model Prototype:
Building a visual model prototype allows you to represent the proposed production-intent product options regarding colour, material, and form. This prototype model can be helpful for early marketing purposes including crowdfunding, product packaging, and video shoots.
Purpose: To demonstrate the final product look, material, and form.
Most often the visual model prototype is non-functional or allows for controlled, minimally functional, demonstration features. This helps reduce cost and time while achieving the desired results of matching the final product look.
5) Pre-Production ‘Alpha’ Full Prototype
The Alpha Prototype is usually a single device made using rapid prototype techniques. The physical parts are 3D-printed, CNC machined or cast using production intent geometry. Depending on the product, production processes may be needed to produce parts that cannot be rapidly prototyped due to material, manufacturing or supplier complexities.
For electronics, PCB (printed circuit boards) are produced in low volume using production processes to evaluate and degu surface component assembly, schematic and layout. Custom firmware is ready for initial upload and testing procedures. This includes critical function software features, secondary features may be implemented later without issues.
Purpose: Validate and verify the function, look, and production process of the device.
While the primary purpose is to validate the final production-level product, this prototype may also be used for user-testing including clinical trials for medical devices.
6) Manufacture Phase - Production Prototype:
This is the final prototype made before volume production begins. All components of a particular product are assembled using parts that are produced using mass production methodologies. The final assembled products are tested in line to ensure the proper functionality of critical features.
Purpose: The final validation check before volume production of the product.
Quite often, these first, off the line, products are user-tested in the field under real-world applications. Select customers are chosen to give feedback regarding the product’s functional effectiveness and reliability. While the product assembly process is evaluated and optimized during this phase using the quality control (QC) guideline procedure.
After this prototype is completed and tested, a new product is ready for mass production and market!
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