Prototyping Physical Products

You’ve taken your unique product idea and found a suitable partner to help you design and develop it to take the first steps in the process of bringing your product to life. You have thought about it every day, from every angle, and now it’s time to get something tangible into your hands as a proof of concept. Now what? Well, one aspect of the product development process that often gets overlooked or at least downplayed, is prototyping. There is a common misconception that a prototype is a fixed step in the process, but in reality, there are many different forms of prototyping that all have their benefits at various stages of the product development cycle. The truth is, you really do need to test, test and test some more along the way to ensure that you have identified all the potential pain points with your product. Think of it as insurance for your vision! Having a physical prototype in-hand allows you to target those pain points and focus on coming up with solutions to ensure that your product provides the best user experience possible. At the end of the day, it’s the consumer experience that will make or break your product in the long run. All it takes is a few negative reviews due to a bad experience and your product is finished before it has had time to gain traction. Let’s take a look at some of the various prototype options available and why you need them.

Creation of prototypes to test TAP Wireless Keyboard & Mouse

Form studies and mock-ups

Form studies and mock-ups can be made from virtually anything such as clay, foam, wood, or any other material you have on-hand to get a good sense of over-all size & shape and function. Many ergonomic issues are worked out at this stage as you test early prototypes. It’s a touch/feel type of thing really. If your product needs to interact with another component, part, or product, this is a good way to get hands-on feedback before you are too deep into the development process. This is the most basic form of prototyping with the lowest cost and yet, this stage is very critical. So much can be learned from this stage alone and it often leads to meaningful tweaks and refinements that will result in a better user experience down the road. As a design studio, we create many of these types of mock-ups for virtually everything we work on. Producing this type of mock-up is generally quick and simple. It is a very critical part of the problem-solving process that goes hand in hand with product design. You don’t want to start pulling the trigger on the expensive process of tooling up your product for production without visiting this phase at least once, maybe several times!

Prototype of Oliso Smart Iron

Moving past mock-ups

During the preliminary phase, you have learned so much from the initial mock-ups and you have tweaked your design and gained a whole lot of knowledge and experience in the process. Now your confidence is high and you can move forward with the swagger of an all star athlete! Typically, at this point, there is a bigger focus on moving on from pencil and paper and moving into the world of 3D CAD modelling now that the fundamentals have been addressed. Based on your first mock-ups, you now have some real-world dimensions to work with instead of just guessing or assuming that what is seen on the computer monitor will be ideal once you move into production. Now you are ready to conquer the world and move into production, right? Well, not so fast. With so much still to learn, would it not make more sense to step up your game and get to the next level? Super Mario Brothers was not conquered in one shot, so do you really think your product can be nailed down in one round? Remember how much you learned from the initial mock-ups? Right…so, let’s take another critical look at this and kick things up a notch.

3D Printed Prototypes

3D printing, simply put, is taking your 3D CAD file and saving a format that can be used for the printing process. This round of prototyping most often used once you have some preliminary 3D CAD data to work with. Fancy term huh? Back in the day, it used to be called rapid prototyping but the general population likes terms they can relate to so…3D Printing it is. The standard for this is an STL file. The STL file is imported into the 3D printing software where it is essentially digitally sliced into thin layers. It’s really no different than slicing a tomato. The slices are really thin though. Typically, about the thickness of two human hairs. The 3D printer recreates the digital representation of your part by depositing successive layers of plastic resin, one layer at a time from the bottom up. Kind of like reassembling that tomato, one slice at a time. The advantage of 3D printing is that it is relatively quick, relatively affordable, and there are a number of plastic resins that can be used to best represent your final product. The surface finish is not perfect and will have some tiny lines or ridges kind of like that old vinyl record of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album that you have hiding in your basement along with your VHS tapes. Yes, you can spend the time and money to hand finish a 3D printed model, but it’s generally not worth the effort at this particular stage. It’s best to use the 3D printed model as a tool to learn and test and study. Remember? There is still much more to be learned. Don’t worry, we will get to the shiny looking final prototype soon enough. Once you have spent some time with the 3D printed model and milked it for all it’s worth, take what you have learned and apply it to the 3D CAD model to get your product even closer to that global game-changer you know it can be. In some cases, you may want to make several 3D prints with tweaks and adjustments along the way if needed until you are satisfied with the result. Sometimes only a portion of your product needs to be printed, such as a handle. Best to nail the comfort and fit at this stage, right?

acoustic chamber design of villo speaker

High Fidelity and Functional Prototypes

Now you have even more confidence in your product and so much more knowledge than even that first phase. You have come a long way young grasshopper! You are now ready to become a Jedi Knight and take on the dark side! Easy now…let’s keep a cool head and get things buttoned up. There is still much work to be done before you can change the world with your revolutionary product. Once you have your final 3D CAD files ready along with your fancy photorealistic renderings, you are finally getting a good sense of what things will look like in the end. Now is a good time to think about what type of prototype would be most effective heading down the stretch. If you need to use the final prototype to communicate the essence of your product with a factory, you may be able to get away with something fairly simple. Maybe just a simple functional prototype to allow you to demonstrate a specific mechanical function? If this fits the bill, there may not be a need to have any fancy colours, finishes or exterior appearance. I mean, if it demonstrates what it needs to, why invest in making it look pretty? In fact, many factories will offer support along with some final engineering that allows your product to be produced in their facility. Often, factories will also provide a final prototype for you based on their final internal engineering.

Functional prototype of whipr ski erg attachment

Choosing the right prototyping method

Perhaps you are not heading down that road yet but instead, maybe you are looking to generate some excitement on the internet and perhaps take your product onto Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den? Perhaps you’re gearing up for a Crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter with a slick video demonstration and incredible photography? No problem, this high fidelity style of prototype can be achieved too. To support whipr’s Kickstarter launch in August 2020, we built a high fidelity prototype that was also fully demonstrable. It is typically more expensive than more conventional prototypes because there is a lot of post-processing, finishing, painting, and sometimes plating or electronics integration involved in the process. If you don’t care much about the interior, you can go for an appearance model that looks so real, it will be difficult to tell that it isn’t a production unit. Having only the outside to worry about will keep costs in check while still providing some incredible photography stand-ins. Why spend the time and money creating elements that will never be seen? For soft goods items, it’s simply a matter of having skilled hands doing the stitch & sew operations along with any additional components required to execute an effective sample. Sometimes multiple high definition models may be needed in multiple colours/finish options for marketing purposes to gauge consumer interest. There really are endless options available.

Ultimately, the prototype solution can be tailored specifically to the needs of your product. Perhaps it is an enclosure for an electronics device. Maybe it is soft goods made with fabrics & textiles, or perhaps a hybrid product made with a combination of materials. There really is no standard way of doing things because each product is unique and has its own set of parameters that should be followed based on the product’s physical composition as well as your specific needs & marketing plan. Don’t be intimidated by the prototyping process, it is simply another very useful tool to help get your product off the ground and into the hands of consumers around the globe.

If you're interested in reading exclusive content about what it takes to bring new products to market, please consider subscribing

* indicates required