Prototyping Physical Products

An effective product development process cannot exist without prototyping. It’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs and product managers to assume they’re entirely separate disciplines but, in practice, there is always an element of prototyping involved in any design undertaking. Prototypes can take many forms depending on the context but, in general, we define a prototype as any preliminary model or representation of a concept. If that sounds vague, it’s because they can take on many different forms. For example, a prototype of a webpage might be a series of images stitched together in a Powerpoint slide, whereas a prototype of a cell phone case might be a to-scale model produced by a 3D printer for ergonomic testing. Whether we’re designing services, apps, physical products, or strategy, prototypes continually serve as invaluable tools for testing and improving upon design concepts.


Another common misconception is that prototyping is a fixed step in the design process. In reality, it’s not a gate that a product must pass through prior to final production but, rather, a recurring activity in the product development cycle. This article is intended to be an introduction to the process, methods, and different prototyping tools that are instrumental in developing early representations of physical products.

Creation of prototypes to test TAP Wireless Keyboard & Mouse

Mock-ups and Early Prototype Development

When designing physical products, mock-ups are usually the earliest form of a prototype produced. These mock-ups can be made from virtually any material such as clay, foam, wood and are great for getting a sense of overall size, shape, and function. Many ergonomic issues are tested and worked out in this stage and it serves as a great opportunity to get hands-on feedback before going too deep into the development process. Mockups are generally the most basic form of prototyping with the lowest cost and yet, it’s very critical not to overlook its importance. This is often the stage where crucial learnings lead to meaningful tweaks and refinements which ultimately inform a better user experience. Successful product design teams and agencies often spend a considerable amount of development time on mockups and use this form of prototyping to expedite their problem-solving processes.

3D Printed Prototypes

No article about prototyping can be complete without mentioning one of the most popularized terms in product development, 3D Printing. While the technology may not be in the homes of millions of consumers as predicted a decade ago, it plays an important role throughout the prototyping process. Sometimes designers use it to create early versions of complex components, while in other instances the technology can output parts that make their way into high fidelity and functional prototypes. At Shape, we 3D print both plastic and metal components for different applications. In short, 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process through which a physical object is created from a three-dimensional digital model. The printer works by depositing successive layers of hot plastic one at a time from the bottom up. Since it is an automated process and the materials are relatively inexpensive, 3D printing serves as a great way tool to produce early prototypes. It allows for much more accurate form representation while not requiring a high level of fabrication skills from designers. Depositing one thin layer at a time, however, is a very time-consuming process and output speed is what has held the technology back from revolutionizing the world of manufacturing. The layers are also visible to the naked eye and require extensive manual labour for a polished result. Because of this, 3D printed components are generally used to test ergonomics and functionality but not buyer-facing elements of higher fidelity prototypes. Depending on the size and complexity and strength requirements of the part being prototyped, 3D printing can be an alternative for hand-making mockups or it can be used in a secondary phase of prototyping after refinements stemming from initial mockup testing have been made.

Prototype of Oliso Smart Iron

Design Iteration and Refinement

After testing initial mockups and learning about how the conceptual dimensions translated to the real world, design teams generally jump back into CAD modeling and translate analog findings to their digital models. Having a more informed view of the whole product experience can help steer the product into a more refined state but it can also shed light on major design changes that can improve the product experience. It’s very important to enter into this prototyping stage with an open mind and being willing to learn and take a few steps back if needed. Remember that mock-ups are to test and expose flaws in the design, not to stroke the ego. A mockup that doesn’t lead to at least minor iterations is more often the result of oversight, not proof that the design was perfectly thought through on the first go.

acoustic chamber design of villo speaker

High Fidelity and Functional Prototypes

After several phases of crude prototypes and design refinements, design teams generally move into high fidelity and functional prototyping. These prototypes can serve a number of different purposes but, most often, they’re produced nearing the end of the design process and are meant to be the near-final representation of the product before it goes into production. Whereas early prototypes are meant to be cheap and easy, higher fidelity prototypes are more about showing the design elements from a visual and mechanical perspective. As such, they require a higher level of attention to detail and demand more complex and laborious production methods. Rather than employing the additive process of 3D printing, higher fidelity prototypes often use subtractive manufacturing processes like CNC machining. CNC machining starts with a block of material that is shaped by a number of cutting and spinning tools. This process results in much better dimensional accuracy and can be used with metals, plastics, and wood. Because the process starts with a solid block of material, the final result is generally much stronger and smoother than what can be achieved with a 3d printer. Some materials can’t be CNC’d or 3D printed and need to be injection molded. To avoid the cost and timelines of steel molds, aluminum and silicone molds are often used. For a deeper dive into the different forms of tooling, we recommend checking out our article on different forms of tooling.

After the components have been produced, higher fidelity prototypes generally go through much more post-processing than the models produced at earlier stages in the design process. Different paints and finishes are applied here to better represent what the final production of the product will look like.

Functional prototype of whipr ski erg attachment

Choosing the Right Prototyping Process

In crowdfunding campaigns, we often see the use of high-fidelity non-functional prototypes paired with descriptions of how the product will work once it’s finished. There is nothing inherently wrong with non-functioning prototypes for this purpose as long as the concept has been proven through a semi-functioning prototype somewhere along the process. All too often, we see new entrepreneurs jump into crowdfunding campaigns with very conceptual prototypes that haven’t been properly tested and thought through. While the bold claims and product photography might be enough to secure initial orders, the conceptual nature of the design makes it impossible for factory teams to provide an accurate quote and, if the time finally comes, entrepreneurs usually find that the product is riddled with production issues. 

Ultimately, there is no single prototyping process that we can recommend in an article. The outcome of our product development process is a unique solution and, by nature, can’t be standardized. The needs of the entrepreneur launching a crowdfunding campaign, for example, will be completely different from the needs of a Fortune 500 brand that has already allocated budget for production and marketing. Reputable design agencies and capable teams will work with their stakeholders to understand needs and develop a prototyping plan that supports their go-to-market strategy. They recognize that, while a prototype is often set out as a deliverable, the act of prototyping is really a crucial element of developing more impactful products and should happen throughout the entire design process.

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