Through my eight years of product design, I have noticed a recurring problem when inventors approach prototyping and design: People frequently misunderstand what they need this particular model or prototype to accomplish. The approach people often take is to immediately jump to building the finished product that will be sold to the customer. They want to start off with the finished project. They even go as far as to pat themselves on the back for adding in features that will save them money in production. The logic they follow is that “if I can skip all of the in between stages, I’ve gotten to market faster”. Getting to market as quickly as possible is certainly the goal. However, breaking things down into manageable chunks, each with their own clearly defined chunk-purpose, is the fastest way to get to market, especially with the modern rapid prototyping techniques available. There are a few common “types” of prototype, and good prototyping practice dictates that you know which one you are creating this time around and what you are hoping to accomplish with it. Don’t try to make one prototype do too many things, you’ll waste time in the end.
Proof Of Concept Prototype
For any type of new technology, it is best to start off with the Proof Of Concept (POC) Prototype. This is designed to show that we CAN do what we are attempting to do (particularly useful with a new technology). These usually perform their best when they look like something someone slapped together in their garage and are frequently made of wood (unless high temperatures are involved of course). Why ugly? Why wood? They should be ugly because this means we haven’t wasted any concern, time, or expense on making it look like anything in particular. Its sole purpose is to prove an idea, not sell anything. Why wood? It doesn’t have to be wood, but it is best to make it out of something you can easily and quickly modify yourself. During the POC stage, you’ll frequently be proving several methods that are not successful. I’ll spare everyone the adage about Thomas Edison and the lightbulb, but the point is the first time around I’d put my money on it not working, no matter how well designed. That means you’re better off setting yourself up to make adjustments easily. You’re going to create a Frankensteinian monster, but that’s fine; just get to the point where you know what you’re doing works.
Looks-Like Feels-Like Prototype
At some point you’re getting an idea in your head of what your new product is going to look like. This is where your Looks-Like Feels-Like (LLFL) Prototype comes into play. The one thing you’ll notice not included in here is the phrase “acts like”. This is where we want to focus just on looks and user interaction. This is about packaging our special new technology into something eye-catching that someone would actually want to touch. It’s a simple concept that I won’t spend a lot of time on, but I will say this: this is where 3D printing is a game-changer. The creators of LLFL prototypes live in a brave new world made possible by 3D printing technology. Shapes, colors, textures…they’re all possible and more options are on their way as the technology improves. Also, with the cost of 3D printing being as low as it is, you should always consider making several different versions to have people try out. This is called using “focus groups”, but (if you’re on a budget) friends and family are likely candidates. The feedback here will be very valuable because you’ll learn things like “The grip is not very good.”, “Could it be larger?“, or, my favorite,: “Oh, I thought I was supposed to hold it the other way”.
Looks-Like Acts-Like Prototypes
The Looks-Like Acts-Like (LLAL) Prototype is your first attempt at putting your new technology inside the packaging you’ve created by taking everything you learned from your LLFL Prototype. You could really add “Feels-Like” to the name here, but that gets wordy. At this point, you’re narrowing down on a design. You’ve probably got a few of your final materials picked out, you’ve glued on a rubber grip where there will eventually be a rubberized coating, and when you shake it the insides rattle around a bit. That’s normal and exactly where you need to be right now. This is probably what you are taking around and showing to people to raise money, so make it look good, but don’t be upset if it isn’t perfect. Also, don’t be surprised if you have multiple designs; you’re testing still at this stage!
The Production Prototype is bittersweet. You feel like you’re almost there. You’re even considering investing in molds and being pushed (hard) for an announcement as to when your product is going to be put on the market. This is where people get themselves in trouble by going for a Hail Mary. A Production Prototype is where you hammer out your Design For Manufacture (DFM) and figure out exactly how you are going to make this thing at the rate you need at a price you can make money. This Production Prototype (and most likely the Production Prototypes that follow the first one) is going to take a lot of time on the design/engineering side because this is where you handle your detail work. This is could be an article all on its own: the detail work is what takes all the true time and effort. The perfect example we’ve most all experienced is moving to a new home. If moving just involved loading all the furniture into the truck, it would take just a few hours. The reality is that taking every knick-knack and plate off the shelf and packing it carefully takes most of the time. The big conceptual stuff is relatively quick, the small detail work goes on forever. In addition to that, your Production Prototype could have several parts or sub-assemblies that are actually prototypes at earlier stages in the process.This means you’re still learning how to handle a few things even though you thought you were just
worried about how to make it in a production environment. And guess what? Even once you’re in production, you’re going to be changing it.
Prototyping is the heart and soul of product development. This is where everything is learned. A prototype is actually a Win-Win scenario. I’ve seen people get very mad when a prototype fails, but the proper logic for a prototype should actually be this:
It did work => Excellent! We can take this to final design with confidence.
It didn’t work => Excellent! Good thing we didn’t go to final design with this! That would have
been an expensive time waster!
At any point you may get feedback that sends you back to the drawing board! Don’t worry. Remember, this is product DEVELOPMENT. If it was easy and you could do it in one try, someone else would have already done it by now.
By Anthony Del Porto, President of Athlights Inc. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org