When you’re developing an idea for a new product, there’s a lot of trial and error involved. If the final product uses expensive materials, you’re likely to be working with cheaper materials during the prototyping stages, and certainly using quicker, cheaper ways of creating your prototype too if your final product is made using more costly methods. In this post, we’re looking at the prototyping process, and the methods that can be used to create prototypes.
What is prototyping?
Prototyping is the process during the design and testing phase where teams create early versions of the product. They might experiment with ideas during the prototype stage, in order to create the right solution to the issues they are trying to solve. There are several stages in prototyping, from initial sketches, to creating an initial version of the product, and user testing and feedback is often sought using prototypes.
The prototype is simply an early version of the final product – sometimes it might be referred to as a sample. However, don’t think that there will only be one! Oftentimes, there will be several iterations of the product before the final version is ready to go into mass manufacturing and to go on sale.
Why is prototyping important?
First and foremost, a solid prototyping process is about saving time and money. Having said that, the prototyping process does cost money! In some cases, it may end up being considered a waste of money, especially if the product is deemed unsuitable for whatever reason.
However, the prototyping process will ensure that unsuitable, unnecessary, and poorly designed products don’t make it to market. This offers businesses huge savings on manufacturing, storage, and distribution costs, but also saves the business from having to deal with returned orders, customer complaints, and damage to the reputation of the company, which can be significantly more.
So, although a product that ends up being shelved at the prototype stage will certainly have cost the business money to produce, it is likely to offer cost savings compared to producing a poorly designed product, one that is unnecessary, or one that creates customer complaints.
What are the advantages of carrying out prototyping?
We’ve already shown how prototyping is likely to save money in the longer term, and different businesses will find certain advantages are more important for their needs. But these are ten of the most important reasons that businesses cite for creating prototypes of new products:
- It helps get the design right – especially when testing with end users who are providing feedback, since the design of the prototype can then be updated and tested again
- Enabling testing of materials, colours, and textures – this is particularly useful for identifying what adjustments may make the product more desirable
- During testing of the prototype, potential flaws can be identified – this might include safety considerations such as using a different material that is less brittle, for example, and allows for quality assurance methods to be established before manufacturing starts
- Acceptable tolerance levels can be measured and established – including whether costs can be reduced by using different materials, or less material
- Understanding the actual cost of producing the product – especially important if there are concerns about the size of the product, the amount of material required for each item, and so on that impact on the potential profit of each item
- Identifying any potential weaknesses that could impact usability – this means the issues can be fixed before manufacturing begins
- Finding where savings can be made on each item – materials, but also production costs including labour and equipment
- Understanding where changes need to be made to tooling and equipment – so that time and material savings can be made
- Establishing where the strength of the product could be enhanced – as well as the safety of buttons, fasteners, and so on
- It helps resolve professional conflicts – if more than one team member has opinions about the design, the prototyping process allows the best possible design to emerge
What are the stages of prototyping?
There are different models that describe the stages of prototyping, but this model of prototyping closely resembles the stages that most product design businesses will go through to create new products. There are few designers and inventors that can say they created only one prototype of their product before it started to be manufacture, and so while there are different stages, creators rarely work in a linear fashion. They are much more likely to move between different stages in a cycle – particularly between creating the prototype and testing – before a product is finalised.
Stage 1: Establish the vision
Before you can even think about getting tools and materials out, you have to understand exactly what it is that you’re trying to create. The vision can include drawings – however rough your sketches are – but if you’re working with a product designer, you might just have the answers for certain questions. These questions will help you to establish the type of product you’re really looking to create, and help to establish the best way of creating the product.
- What problem will the product solve?
- Who is the product aimed at? Who will be the target customer?
- What products are already on the market to help with this problem?
- How much is the product likely to cost?
- What materials are required?
- Who will need to be involved in the process?
These initial questions will help to establish whether the project is worth pursuing in terms of demand and costs.
Stage 2: Determine the key features
Understanding the key features of a product is essential – even if you’re creating a tool like a Swiss Army Knife that has the potential for adding ever more features! Deciding exactly what key features must be in the product will help with the design process.
It is important to remember that when you’re creating prototypes, they don’t have to be exactly as you expect the end product to be, especially if you’re not presenting to investors. If a certain feature is easy to imagine – such as a button or a switch – then it might not be necessary to include that feature on early prototypes.
Stage 3: Create the prototype
This bit can be the longest part of the process, since there is so much to consider, and there may be several versions of the prototype. You’re also likely to use different materials and different tools to create those prototypes – from sketches and paper models, to detailed versions using 3D printers and laser cutters. It isn’t unusual to use several different types of machine to create prototypes, and different versions, although this will depend on the materials required, the timeline for the project, and the budget.
Stage 4: Testing and refining the design
Once the initial prototype has been developed, the creator will need to conduct an evaluation of it. At this point, it may be the case that the design is scrapped, and they go back to stage one. While this may seem a waste of time and money, it will certainly cost the business less than proceeding with a poorly designed product.
In more successful cases, updating the design and adding features not previously considered possible may occur, or it may be smaller tweaks are made, such as changing the shape of the product slightly.
Stage 5: Presenting the prototype
Presenting the prototype to investors and other interested parties is likely to occur at different stages, and especially if there is a significant amount of money invested in the product development process. During the presentation stage, consumer testing may be carried out, patent applications may be submitted, and if further investment is being sought, the prototype may be a significant part of funding applications. All this means that when presenting the prototype, there may be several versions of it required – including high fidelity and low fidelity prototypes.
What is the difference between high fidelity and low fidelity prototyping?
You’re likely to hear these terms a lot in product design, and essentially, it refers to the amount of detail and functionality that is included in the prototype. It is likely that businesses will use both high fidelity, and low fidelity prototyping as part of the development process, especially if they’re presenting the design to users and clients. These prototypes – whether detailed or not, will allow the business to get feedback on the product, and help them to establish whether they’re on the right track.
Low fidelity prototypes are the quick, inexpensive creations that usually come first in the process. Depending on what is being designed, these initial creations might be made from paper, plywood, or another material that is quick and easy to create with. They’re good for helping all involved to visualise the end product, and the lack of detail can help designers to come up with new ideas, since they’re clearly not finished. However, this advantage also presents a problem with low fidelity prototypes! The lack of detail and realism means that users and clients may find it difficult to understand the vision for the final product, how they will use it, and so on. It might also oversimplify more complex issues, which may mean that the user can’t understand how the product really resolves the problem they have.
High fidelity prototypes are the more detailed versions of the final product – even if they’re not made from the materials that the final product will use. Often, this will include digital versions of the product using a 3D design package to help the users and clients to visualise the proposed product more clearly. Where a lower-end version of the product has been created – such as a wood or aluminium version of a piece of jewellery that would be made from silver or gold, for example – it means more detail can be seen. The problem with high fidelity prototypes? Well, they often take longer to create, and those hours of work can mean that designers are less likely to want to make changes to the design, and those hours invested in the design means they are typically more expensive too.
When presenting prototypes to interested parties, using a mix of high and low fidelity prototypes can help give deeper understanding about the proposed product. Showing the 3D design as part of the presentation, as well as initial low fidelity prototypes, and high fidelity prototypes that are closer to the finished design can help illustrate thought processes, and why changes were made.
Creating a prototype
Once you’ve established the requirements that the product need to hit, and rough sketches have been created, then you can start initial prototypes for the product. 3D design is essential, before using machines that can help create the prototype. There’s a number of machines you might use for your prototyping, and we’ll get into the advantages and disadvantages of these next.
3D design tools
We’ve talked at length about 3D design software before – because there are just so many that are available that can do an incredible job. And with 3D design tools, it is possible to take rough sketches and turn them into a version that has a lot more detail. When you’re looking at several possible designs, 3D design tools are usually the first step to understanding which ones are likely to work the best, before creating an actual prototype.
The main advantages of using 3D design tools in the prototyping process include:
- It is faster than creating a model
- More detail can be shown than with a model that has been made from materials
- No materials need to be used – presenting a cost saving
- The design can easily be shared with interested parties – wherever they are in the world
- Changes to the design are easy to implement
- It is easy to move between versions – so if a change doesn’t work, earlier versions can be accessed
While 3D design offers significant advantages, there are challenges when working with it in the prototyping process. Particularly when presenting to individuals that aren’t in the design industry, it can be hard to understand the scale of a product, and to visualise the finished product when they can only see it on the screen – even if it is a brilliant model.
What tools can be used for prototyping?
When the time comes to create a sample that closely resembles the finished product – even if the design isn’t completely finalised – then you need to know which are the best tools for the job. There are plenty of options that can help with creating low fidelity prototypes, and CAD/CAM based machines that can help you finalise the design completely. Whatever you’re creating, you’re almost certain to get a prototype that works for you using one or more of these tools.
There’s a strong possibility you’ll need to make several prototypes for your testing group to play with, and even if the final product is going to be made using different methods, you need to be able to make them all the same, and quickly – which is where laser cutting comes in.
It is probably pretty obvious that we’re more than a little bit biased about how brilliant laser cutting is, but the reality is that there’s a lot of advantages when laser cutting. We’ve mentioned all of these advantages on the blog before, but they are very relevant for prototyping, so let’s take a quick look.
Speed – laser cutting takes very little time compared with mechanical cutting methods, even when you’re cutting more complicated cuts, and because the laser is so precise, generally there is little post-cut processing that is required.
Accuracy and replicability – if you’re creating more than one piece that needs to be exactly the same, your laser cutter will create that part perfectly every single time. That’s particularly important when you’re going to be conducting user testing, as you want each tester to have the same experience with the product.
Flexibility – if you need to change the design of a piece, you can make that change really quickly, and produce the replacement in no time with a laser cutter.
High quality results – even if you’re going to use different methods for the final product, a laser cutter can provide the sort of results that you want, quickly and efficiently. With an accuracy of around 0.1mm, there isn’t generally any need for post-cutting treatments – so each prototype you create can be made quickly without extra time finishing the design.
Versatility – laser cutters can be used on many different materials, so you can start creating your prototype, or parts of it, with scrap wood, before moving to use more expensive materials. This can help keep costs down during the prototyping process. You can also use the laser cutter for engraving and marking, so you can give the impression of different features (such as buttons or where colours might be) quickly, without needing to actually create them.
While laser cutters are incredibly valuable for prototyping, they aren’t always the right solution. Depending on the desired finish, a 3D printer might be more desirable, especially if there’s a lot of material involved.
Laser cutters are also expensive to buy, and you need training and expertise to use them – beginners can’t just jump in and start using them. Training, as well as health and safety needs to be implemented for all machinery of course, but there are other potential limitations to consider. The thickness of materials may mean that the laser cutter won’t create the part you need in the way you need it, so another tool might be a better way to create those parts.
Finally, the cost of initial investment in a laser cutter can be prohibitive in the early stages of a company and a project, which may mean working with another business to produce prototypes. Budget lasers are an option, but may not be appropriate for long term product development, especially for larger products.
There are several different types of Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machines, and they cover a range of material processing, including grinding, routing, milling, punching, turning, and lathing. Advantages of using CNC machines include:
They’re efficient – CNC machines that have been properly maintained can be used continuously for long periods of time. If you’re making prototypes to a tight timescale, CNCs can be set to make your prototypes pretty quickly.
They are consistent and accurate – like laser cutters, CNC machines are highly accurate and can create the same design over and over.
They offer flexibility – CNC machines can be set up to create different parts pretty quickly, so you can create different parts, sizes, and so on.
CNC machines definitely have their place in prototyping – but like laser cutters, they’re expensive for initial investment. That means collaboration with another business may need to occur during the prototyping process, before manufacturing can begin.
We love a 3D printer – and given the number of advantages 3D printers have, there’s little wonder they’re one of the most used machines during prototyping. Some of the advantages of 3D printing are similar to other types of tools, but they’re still relevant.
Flexibility in design – 3D printing allows for much more complicated designs than compared with other methods of manufacture, which means that prototypes can be created that are closer to the intended end product.
Speed is also a factor – components can be created in hours, which means that when the design has been modified, it can be made quickly and the process can move on faster.
Lack of required inventory – because parts are printed on demand, there’s no need to have space to store parts. The only thing required is the ability to store the design files.
Parts are strong and lightweight – whether they’re created using plastic or metal, and some parts can have desirable properties such as heat resistance and increased strength.
Waste is reduced – since only the material for required for the part is used. This means it can be considered better for the environment, and the cost of materials are lowered too.
Designs can be used forever – once the design for a part has been created, as long as there is sufficient storage for the design file, it can be kept indefinitely. This means that when a similar part is required, there’s a potential time saving by adapting the original design.
3D printing is inexpensive – 3D printers are much more affordable than they once were, and filament is inexpensive too.
3D printing isn’t without drawbacks though. There’s only a few materials that can be used, and some are not recyclable, which impacts the environmental considerations. In addition to that, 3D printers have a much smaller build size, and it isn’t an cost effective method to produce large volumes of items. Parts that have been 3D printed might also require post-production finishing, which may increase the time and effort required in creating prototypes.
Powder bed fusion
Powder bed fusion is an additive manufacturing technique where laser, heat, or electron beams are used to melt and fuse materials together, and in turn, create a 3D object. Metals and plastics can be used with this technique, and they offer significant
Lower entry cost – compared with other methods of manufacture, the price of powder bed fusion is lower. However, there are other costs that are higher.
Large range of materials can be used – ceramics, glass, plastics, metals and alloys can all be used in powder bed fusion.
Powder recycling - can be possible in some cases – that means there is less wastage that can occur. However, in these cases, the powder may need to be preheated to make it stick.
As with all methods of manufacture, there are disadvantages of using powder bed fusions. There are big disadvantages though. The main two are that it is one of the slowest methods of additive manufacturing, and the process is expensive – the powder is not cheap, and it requires a lot of energy to create the parts. Add to that the post-processing that is required, weaker structural properties, and thermal distortion, and powder bed fusion is often disregarded by businesses for prototyping.
Mould making and casting
In the most basic terms, mould making and casting is a method of manufacture that involves creating a mould, and filling it with liquid material, before it cools and sets. Since mould making and casting has been around for a really long time, it is a tried and tested way of making components.
While prototype mould making and casting is the right solution for some businesses, it is much more expensive than other methods. That’s due to the equipment and the skilled labour required, and the cost of materials. It can be a good method to use if you’re creating more than 100 parts, but it isn’t usually recommended for less than that. Not only that, but it also takes much longer than other methods of prototype manufacturing, which isn’t ideal when the product needs to be on the market as soon as possible to recoup the costs of investment.
Despite all this, high quality parts can be created using this method of manufacture, and a broad range of materials can be used in casting, including polymer resins which can produce similar aesthetic and mechanical properties to components made from ABS and polyethylene. Depending on the material being used, mould making and casting can be a faster and easier method of processing.
What is the best machine to use for creating prototypes?
There isn’t a single correct answer to this question – because it really depends on the product you’re making, the finishes that you need to create, and the materials that you’re working with. When you have created the brief for the product, and the initial 3D design, it should then become clearer which machines are likely to work best for creating prototypes.
Can someone else create my prototype for me?
There are a number of reasons that you might want someone else to create a product prototype for you. It might be:
- You don’t have the right tools at hand
- You don’t have the expertise to use the tools and equipment
- Time is short, either to create the prototype, or to learn how to use the equipment
- Perhaps you have the ability to use the equipment, but you want establish whether your product is worth the investment before you buy it, or send to a manufacturer
Whatever your personal reason for looking someone to handle your prototype creation, you need to know you’ve got someone that is an expert. There are plenty of businesses that can assist you in making prototypes – and Hobarts is one of them!
Why work with us? Well, we’re huge supporters of UK manufacturing, and if you’re thinking of buying the equipment for manufacturing your product yourself, then we can not only create that prototype for you, but we can also advise you on the best tools for the job. We’re also able to supply you with the right laser cutter and 3D printer, as well as materials – and we can support you in terms of maintaining your equipment once you’ve got it in place. If this isn’t enough for you, you can read more about the advantages of working with Hobarts here.
Our final thoughts
Creating a new product can be a long, drawn-out process, and in order to get products on the market quickly, your 3D design needs to be turned into a prototype as quickly as possible. Whatever you’re producing, there’s a range of tools and methods that can be used – and each has pros and cons. Laser cutting and 3D printing are incredibly valuable in the prototyping stage, due to their speed of processing and the lower costs involved. If you’re yet to invest in a laser cutter or a 3D printer and have questions, talk to us. We can advise you about the best options, supply you with the machines that are best for your business, and we can maintain your machines too. When you’re off to a great start with your new product, don’t forget to tag us in your Instagram posts @hobartslasers.